It only took me four posts to title a post after Michelle Obama. No one who knows me is surprised. Now, I understand that Michelle Obama is not an arts professional, and likewise it is misleading to title this post about her and community building when it’s not really about her and her community building. This post is about museums’ obsession with talking about diversifying their audiences whilst never actually putting any work in to diversify their audiences. But what with the release of her summer 2020 podcast and her no-nonsense DNC speech on August 17, she’s really laying out a road map for how to build a culture of inclusion and make space for diverse voices. I think across the private and public sector folks should be following this road map, and museums can be a leader – especially since we say this is what we’re already doing.
I’m sure a lot of museums and museum professionals will feel personally attacked to read that they “never put in the work” to diversify audiences. They will be offended because they have reached out to two or three partners in their immediate community. They have mounted a handful of exhibitions of BIPOC artists. They have sought and received funding to foot the bill for free admission once a month or even once a week. (That one is loaded, eh?)
In this blog I strive not to rehash personal experiences. On this topic, that’s going to be difficult to avoid since I have seen the way this plays out first hand. I was fortunate to be employed at a museum in a city very near and dear to me for my first paid museum education position out of graduate school. The city boasts a very diverse population and the lifeblood of the town is it’s large Puerto Rican population. The city has become far more diverse over the years, but there are deep roots with this particular community and so naturally, there was frequent conversation about how to engage with it.
I will give you just one guess as to whether or not there was anyone of Puerto Rican descent at those tables. Educated, well-intentioned colleagues insisted that we (read: they meant me/the Education department) must create museum programs for Puerto Rican cultural events such as Three Kings Day. Did any of y’all grow up with Puerto Rican family and friends? I’m pretty sure Three Kings Day is not typically a “let’s go out” type of holiday. And furthermore, what is mission-driven about holiday celebrations? Where do you draw the line? There are specific holidays or markers related to culture that it is important to celebrate – but these are events with broad, crossover appeal that will attract attendees across racial divides. For example, Juneteenth has become a very popular holiday to mark in art museums because of it’s historical significance in American culture. The Day of the Dead has broad appeal because it is irresistibly festive, but also because there’s artwork to support it and it’s a great teaching tool for the visual culture of the American Southwest and Mexico. Women’s History, Black History, and Latin American History months are great times to align exhibitions of BIPOC & women artist for ease of messaging and marketing.
So let’s unpack my former colleagues’ logic. To single out a holiday that’s insular to a certain group and more of a religious observance than anything is pandering. It’s not a holiday you can build an historically-rooted, meaningful cultural program around in a museum setting. But here’s a list of all of the things that checking a box by hosting a program themed to a holiday typically associated with a certain ethnic group is easier than doing:
- Diversifying your board to include representation from that community
- Acquiring artworks that tell the history of the Latinx community globally, nationally, or locally
- Regularly and consistently attending community meetings with members of the group and listening to the things they are concerned about and interested in when it comes to your city
- Investing time into researching teaching artists or performers from that cultural group instead of continually hiring your usual suspects or working off of recommendations from your usual suspects/white coworkers
- Visiting area schools and colleges to speak with young people from this community to learn more about what their interests are in the art world
Here is the thing about diversifying your audience. There are no shortcuts. Art museums were built by and for white people. You don’t circumvent a 150 year history by working with a couple of partners annually to host a few BIPOC themed programs. Once, I was tabling at a school district event in the park my museum was adjacent to. As I spoke to a parent I pointed at the museum saying “we’re from the museum, there,” and she said, “where?” while looking right at the building. It was like there was a Hogwarts cloaking spell in play.
She was literally looking right at it and not seeing it. All of the marketing and communication strategizing in the world is not going to override that level of unfamiliarity with your museum. We are not working hard enough.
So, where does Michelle come in? She has written a road map for us that shows us how to get where we want to be without pussyfooting around with these meaningless shortcuts. In her first interview with former President Barack Obama, she describes her experience going into community service in Chicago. At her position at Public Allies, she worked to place young people, aged 18-30, in careers in public service. She physically met with public service organizations in nearly all 77 community areas of Chicago. She and Barack describe how Chicago is known for individuals sticking to their own neighborhoods. I think this typifies not only urban areas, but rural areas as well, and I would love more resources and data on how this measures up across suburban, rural and urban populations in America. Whatever the statistics, we can agree that this is something we see in museums. Physically developing relationships with individuals in other neighborhoods and who represent different enclaves of your community is the no-shortcut, Michelle Obama road map for diversifying your museum audience.
Barack and Michelle go on to talk about how the American mentality is that “you should be able have it all.” And specifically, Michelle says, “if you’re not getting it, then something’s wrong.” This is something that underlies museum culture as well. We feel that we can do the blockbuster exhibitions, we can host the collector’s vanity shows to get the big bucks in funding, AND we can court these audiences who haven’t previously felt welcomed here and we can diversify our audiences to keep up with the changing social tide. Barack and Michelle tell us a beautiful lesson, which Michelle also expounds on in her second episode with Michele Norris: for things to change, you have to sacrifice something.
So for art museums, it’s up to us what we plan to sacrifice. Do we sacrifice a few money-making studio classes to free up time for a representative from the Education team to regularly attend community meetings? Do we sacrifice the vanity show from a wealthy collector in order to put together an exhibition that engages with the history of our city while knowing that we cannot simply build it and expect them to come? Do we reallocate budgets to ensure there are funds to translate family guides and wall labels?
“It’s hard to sit in a board room and look around and realize everyone looks like you, and then make the hard choice of whether you’re going to add more seats to the table or if you’re going to get up and leave and let someone else have a chance. It’s a lot harder than going down to your basement to find a box and writing some nice words on a sign…That’s the hard work.”
What’s one hard thing your museum can do today to bring you closer to your goals of diversifying your audience and becoming more relevant in your community? Tell me. I wanna know. Then tell your boss. Then ask them to tell their boss. And so on. And so forth. And why are there so many bosses? Jk. But let’s each do one hard thing after reading this. And acknowledge that there are no shortcuts.