A forward thinking team to match a forward-thinking collection: are museums developing their internal power structures fast enough?

Looking at many museums in the world today, it is easy to see how the structure of their collections has become far more diversified. Over time, exhibitions of gallery collections in larger art institutions have started to become more inclusive. They have started to erase older presentations of history by museums that were solely told through the presence of artefacts owned or made by white men. The National Gallery of Canada’s reopening of its Canadian and Indigenous galleries last summer, for instance, is a fair example, where well-known European settler works were brought together with an eclectic range of pieces made by First Nations artists in an attempt to redefine our understanding of Canadian art history.

So while collections are slowly being diversified, can the same be said for the overall power structure of such big art institutions? The power structure of a museum in the past has remained fairly stable, consisting of a white male director at the top. In recent years it is true that there has been a positive rise in the number of female figures rising to a director status in art institutions such as Nathalie Bondil at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts or Frances Morris at the Tate Modern. However, a great number of big museums are still finding it somewhat difficult to integrate a sense of diversity into their power structures. Only recently New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomed it’s tenth white male director, proving how even one of the biggest artistic institutions in the world, while maybe making diversity visible through its art collections, is still failing to consider strong candidates that might be from minority groups.

A recent article by Michael Wilson in Garage Magazine brought to attention how women in high positions at museums have been fired for merely getting on with their jobs. Wilson notes Helen Molesworth was fired from her post as chief curator at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art following an argument “over programming” with the director, Philippe Vergne. Wilson also highlights the abrupt firing of María Inés Rodríguez who had been the director of the Bordeaux Contemporary Art Museum and the director Laura Raicovich of the Queens Museum, who resigned after she reportedly, “cited differences with the board over politically oriented initiatives including her invitation to artists, activists, and others to make protest signs at the museum on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day.” It seems strange to think that in an era that has seen so much change and progress for women, it is still difficult for a female to feel comfortable and progressive in her job.

However, the issue surrounding the power structure of a museum or art gallery is not merely related to a lack of female representation in its staff, but also of people of colour. The Brooklyn Museum, for instance, has been under fire recently for their controversial appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white female Princeton graduate as their curator for African art. The decision sparked the intervention “Decolonize the Brooklyn Museum” which was held by the activist group Decolonize This Place inside the main entrance of the museum. While the number of females being seen in the power structures of museums may be increasing, these still tend to be white females. As the Decolonize This Place’s Open Letter to the Brooklyn Museum states, “the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age – especially on the part of a museum that prides itself on its relationships with the diverse communities of Brooklyn.” As CEO of the American Alliance of Museums Laura Lott has noted, a recent study has underlined that in U.S museums alone, 93% of people in relatively high positions are white. Diversity is thus something that is being integrated into museum power structures but not fully nor quickly enough.

In an age where we have been seeing and will continue to see an incredible rise in campaigns and protests that call for justice for women and people of colour, it seems only fitting that museums try and break their conventional hierarchical mold a little quicker, so that their progressive art collections can be matched and aided by a body of diverse directors and curators.

Fiona Holland

Image courtesy of Hyperallergic