February 19, 2019

Minority Representation In Mainstream Art Museums, Part 3 (Heather Stivison)

The following is the third and last installment of a three-part series.  The first can be found here, the second here.

In recent years, New Zealand museums have risen to the challenge of presenting Native arts in ways that are respectful of spiritual beliefs. One example, given by Andromache Gazi, was placing bowls of water at gallery entrances. This allowed the Maori to sprinkle water as protection against the “spiritual power” of cultural objects on view.

These objects, called “taonga,” are seen as “living ancestors”. Ash-Milby and Philips have noted that even Natives are often uncertain of best way to exhibit their art. Is it better for to aim for inclusivity or institutional separation? Should Native arts be exhibited alongside white Eurocentric arts to demonstrate equality? Does this muffle their culture and prevent indigenous artists from telling their full story? Is it more powerful to display Native arts in culturally appropriate settings? Including Natives in the exhibition planning process would help museums make such determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Elizabeth Durak, a white artist from Australia has made a career of selling paintings using aboriginal motifs, patterns, and symbols. She hides behind an identity of a fictional Aboriginal man shed named Eddie Burrap, even going so far as to describe his spiritual connection to his ancestral lands). Clearly, her artwork was not the result of cross-fertilization of cultural styles, such as Paul Simon’s integration of African music into his Graceland album.

Nor was Durak’s appropriation a form of artistic inquiry and investigation of a cultural topic or issue. Her artwork is a fraudulent co-opting of a culture in a quest for money, which amounts to cultural theft. It is easy to recognize that this type of cultural appropriation is morally and ethically indefensible.

Resolving cultural appropriation issues surrounding the question, “Who gets to tell the story?” is more complex. In the case of Scaffold, WAC made the decision to dismantle the sculpture and allow the tribe to destroy it. The artist and the museum met with tribal elders to discuss it. Each listened respectfully to the other side, even when the conversation was painful.

Once the whites began to understand the Native cultural and spiritual beliefs, they understood Scaffold caused immense pain and profound offense. Their decision to dismantle the work and give it to the Dakota was a caring attempt to atone for many past injustices, rather than a response to calls for censorship. It is interesting to note that the Dakota intended to burn the work. As the anger at the whites subsided, the Elders chose to bury the work instead, as if to symbolize a change from an incendiary response to a somber one.

Walter Benn Michaels’ article, “The Myth of ‘Cultural Appropriation’” has suggested that focusing on appropriation is a distraction from the real problems. He writes that even stories like those of Emmett Till, and the Dakota 38, do not really belong to anybody. Michael’ contended fighting to determine what one culture “owns” and what another culture “owns” distracts us from the real demons of inequality and the dominance of one culture over another.  In the end, equality and justice are what is required.

The difficult relationship between museums and minorities derives from a history of cultural domination. A new approach is required to overcome past injustices and move towards equality and understanding. In his study, “Towards a meta ethics of culture–halfway to a theory of metanorms,” M. Karmasin has observed that there is nothing in society that exists outside of culture, “not even ethics.” He stated that cultural theory and ethical theory must be used in combination in order to overcome the obstacles of “cross-cultural interactions”.

When WAC and the Dakota Elders sat down together, they came to the ethical decision to destroy Scaffold. The decision was an example of combining cultural theory and ethical theory to resolve an inter-cultural argument. The study “The Influence of Nationality and Gender on Ethical Sensitivity: An Application of the Issue-Contingent Model,” led by Can Simga-Mugan, observes that Western societies use the “ethics of justice,” and tend to elevate self-interest over society-interest.  Native societies, on the other hand, use the ethics of care and mercy and elevate society-interest over self-interest. It was important for Durant and WAC to become aware of those distinctions in order to comprehend the Dakota point of view.

The Whitney chose a different path than WAC, seeing censorship as a greater evil than an affront to the African American community. However, the public dialogues and forums offered at the Whitney in the wake of the protests were ethical responses to the minority anger. These discussions moved the dialogue further and allowed cultural differences to be expressed in a respectful setting.

