Early in January, Minneapolis's Walker Art Center posted an intriguing set of opinion pieces on their influential online magazine, under the rubric of New Year's resolutions for museums.
Laura Raicovich (who left the directorship of the Queens Museum last year after growing tensions with the institution's board around her progressive programming) called for a dismantling of the myth of neutrality, and a closer accord between an organisation's values and its operations. This touches every sphere of decision-making, she argues, from repatriation to recruitment decisions: in 2019 "the authority of the museum is being questioned not only in terms of what is collected and how, and what is exhibited and how it is shown, but also how decisions are made and who has the power to make them."
Nicole N. Ivy, educator, futurist and inclusion activist, urged art museums to "to examine who is not being represented in their collections and also reflect on their relationships to wealth inequality", in the pursuit of equity. Ivy cited the Baltimore Museum of Art's announcement last year that it would sell off a small number of collection works by 20th century white male artists to create a fund to buy the work of under-represented artists as an example of a museum "using their resources to expand access and promote the democratic circulation of their collections."
In the hardest hitting of the four short essays, artist and writer Antony Romero argued for long-term planning and work towards social change and representation over short-term profiling and programming: "Developing a program or exhibition that reflects upon or invites dialogue on some contemporary social movement, such as Black Lives Matter, for example, is not the same as investing in the cultivation of black life. It is never a question of representation over resource allocation. Both should be happening at the same time. Programmatic shifts should be taking place at the same time as resources are reallocated to bolster your institution’s commitment to investing in excluded communities." In emphatic prose that I have since seen repeatedly cited, Romero writes "Remember that you are not your institution. An institution is not an organism but an instrument, a tool. It may be a bloodied tool but remember there are no clean tools, only those that still serve a purpose and those that don’t."
Finally, Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at Melbourne's ACMI, made one concrete suggestion: do away with salary cloaking. It's not a phrase I'd hear before, but it's a practice I'm very familiar with - not advertising salary ranges and starting pay when recruiting. As Chan notes, the practice benefits those who have the "time and upfront confidence" when applying for roles, and also establishes "an unequal trust relationship between employer and employee which then continues when the employee is hired". Furthermore, inside the workplace, trading insider knowledge of people's pay "embeds individualized competition instead of collective camaraderie". Advertising salaries seems a small and noncontroversial measure, he acknowledges, but this is one of the " very first baby steps towards workplace diversity and community representation", which are going to be needed to face the truly brutal challenges facing society, from racial inequality to climate change.
When I worked in digital, we talked about "full stack" development: a consideration of what we were designing from the deepest backend of the hardware support to the individual actions of users on the frontend of the product. In reading these pieces, I see that same fullstack in operation - the change that all four writers are calling for requires honesty, authenticity and change throughout every phase of a museum's operations, from governance, funding and recruitment to collection development, fundraising and working conditions.
The essays also tap into a rising discussion around burn out, specifically (but not exclusively) focused on the millennial generation, the oldest members of which are now entering their late 30s. At the same time that I was considering the Walker essays, a piece by Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen titled 'How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation' was being passed around and around my social network. Petersen's core argument - that burn out is not a temporary affliction but a permanent condition for those brought up to expect their work will be meaningful, even enviable, but working in a context of carrying massive student debt and facing increasing job instability - chimed with a memorable article published by Lucinda Bennett on the Pantograph Punch last April, where she interrogated the idea of 'passionate work' as it applies to the visual arts. When work is redefined as being done for love, Bennett writes, it becomes boundless: "even fulfilling work needs constraints and needs to be remunerated. Without the former, we never have time to rest, to attend to our physical and emotional needs, to spend time with our families and friends. We become burnt out, disillusioned, physically and mentally unwell."
And thus to resolutions. It seems a large task, to dismantle the inheritance of the Western museum and democratise its assets and influence. But as Chan notes, small steps take you somewhere. So when I did my first pieces of recruitment for 2019, I told candidates what the ceiling of the starting salary was, and published salary ranges up front. It's a small step but hopefully one in the right direction.
Read the originals: