Provocations: A Crisis in Museum Governance?

National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. (image credit: Wikimedia)

Art museums have, for quite some time now, been under intense critical scrutiny over the ideological content of their exhibitions and programmes, and over how they relate to audiences, in terms of who they speak to and for. More recently, the critical gaze has shifted, initially to museum boards, and the socio-economic and political interests and power structures these typically represent. And now they have shifted again to the inner workings of museums, to the politics of the leadership and staff. It started, as was to be expected, with sexual harassment allegations, as has happened in almost every industry, and now it is about allegations of racism and toxic work environments caused by dysfunctional leadership, as well as more general calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the museum world, especially at the leadership level. The Black Lives Matter movement has added further urgency to this.

Arising from this, there has been a string of high-profile resignations and firings in North American and European museums, recently, as well various open letters and campaigns, many of them targeted at individuals in leadership positions. One of the latest and most poignant instances has been a public letter denouncing a longstanding “culture of racism” at, quite ironically, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, with calls for the resignation or removal of its long-serving deputy director and chief curator. These incidents have received significant attention in the specialized and general press, as most of the persons fingered are prominent, highly accomplished figures in the museum and art world.

It is part of a crisis that is long in the making, a long-overdue reckoning, and, hopefully, there will be a balancing of the scales that will turn museums into more socially relevant, responsive, equitable, and well-managed organizations. However, I have some reservations about the present spate of firings, resignations, and denouncements. One is that female museum professionals are disproportionately targeted, and that often the removals often involve women who were among the first to ascend to leadership positions in their museums. As most, if not all of the professionals in question are white, it raises questions about how white women are positioned and interpreted in the present debates about race and social justice. And, even more importantly, it raises questions how these white female museum professionals have positioned themselves in the racial and social dynamics of their organizations. But something appears to be off and I cannot accept that white female museum professionals, who are still a minority in senior museum positions, are somehow more racist than their male counterparts, or that their leadership style would somehow be more problematic and toxic.

Like many in the museum profession, I am aware of several instances where male museum leaders, of various racial backgrounds but all card-carrying members of their local Boys Clubs, have engaged, often for many years, in deeply toxic, even outright abusive behaviour (including sexual harassment and multiple affairs with junior staff) but they have only rarely been called out or held to account over it. So, racial dynamics aside, it appears that the present reckoning is an asymmetrical one, and that women are, once again, held to different, much more exacting standards than men in terms of their professional conduct and management styles, and still resented if they ascend to positions of leadership and power. I would rather see a situation in which any inappropriate professional conduct from museum leaders (or for that matter, from any other staff members, as toxic behaviour does not necessarily come from the top), is reported, denounced, and resolved or penalized, irrespective of who they are and without perpetuating the culture that this is somehow to be expected and tolerated from powerful, well-connected “eminent” men.

Museum of Fine Arts, main entrance, Montreal.jpg
Desmarais Pavillion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal (image credit: Thomas Ledl, Wikimeda)

Another concern is that the present reckoning may inadvertently open the door for opportunistic moves and intrigues that have nothing to do with what is purportedly at hand. At least one of the instances that recently reached the international press, with accusations about what may well have been toxic and dysfunctional professional conduct, appears to have been compromised by an agenda to further a nepotistic appointment. I am referring to the firing, with immediate effect, of Nathalie Bondil, who had led the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for many years, in a context which seems to have been mired in board and succession intrigue, and which is now subject to an official Quebec government investigation.

If a museum professional is genuinely and consistently problematic, by all means, discipline or fire, but now is not the time to push aside highly accomplished and performing museum professionals over personal grudges, vendettas, and other self-serving agendas, or to make way for individuals who just happen to be well-connected, accommodating of meddling boards, or good at playing the current politics, but who may have less to offer, professionally. If there is to be greater inclusivity and justice in the museum profession, the integrity of the present reckoning cannot be muddied by pandering or opportunistic agendas, and professional merit and performance must remain the key criteria for appointments and promotions.

But, beyond these two reservations, the question arises whether there are general problems with the typical governance structure and corporate culture of (art) museums, of which racism is one but not the sole factor. Working at a museum may seem glamorous from afar, but it involves hard, difficult, and taxing work, in what is an increasingly challenging and demanding context, given the pressures and scrutiny to which museums are presently subjected and in which it can be very difficult, if not impossible to get things right. It involves punishing deadlines and long working hours, with little or no time for a healthy life-work balance; working very closely with people of very different backgrounds and skills levels, including ambitious and sometimes very difficult persons; dealing with major power-brokers in society and, more and more, with meddling and micromanaging boards; and being in the public spotlight while handling major ideological battles and controversies. Conflicts and tensions are almost inevitable, especially when working on high stakes projects or during moments of crisis such as the current pandemic.

Part of the problem is that art museum professionals are often ill prepared, by virtue of their education, for the multiple and still escalating responsibilities they will face in senior positions at museums, for which increasingly unrealistic combined skills sets are required. Gone are the days where senior museum professionals only had to be accomplished scholars, curators, and technical specialists. Today, they also have to be cultural diplomats, educators, people managers, building development managers, project managers, spokespersons, conflict managers, and fundraisers, among other things. It is a lot to ask for a single person to be equally proficient at all these functions. Recently introduced Curatorial and Museums Studies programmes are better tailored to prepare museum professionals for these combined functions but I believe that there needs to be some disentanglement, as the present pile-up of duties is not sustainable and contributes to the internal problems many museums to face.

Along with this, there needs to be a rethinking of the staff structure of museums, as the strongly hierarchical structure that is still the norm, especially in the curatorial departments, is part of the problem and helps to create a cut-throat environment that is often just as hostile to the museum leadership as it is to mid-level and junior staff. The last thing the museum world needs is for senior positions to become undesirable, and a potentially career-ending move for those who are so appointed. A more horizontal, peer-based museum staff structure is needed, as is the introduction of new posts that deal with issues that are now unaddressed. I was, for instance, intrigued by the appointment of a Social Justice Curator at the Bronx Museum, as the person who has to keep the museum on its toes with regards to social justice issues and visual activism in its exhibitions and programmes, and its audience engagement. The responsibilities of such a staff member could also be extended to recommend on the internal politics of the museum and to how social justice principles are reflected in the composition of its staff, and for that matter, its board. It may well be that most, if not all museums need such a specialized post or, alternatively, a committee that looks into these matters and can operate with some independence.

Museums also need to pay more attention to the roles of what they usually consider to be generic, non-specialist staff. It has always been my view that all museum staff need to be regarded and trained as specialists, from the accountant to the cleaner and the security guard, in the sense that they need to be sensitized to and knowledgeable about what the museum does and how they contribute to it. They need to “own” the museum as much as the curatorial staff does. A lot of the problems that now occur could be prevented, for instance, if museums had better, more specialized HR management, that is attuned to the unique challenges and politics museums face and able to intervene productively, for instance with mediation, before a full-fledged crisis arises. From what I have seen, inept HR departments, which are often among the most entrenched fiefdoms in such institutions, are often a significant part of the problem.

There needs to be a similar overhaul of museum boards and the present trend of board micromanagement must end, as it almost never leads to productive results for the museum. Boundaries between management and board have to be reestablished and asserted where they have been eroded, and board members must be properly educated about, and held to, their role, on penalty of removal. And this takes me to the question of diversity, which should be as evident in the board composition as it ought to be in the staff. While museums are funded and governed in different ways, depending on their status and national context, board members almost always come from the wealthiest and most powerful in society, which only adds to the hierarchical structure of museums as it can be very difficult to stand up to such persons when they cross boundaries. Museums will never be able to cut their elitist moorings, if its boards are not more inclusive and democratic and less couched in unhealthy power dynamics. Fundamental change is needed.

The broader problem is, of course, that museums are, and have always been, connected to socio-economic and political power, and this is also reflected in the employment patterns. Senior museum jobs have traditionally been an elite pursuit and so have been the courses of studies that traditionally equip persons to work in such positions, such as art history, which has helped to perpetuate this social bias. Although art history and curatorial and museum studies departments are still predominantly white and upper middle class, and preoccupied with the Euro-American canon, this is changing and a much more diverse, and diversely skilled, pool of accomplished art museum professionals is now available. So there is no excuse for museums today not to reflect appropriate diversity in their staff and leadership.

There is increasing resistance, for the moment, against black art being curated by white curators, citing issues of cultural ownership that are as such legitimate, but addressing the diversity issues in museums cannot be corrected by assigning black curators to black art and calling it a day, as this would ultimately amount to typecasting and a sort of cultural segregation that may be quite counterproductive. I do not see, for instance, why a Euro-American museum’s Italian renaissance specialist could not be a person of colour. In fact, there is an interesting early challenge to this kind of typecasting with Kynaston McShine, a black Trinidadian, who joined MoMA’s staff in 1959 and who was chief curator at large of painting and sculpture at the time of his retirement in 2008 (and who was also associated with the Jewish Museum). He curated many influential exhibitions on white European and American artists such as Robert Motherwell, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, as well as on Conceptual art. There will be no real diversity in the museum profession until this kind of professional fluidity is the norm.

While this post was provoked by developments in North American and European museums, I must conclude by bringing it back to the the Caribbean, where very similar issues occur although they are still mostly left unchallenged and unaddressed. A disproportionate number of senior museum professionals in the Caribbean (myself included) are white, for instance, even though white persons are a minority in most Caribbean societies, and some are parachuted into positions that they have arguably not earned and for which they may not even be equipped, because of their powerful social and political connections. And boards are often even more problematic and politicized than in the Euro-American situation and more prone to micromanagement, with even less avenues for redress. That is so for pretty much the same reasons as in the North, and it is reflection of the social hierarchies that still prevail in the postcolonial Caribbean. The question arises whether any real effort is being made to change this, in terms of succession strategies and in terms providing inclusive access to advanced, specialist education, which is necessary for senior positions in museums and available regionally only in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. It is time for a frank, courageous conversation on what needs to be done to change this terrain, and I can only hope that the contentions that currently surround diversity in museums in the North will spill over into the Caribbean context, to the benefit of its museums.

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