Museums attempted fair and balanced exhibition practices, but these attempts have often been clumsy and blind to the unique aspects of minority culture and history. If social justice is to be achieved for minorities in museums, it will require a commitment to inter-cultural dialogue that is based in respect for cultural differences.

A Proposed Solution

Museums are institutions created to preserve and interpret humanity’s culture—all of humanity, not just the dominant culture. Museums face ethical and moral challenges in their twin “duties” to protect minorities from harm and to protect artists from censorship. Legislation and quotas seem unlikely to be successful in changing the status quo.

Change will require honest and open dialogue in concert with the affected minorities. Education and open communication are the skeleton keys to unlocking the solutions. However, creating the most effective educational path is a challenge that requires deep and honest reflection and a willingness to change.

In the 1990s, when topics of inclusiveness and cultural diversity first began appearing regularly on museum conference agendas, the American Association of Museums distributed an essay by Susan K. Donley entitled, “Cultural diversity: The museum as resource.” The essay, which remains relevant today, noted that many techniques designed to build cultural understanding and acceptance do not work. Museums often present what Donley refers to as “pockets” of cultural information .

For example, they may use special months to recognize specific cultures, host festivals with opportunities to taste ethnic foods, or present programs that celebrate ethnic holiday traditions. These spotty attempts at inclusion can be interesting, but history has shown they do little to address the disenfranchisement of minority cultures.

A study by Wendy Ng , Syrus Marcus Ware and Alyssa Greenberg concludes that presenting minority cultures in “pockets” causes minority cultures to be seen as “curiosities.” For example, a special “Day of the Dead” program for Latino visitors, underscores how the museum “centers on white audiences” throughout the rest of the year. Another type of “pocketing” occurs when white art and artifacts are exhibited in art museums, while the art and artifacts of indigenous cultures are relegated to natural history museums. Donley has observed that the implication of that division “is insulting”.

Donley concludes that past efforts at inclusivity have failed because these efforts do not take into account the psychological stages that are necessary to build an accepting diverse society. She asserted that the four stages of cultural acceptance are: awareness of a culture; followed by knowledge and understanding about a culture; leading to tolerance and acceptance; before finally reaching the desired state of appreciation for a culture. Museums often skip the awareness phase and focus on presenting facts. However, facts do little to change attitudes or build acceptance. Even worse, due to the Eurocentric education of most museum professionals, the information offered may not truly represent the culture.

When the racial and ethnic balance of museum professionals matches the diversity outside their doors, cultural awareness will develop naturally throughout the institution. According to Donley, such awareness is the critical first step in inclusivity and cultural understanding. Through intentional awareness and self-reflection, the internal museum structure can evolve in ways that reduce or even eliminate hidden biases.

Awareness is the first step in reframing institutions’ long-term strategic plans in light of social justice needs. Museum leaders often reflect on their ethical mission to educate the public and to preserve the records of human creativity. The revised mission should add “fostering justice, community accountability, equity, and inclusion”, according to Ng, Ware, and Greenberg.

The second phase of cultural acceptance, knowledge about minority art and culture, requires the expertise of minority museum professionals who can ensure the offerings reflect the culture’s authentic voice. Therefore, museum strategic plans must include the identification of racial and ethnic gaps in both staff and board members, and the creation of a plan to close those gaps. As nonprofit institutions, museums utilize a board of directors to oversee operations.

Board term limits offer annual opportunities to recruit a limited number of new and diverse board members from other community organizations. On the other hand, it may take many years to close the ethnic gaps in professional staff. Position openings are infrequent and an insufficient number of minority students are currently studying in the field. However even the current staff can benefit from diversity training, which may lead to a better balance in museum programming. These are critical steps in moving to the third level of cultural justice, tolerance.

Ng, Ware, and Greenberg recognize that even when museums sincerely try to change the existing Eurocentric dominance, the results can be “shallow or tokenizing”. In order to transform the dynamic into one of multiculturalism, museums must address the current shortage of qualified minority professionals preparing to enter the field. Minority students are rarely encouraged to consider museums as a career path. Universities specializing in art history and museum studies must participate in college expos and career day programs at schools with concentrations of minority students.

Active recruitment of promising minority students has the potential to change the dynamic from the inside. However, there is concern that many minorities come from low-income communities. Museums are notorious for offering only low-paying entry and mid-level positions. This raises the question of whether it is ethical to encourage these students to enter low-paying careers. Ng, Ware, and Greenberg have proposed that museums invest time and resources in developing human resource strategies including “offering a living wage and benefits” at all levels of museum work.

It is not enough to encourage more minority students to study art history, it is important to change the coursework and textbooks in the field. Art history curricula must be updated from Eurocentric art courses, textbooks, and excursions to culturally biased museums. Even the broadly based survey courses offered to high school students and college freshmen must include an overview of minority art perspectives.

Museums frequently collaborate with academia, and often are the driving force behind art publications. They should lead the transition to an inclusive curriculum by publishing research on the work of marginalized artists. Input from qualified minority professionals must be sought to assure that the content is not superficial or presented through the lens of the dominant culture.

Perhaps greater awareness combined with sufficient funding might break the cycle of white dominance in the field. If universities and museums established priorities to offer more minority opportunities, their institutional advancement officers could identify and solicit major donors for naming opportunities, such as endowed chair positions, endowed curatorial positions, and named internships and scholarships for minorities. Getting foundations behind the initiatives would raise the visibility of these goals as well as providing much needed funding.

In the short term, museums and academia must offer minority artists and scholars opportunities to present lectures, workshops, exhibitions, and symposia. Public dialogues with members of the community and perhaps “community culture committees” can help build communication and trust in both directions. Ng, Ware, and Greenberg describe the process of intentionally using a “social justice lens” in the development of cultural alliance programs described as “allyship”. The authors noted the importance of allyship in ending today’s practices in which many minorities are marginalized by their exclusion from the narrative, and denied basic opportunities for cultural fulfillment.

As noted previously, the transition from the status quo to social justice will require changes at the most basic levels of education materials and hiring practices. It is not enough for a museum to present more minority art exhibitions and minority culture public programming. The solution must come from the inside, with a new work environment that no longer “privileges white, elite perspectives”, write Ng, Ware, and Greenberg. That is what is required to move the cultural acceptance process to the fourth and final phase, appreciation.

What all of these potential solutions have in common, is awareness, reflection, and education, because inter-cultural animosity and social injustice are the products of ignorance.


Colonialism’s legacy in the English-speaking world is a society built upon the pervasive belief in white superiority. This belief has been the subconscious framework for art criticism and appreciation for generations. It is the reason the continuum of art history primarily featured Eurocentric art. Museum professionals, schooled with Eurocentric art courses and textbooks, have exhibited an interpreted art through the in-group lens of white art history.

As a result, the majority of museums have ignored, devalued, misunderstood, or misrepresented the art from minority cultures. Even those museums that attempted to be more inclusive have done so in spotty, clumsy, and misguided ways. This is because the lingering legacy of colonialism colors their judgment and decision-making processes.

As public institutions created for social value, museums are responsible to the public—all the public, not just a privileged few. It is time for museums to “decolonize” their collection policies, exhibition priorities, and hiring practices, to become open to the rich variety of visual arts and cultural values offered by today’s multicultural world. Museums are in a unique position of having the ability to enact social change through exhibitions that present the true cultural values of racialized and marginalized people. However, this social change can only happen if those charged with leading museums are fully committed to the process.

Commitment to real change starts with honest self-reflection and evaluation of values. Leaders must work with board members and senior staff to define their goals and vision from the inside out. They must create actionable strategic plans that bring the authentic voice of disenfranchised minority cultures into the mainstream. Museums will have achieved their goal when their staff, publications, exhibitions, public programs, and audience all reflect the diversity of the museum’s community.

Heather Stivison is the former executive director of the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms in New Jersey. She is now working as an interdisciplinary artist with watercolor, acrylics, oils, or fiber.

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