Museums and Diversity: A New Perspective

While visiting a prestigious art museum recently I found myself in conversation with a curator about museums and diversity. I was asked my opinion about the lack of diversity in museums – in regards to artist representation, exhibitions, staff, and visitors.

As a minority I’m often confronted by diversity issues across the spectrum of industries in America. But I am a complicated minority – the ill-defined biracial American.  Being both “white” and “black” informs my perspective and opinions on racial issues.

SisterMentors Driskel2

I include these details in my discussion of museums and diversity because for me race and identity are far more complicated than the topics of quotas, proportional representation, and inclusion that often cloud the conversation. My dual identity informs my mixed feelings and makes it impossible for me to subscribe to a finite ideology. I see the issues differently, because I have experienced them first-hand differently.

So I’m asked, “Why aren’t more minorities visiting the museums?”

What follows is not a definite answer to this question. In truth, I don’t think we, as museum professionals, fully understand the question that we’re asking ourselves.

To me, this is not a question of numbers or demographics. This is a complicated question about the complexities of identity and culture.

The question at hand is really, “What makes the museum experiences identifiable and part of the culture of the majority, but not of minorities?”

This is not a question about blame.  There is no one group or industry that is fully to “blame.”

Historically, museums have harbored all the blame for the issues of diversity, elitism, and exclusion.  And historically, museums have been guilty of all these things.  There is a historical precedent for the lack of diversity in visitors, staff, and exhibitions in today’s museums.

But I doubt that today’s diversity problems are completely an issue of history – especially since so many museums have adapted diversity statements into full practice by actively seeking to include and invite diverse audiences to the museums through outreach and programs.  After all, most grant-making organizations want to award museums who are successfully serving diverse audiences.

I believe we need to look at the issues in a different way, beginning at the beginning.

For many minorities the disconnect from the arts and museums begins at an early age. With art programs constantly being cut from school curricula – especially in inner-city minority-dominant school systems – minorities are getting cut off from the content of museums at a young age.

If someone lacks access to fine art at home and in school, what would make that person want to explore a museum as an adult?

Fine art was never a part of my home life. In my lower-middle class town, art was not a priority. The closest museum was 30 minutes away and my parents chose other, more convenient, extracurricular activities for me that did not include driving into the city to visit the museums. However, I was one of the lucky minorities to grow up in a school system where art and music were not (yet) removed from the public school curriculum. I had an art class within reach every year I was in school. I gravitated towards the arts at a young age. But had art been removed from the school curriculum, how could I possibly be the art lover I am today?

We, as museum professionals, cannot assume that anyone – minority or not – who has never had a relationship with art growing up will magically be consumed with the interest to visit our museums later in life.

Now, I’m not saying that the lack of diversity in the artists being presented in museums is not part of the issue. Having something on the walls to identify with is a problem for many potential minority visitors. I’m saying that this isn’t the only issue. And I believe it’s not where the issue begins anymore.

Please stay tuned for the following post on this two-part series on “Museums and Diversity.”


Kayleigh Bryant is the Plinth contributor for the Mid-Atlantic Region and the Operations Manager for the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora.