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Leading by Example: How Crystal Bridges is Taking on Diversity

In an earlier post, I emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusion to Crystal Bridges’ mission.  Today, I’ll provide information about one of the ways the museum is taking action in that direction, not just for our own museum, but also for museums across the country.  –LD

 

One of the most important challenges facing museums at present is the need to foster inclusiveness and achieve diversity. Increasing diversity in the collection itself is an important part of this—acquiring and exhibiting works by artists of all ethnicities, races, cultural backgrounds, and gender identifications so that museum guests from every demographic sector of the country will be able to “see themselves” on the gallery walls.

 

But the importance of diversity goes much deeper than just the artworks on the walls. It is also vital that Museums build diversity in their institutional leadership and staff, from the board on down. This is an issue that affects the majority of American museums, and is not unknown to Crystal Bridges, whose leadership and board of directors has heretofore been 100% white.  Turning their attention from diversity in the collection to diversity in the staff brought that issue into focus.

 

“We looked at ourselves and we went ‘uh oh,’” said Crystal Bridges founder and Board Chair Alice Walton. “Here we are working to diversify our collection and all of a sudden we got the old mirror out, and guess what we overlooked? We were a bit embarrassed…and we said ‘We need to fix this.’”

 

The Museum’s leadership reached out to the Ford Foundation, an organization that has long been committed to furthering inclusiveness and eliminating inequality in our society. Together, the Museum and the Foundation have hammered out a plan to help museums across the country foster diversity in the field. Beginning with $2 million in seed money, they have set a goal of raising a total of $5 million from additional partners, which will provide challenge grants to museums to implement their own diversity initiatives.  The goal is not simply to hire more curators and directors of color. The initiative takes a much longer view: targeting children as young as grade-school-age to develop and nurture a diverse pool of participants in art professions for the future.

 

Photo by Marc F. Henning

 

These might include paid internships or other programs aimed at young people from under-represented groups. The initiative begins with a focus on ethnic and racial groups, with an additional effort to reach young women, but the program will broaden over the next five years to focus on others, including LGBT youth, veterans, and the disabled.

 

“We’re introducing the museum as a profession at an early age so they know that this is a real thing that you can do,” explained Executive Director Rod Bigelow, who was also recently designated Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “We need to get the message out that there’s a whole range of great ways you can make a career here: there are accountants and culinary staff and writers and exhibition builders. But we’re especially focused on leadership, curatorial, education, and interpretation because we can’t tell the American story through a singular voice. We believe that you have a richer experience when there are multiple voices.”

 

“I don’t think there is a more important issue than diversity in the museum world,” Walton stated. “Its survival of the industry. It really is. Museums have got to change. We have got to really address this issue. And I am confident that this industry can change and, with motivation and some funding and help, will change. The most important thing is that we accomplish it,” Walton said. “Because by accomplishing it we can be the pattern of how it can be done. We all have this issue. It’s not that we didn’t have the problem. We have the problem, so we can be a perfect example of how to change it.”

 

© 2016 Stephen Ironside/Ironside Photography

 

One of the initiatives Crystal Bridges has already put into place is a pilot for a paid internship program for minority high school students, funded through the Walton Family Foundation. The program aims to introduce promising students to the many career opportunities available in the museum field, in order to begin to grow a diverse museum workforce—at every level—for the future.  The internships are available to rising seniors of racially diverse backgrounds, including (but not limited to) African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Native American from Phillips County, Arkansas. These are very bright and capable students, and once they have completed their college education, may be among the chefs, curators, board members, educators, patrons, and directors of Crystal Bridges in the next decade.  More about that in the weeks ahead.

 

This post was excerpted from a longer feature in C magazine, the publication for Crystal Bridges members, Volume 5, No. 3

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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