Talking Museum Diversity with Johnnetta Cole

One year after the release of Mellon's Comprehensive Survey on Diversity among Museum Staffs, the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors talks about the next steps.

In the summer of 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation joined with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) to announce the results of the first comprehensive survey assessing the ethnic and gender diversity of the staffs of art museums across the United States.  The survey provided the museum field with the first statistical baseline it could use to measure progress in encouraging diverse staffs.

To the credit of these museums, the survey documented a significant movement toward gender equality.  Women now comprise 60 percent of museum staffs and hold a preponderance of the curatorial, conservation, and education jobs that provide a pipeline toward leadership positions.

Unfortunately, the survey found no such pipeline toward leadership for members of historically underrepresented ethnic groups.  

White (Non-Hispanic) and Underrepresented Minority Employees, by Job Category

Source: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, (New York, 2015),

Though 28 percent of museum staffs are from underrepresented minorities, the great majority of these workers are concentrated in security, facilities, finance, and human resources jobs.  Among museum curators, conservators, educators, and leaders, only four percent are African American and just three percent Hispanic.

According to Mariët Westermann, the Mellon Vice President who commissioned the report, the survey has helped generate a broad consensus that creative and carefully designed action is needed.

“What has become clear is a resolve in the field to own the challenges ahead, and make progress together. Now organizations are asking: what can we do, and how do we do it?”   

Here’s some of what has already happened in the past year alone:

  • The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs issued the results of its own survey of diversity in city arts organizations, conducted by Ithaka S+R with the same methodology used by Mellon.  
  • The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion calling on the LA County Arts Commission to establish a task force to work with arts institutions to identify best practices to ensure cultural equity. 
  • A curatorial fellowship program for college students from diverse backgrounds, funded by the Mellon Foundation, brought public attention to participating museums including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
  • The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced the receipt of a $250,000 gift from Winston and Carolyn Lowe to help diversify the staff through a curatorial fellowship.
  • In September 2015, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art hosted an invitational workshop, “Diversity and Inclusion in the 21st Century: Reimagining the Future of Museums.”  
  • In May, diversity and inclusion was a central theme during the Association of Art Museum Directors Annual Meeting.
  • Diversity and inclusion was highlighted during the 2015 meeting of the Alliance of American Museums, and was addressed again during the Alliance’s 2016 meeting.

In the face of our country’s shifting demographics, and to harness the potential value of cultural and educational diversity, those in the museum field must continue working together to open the field to those who have been traditionally excluded.

We spoke with Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, to find out why the survey is important to AAMD members and what the next steps might be.

“Museums need to be seen and to function as belonging to all of us,” said Johnnetta Cole in a recent interview.

Q: Why did AAMD participate in this survey?
JBC: The Association of Art Museum Directors is a professional organization that brings together some 240 leaders of art museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, helping us to support each other in doing even better work in our institutions, to understand best practices in our field, and to make art museums even more important, relevant and exciting for our publics. When Mariët Westermann approached us on behalf of the Mellon Foundation to ask for our participation in the first compositional survey of diversity in museums, we immediately recognized that this could be a powerful tool to help address a challenge that is on all of our minds. I am an academic at heart, and I know that data matters. I'm pleased that so many of my colleagues took the same view and participated in the survey. 

Q: Were the results surprising?
JBC: If you work in a museum, all you have to do is use your eyes to know where compositional diversity exists and where it is lacking. The great contribution of this survey is that we are now able to be quite specific in confronting the challenge in front of us. I am grateful to the Mellon Foundation for launching that survey and doing the follow-up work. But, even more, I want to suggest that it has actually been a catalyst for increased conversations and more focused thought about how we can advance diversity in all ways and at all levels in these special places that we call museums.

Q: The news is not all bad. One bright area is that women are making strides.
JBC: What the Mellon survey documented, and what we at AAMD know because of our day-to-day work, is that we have seen progress over time in women taking leadership roles in American museums. I don't want to belittle that progress in any way, but I do want to say: We're not done. First of all, the women in leadership roles are still disproportionately white.

Secondly, the Mellon survey showed that while women are indeed in leadership roles—as many as sixty percent of museum directors are women—the larger the museum budget, the less chance there is that the director is a woman. There is a stubborn gender imbalance when you get to the biggest museums that are perceived as most prominent. Again, I want to acknowledge the progress we've made, but I want to urge us to stay the course. There is work to do around questions of gender equity in American art museums.

Q: You often talk about lifting as we climb, using the phrase that originated with Mary McLeod Bethune. How might that work in the museum world?
JBC: That expression “lifting as we climb” remains the signature line of the organization that Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune founded, the National Council of Negro Women. It acknowledges that no leader ever arrives at the top without the assistance of others. It takes support—formal mentoring relationships, periodic inspirational encounters—for one to move along a professional journey. So what I'm saying is: If you have arrived, you really do have the responsibility to turn around and help somebody else get there.

If we take that idea, lifting as you climb, and we apply it to the world of art museums, I think some terrific things can happen. Let me speak quite specifically to one of the programs that the AAMD is currently very engaged with: a partnership with the United Negro College Fund. For the second year now, we are working with UNCF to choose thirteen young folk who are in historically black colleges and universities and who show an interest in the world of museums. We offer them a stipend and an internship—in other words, a paid internship. And we aren't inviting only young folk who have an interest in being a director or a curator. We're saying a museum is a place of many kinds of professionals. Here at the National Museum of African Art, this year we were excited to have Tiffany Ivy as our intern, a student from Howard University.  She just completed her sophomore year and thinks her major will be communications and public relations, so she is carrying out her internship with Eddie Burke, head of communications at our National Museum of African Art.  What is our hope? Of course, it is that it will have been a good experience for her, that she will not only understand what goes on in our PR and communications department, but that she will have a sense of the various roles played in the museum. But then, the deepest hope is that her passion for the museum profession will grow, and that among the three-to-five careers that she will have in her lifetime (because that's what happens with her generation), working in a museum will be one of them. In addition to having been mentored by our communications and PR head, she was also mentored by me.  I really hope that I have contributed to Tiffany’s growing interest in coming into the world of museums. Yes, we have a responsibility to lift as we climb. 

Q: What other programs are in the works?
JBC: At AAMD, we feel encouraged enough by our program with the UNCF that we're now exploring how we might set up a similar program with Hispanic-serving institutions and with tribal colleges. You know, we didn't become places that lack diversity overnight, and we're not about to become places of great diversity overnight, either. We are at this point—I think it's a figure that comes from the National Endowment for the Arts —where only nine percent of the visitors to American museums are people of color. We’re not going to have a groundswell all at once in the number of people of color who come to our museums, but we sure have the responsibility to work on it.