Mellon Foundation's Case Studies in Museum Diversity Feature NYSCA Grantees

How can museums work towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive future?

The Mellon Foundation recently released a set of case studies on American museums –  including two NYSCA grantees, the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem – who serve as models in the field.

To create the case studies, Mellon identified museums where underrepresented groups have a relatively substantial presence as educators, curators, conservators, and in museum leadership and conducted site visits and extensive interviews, observation and research.

Addressing these issues is a priority at NYSCA and we encourage you to read on for ideas as to how your organization can achieve its goals to become more welcoming to people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities. Below, read Part I of our overview of what these studies observed about our grantees, focusing on the Brooklyn Museum, a grantee in our Museum and Arts Education Programs.

Brooklyn Museum Target First Saturday
Brooklyn Museum First Saturday, July 2, 2016. Photo by Brittney Najar.

Located in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the museum features richly multicultural collections including American Art, Arts of Africa, Egyptian and Near Eastern Art, and also maintains the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Prioritizing Diversity

Welcoming both inside and out, the Brooklyn Museum serves as a model of representation at the staff level.

In the museum field at large, Mellon and partner researches identified 28 percent of museum staff as people of color (POC). But in the intellectual leadership positions, identified as educators, curators, conservators, and senior administrators, POC composed only 16 percent.

At the Brooklyn Museum, the total staff was 40 percent POC. In roles categorized as intellectual leadership, POC occupied 42 percent of the positions—a figure approaching the diversity of the borough, which is 48 percent POC. To approach this level of representation, Arnold Lehman, director of the museum from 1998 to 2015, prioritized diversity in hiring and surrounded himself over time with staff who shared that value.

As Welcoming As a Public Park

Lehman told Mellon that to be welcoming means to make visitors feel as comfortable as they would be in the neighboring Prospect Park—as shown by the highly popular, community-centric Target First Saturdays. These events feature big dance parties, talented local performers, and multigenerational crowds; visitors enjoy refreshments and reduced prices to view ticketed exhibitions.

At the Brooklyn Museum, civic duty is related to embracing, supporting, and celebrating the borough’s communities. The museum thinks critically about which communities have been underserved historically, in order to design programs and space where these communities feel welcome.

Public Programs Meet Curatorial

To adapt to changing needs of visitors, the museum cultivates flexible departments, free exchange of ideas among staff, and unconventional curatorial relationships, most notably the relationship between Public Programming and Curatorial.

Until fall 2016, Public Programming -- the department responsible for programs like Target First Saturdays, which is usually organized as a response to an exhibition or larger theme such as Pride Month or Women’s History Month -- was part of the education department. Now, Public Programming is part of the Curatorial department, allowing decisions about exhibitions to be informed by staff members whose primary focus is to have a “finger on the pulse” of museum visitors.

Carmen Hermo, assistant curator at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, indicated that having programming at the table was helpful, and welcome: “Public programming for us…can bring out things not as present in the objects—queer perspectives, environmental activism, or indigenous issues.” Hermo added that programming could be helpful in bringing attention to the absence of a certain community, helping the museum to realize its civic commitment.

Learn More

Read the complete study of the Brooklyn Museum here and visit our blog next week to read about the case study of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Cover image: Brooklyn Museum steps. Photo by Khamaali Vernon.