For years, black administrators of art museums across the country have talked to each other. They share their frustrations of being the only black faces at board meetings. They brainstorm ideas on how to help recruit more black directors, bring together more black artists, train more black curators.
Now, in an effort to formalize those conversations and facilitate meaningful change within the Black Lives Matter movement, several of those trustees have come together to form the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums.
“It’s a different time,” said Pamela J.Joyner, a member of the alliance’s steering committee and a trustee of the Getty Trust, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Americas Foundation. “I don’t see anyone who isn’t focused on moving a process like this forward.”
The need for this type of organization, its members say, has been amplified more recently by the decision of four museums to postpone a Philip Guston retrospective until 2024 because of his Ku Klux Klan images. The announcement sparked a backlash in the art world, with critics of the decision calling it self-censorship.
The institutions that organized the Guston exhibition – the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – said they had postponed “until a while where we think the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be interpreted more clearly.
National Gallery director Kaywin Feldman told the Washington Post Wednesday that gallery staff, including some guards, had expressed objections to the images in the exhibit and that “the KKK images in Guston’s work belong to a special category of racial violence”. (She also said the 2024 date was hastily announced and that she hoped the exhibit would open sooner at her museum — in 2022 or 2023.)
The new trustee alliance is riding a wave of increased awareness of the importance of better representation that has reached municipal government, museums and, more recently, commercial art galleries.
The steering committee, which met for the first time last month, includes prominent collectors such as AC Hudgins (who sits on the board of the Museum of Modern Art), Denise Gardner (Art Institute of Chicago) and Troy Carter (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Often the only black people on the boards of major museums, these trustees come together to help institutions identify new talent and emphasize diversity of perspectives to better reflect the communities they serve.
“We can start holding institutions accountable,” said Raymond J. McGuire, who serves on the boards of the Whitney and the Studio Museum in Harlem. “It’s really meant to be transformative.”
The alliance’s mission, as stated in a written summary of the committee’s first meeting on September 18, is “to increase the inclusion of Black artists, perspectives, and narratives in American cultural institutions by: s addressing inequities in staffing and leadership; address the lack of presence of marginalized communities in exhibitions and programming; and integrating diversity into the culture of the institution.
The organization, which is due to meet again this month, also plans to collect and make available data that can help institutions question themselves, like last year. Williams College study of 18 major US museums, which found that 85% of the artists in their collections were white and 87% were male.
Similarly, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found last year that the percentage of non-white conservatives had risen to 16% in 2018 from 12% in 2015, although little change was made at the leadership level.
“It’s not enough to report the problem,” said Gaby Sulzberger, a private equity executive who last year joined the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is president of the new group. “We want to be part of the solution.
The Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation financially support the work of the alliance. “There’s always been a token on that advice,” said Darren Walker, Ford’s chairman who last year become the first black administrator at the National Gallery, where the Guston exhibition was due to open in June. “Symbolism is no longer acceptable and there will be an internal mechanism that will hold museums accountable.”
Mr Walker, who was a guest at the first Steering Committee meeting and published last month A declaration in support of Guston’s postponement, said in an interview that the issues raised by this exhibit are systemic.
“It’s not about Guston, it’s about museums that need to change,” Mr Walker said. “In the past, curators at the National Gallery would never have consulted with black staff members before doing an exhibition that they might consider problematic. In the future, this will have to happen.
Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, who was also a guest at the committee’s first meeting, called the alliance “incredibly important, meaningful and necessary to the work of institutional transformation.”
The alliance initially plans to focus on increasing the number of black board members, but will also address the scarcity of black artists in collections and black curators on staff.
“It feels like there’s real power in coming together and sharing resources,” said Victoria Rogers, another alliance president who sits on the board of the Brooklyn Museum.
While they hope their efforts will benefit all people of color, committee members said that for now they are focusing on black people because, as Ms. Sulzberger said, “that’s who we are”. The group also aims to expand beyond art museums to include other cultural institutions.
“Boards are all working very hard to set priorities for their institutions, but no one has ever done that on the current scale,” Joyner said. “This group will do a lot for museums across the country by helping to define a roadmap.”