Coloring in the Lines?

Professional racial disparity exists; museums are no different.  As with many members of racial minorities, being different is not particularly uncommon for me.  But as a minority, I can’t help but weigh in on the issue of race and museums.

Race and most often socio-economic challenges have a certain type of currency in museums. Museum administration for its most part is still a bastion for those of privilege.  Instead, with service generally firmly implanted into the ethos and language of their mission, museums often see relating to minorities as an important part of their charge.  But to what end?

Currency is actual part of it. Often grantors are looking for programs that served the underserved or underrepresented.  For museums, this means outreach is often a way to gain funds for staffing that can be used in multiple ways beyond the auspices of the grant.

Certainly altruism is also an element in this behavior.  Some who went into museum work drank the kool-aid of the power of art or culture to ameliorate the circumstances of the disenfranchised.  This is a kool-aid that I certainly have drank and passed out to summer interns year after year.  Museums are often situated, coffers full of their riches, on the edge of poor urban districts.  It would be not only be selfish but cruel for museums to turn their backs (and their doors) away from these patrons.  Art is not a panacea for all the ills of our urban poor, as I have learned often in my working life, but if you don’t ask museums to fix everything in one fell swoop, you can help a little—just a little.

The issue lies in how this type of outreach is planned and why.  Who decides which groups garner such largess from the ever-strapped museum staff?  What is the ideal relationship of the museum to these groups?  I have carefully tiptoed around the word community.  This is a word that often takes on impressively paternalistic implications.  Community-outreach is meant to seem inclusive but often really implies that these groups are a different and completely separate community than the standard museum one.

In general, this separate but equal attitude is due to the do-gooders in power.  I use this term, do-gooder, in the absolute best and worst sense of the word.  Most museum professionals who plan outreach opportunities see them as ways to do good works and to offer service where it is needed.  However, these plans are generally predicated on the differences between the outreach audiences and regular museum-goers—it is like planning a party for someone you don’t know.

Often museums get to know racial groups in order to understand how to present an exhibition in a culturally sensitive manner.  Basically, they are hoping to keep from offending anyone.  Over my years, I have seen these advisory committees come and go.  Often one special interest group is cultivated and then dropped for the next one. I remember once being in a meeting about diversity when I was told my type of diversity (Asian) was already dealt with in an exhibition last year.

Or else, group members are cultivated to participate long term.  They are asked to remain part of the museum community in part to speak for their race.  I appreciate this may sound dismissive of positive efforts on the part of the museum.  And, I certainly prefer having some voice rather than none.  But, what does it mean when one is asked by a white curator to speak for all Native Americans? Doesn’t it strike you as dehumanizing?

What is the solution? Obviously offering paid internships might be one solution.   Museum work is something that doesn’t draw minorities in hoards.  If your parents struggled to leave their war torn country, and then work eight jobs to put you through college, you might not consider the penury of museum work as a promising career option.  Then there is the issue of exposure.  Most Asians families might not consider the summer trips to the Prado as edifying as say trips to visit their home countries.  Urban high schools with science, math or medicine are often more popular than schools with arts in the title. A more viable solution would be working with minority professionals in other fields to help with planning and implementing such projects.  These individuals understand nuances of the community, because they actually call that group their community.

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