Open Spaces: Public Trust and the Shifting Role of Art Museums
In a recent interview, artist Cy Gavin, a Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate, shared an anecdote from his time as a student in the city:
Pittsburgh’s famous Carnegie Museum of Art was just a thirty-minute drive from his house, but Gavin says that the thirteen-dollar student entrance fee was more than he could afford. He discovered a way to sneak in through the building next door, which connected to the museum through the basement. “Once I figured out how to get in, I basically never left,” he says. But the fact that he essentially had to break into the museum to access art bothers him.
“It still really irritates me. High admission prices effectively prevent working-class people from being able to visit museums,” he says.1
Gavin is of course not alone in his irritation. For decades, the topic of access—as in who gets it, and who doesn’t—has been a point of contention in the world of art museums.2 And rightfully so. Funding, whether received via foundational, corporate, or individual giving, is what feeds and sustains cultural institutions across the country. Which is just to say, wealth and privilege are woven into the DNA of how an art museum operates. But that doesn’t mean that access should be limited to those of means. After all, high admission prices are only a small part of a larger problem.
In recent years, art museums across the country have been grappling with what it means to be inclusive. To some, it’s an issue of economic inequality: admission prices and affordable transportation bar access to those from low-income households and disadvantaged communities. Others believe the disconnect is more programmatic, reflecting leadership that has fallen out of step with the issues that interest and resonate with the public. As Chris Taylor writes in the MASS Action Toolkit: “It will not be an easy shift, but leaders who are not working to create an inclusive organization will leave a legacy of irrelevance.”
Amid the many discussions taking place, two issues are the most pressing: the lack of diversity in many art museum’s collections as well as the lack of diversity in museum staff, particularly in leadership and curatorial positions.
According to a national study published by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015, only 16 percent of leadership positions—curators, conservators, educators—were held by people of color. The foundation’s latest report, however, published in January, showed small signs of hope. It found that in 2018, “the share of people of color hired at the institutions it surveyed was 35 percent, up from 26 percent in 2015.”
A growing number of art museums have also acknowledged a deficit in their collections when it comes to works by artists of color. And while many have outlined collecting plans that address the issue, there is still much work to be done. A recent study revealed that approximately 85% of artists represented in US museum collections are white. Which begs the question: How much systemic change is needed to create spaces where people from all backgrounds feel welcome and respected, engaged and represented?
For a recent project here at Carnegie Museum of Art, an eight-part video series dubbed Guest of Honor, creators Sean Beauford and Brendon J Hawkins wanted to deepen—and personalize—the conversation surrounding inclusion. In an interview, we talked about the origins of the series, the challenges facing museums, and what they each took away from the experience.
Can you talk about what prompted the Guest of Honor series?
Sean Beauford: Guest of Honor was inspired by a desire to better connect museums and communities that exist outside of the arts network. Usually museum exhibitions are introduced to the public through the museum’s voice, which, even when it’s casual, is still coming from and being scripted by the museum. This is an issue because not everyone cares what the museum has to say, especially if they don’t identify with the museum. We wanted different communities to hear from people they identify with. It was also important to let Pittsburgh know that their voice matters. In an exhibition that highlights people from around the world, we wanted to highlight people who live in Pittsburgh.
Brendon Hawkins: Personally, the driving force was my own history. While growing up in Maryland, during grade school we were only prompted to visit museums during field trips. This, and not seeing many people on those museum walls who resembled myself, created a distant relationship with I and the institutions. This sense of separation continued on through my early 20s until I moved to Harlem and experienced the Studio Museum. I was introduced to an abundance of African American artists—experienced and young. I quickly understood the importance of seeing those who look like you doing things similar to what you do and love. Now back in Pittsburgh, and having worked with many of the institutions, I began to notice the wide disconnect between Black/African American patrons and all of the museums around the city. My own mother had mentioned to me that she had not been to CMOA since her teen years. Well, this is an issue seeing as how the institutions are aiming to fill these walls with people who look like her and I. Sean and I have worked together previously on projects that consider community conversations about inclusion and diversity, this was an extension of that.
How did you decide who to invite to the museum?
SB: I really hate the idea of preaching to the choir, and I think it happens too often, especially in the arts. From panel discussions to lectures to advertising and marketing, we seem to be okay with talking to people already in the know. I didn’t want to invite anyone known for their position in the arts community. I didn’t want to invite anyone that had a close relationship with the museum. And no influencers. We wanted a wide range of people with different backgrounds because we wanted to present different perspectives. Everyone invited has a relationship with someone involved in the production, there were no casting calls or seeking out people from specific places or that had a certain look.
BH: Right! I believe art is a social science that relies on the public at large. These participants represent a community that art typically excludes from the conversation of what is what, whom is whom, though their lives affect the very work being created and shown.
What do you see as the greatest barriers to making museums more welcoming spaces?
SB: The narrative of museums has to change, and that’s only going to change from doing the work. For people who perceive museums to be places that only want to display art from certain groups of people that don’t include them, or as places that want a certain audience that doesn’t include them, or as a space that doesn’t hire people who look like them, the only thing that can change that perception is showing them that’s not the case.
The greatest barrier is that you can’t hire a new staff overnight. You can’t change the exhibition line-up that’s been planned for years, overnight. You can change the programming overnight, you can change the communication overnight but when those changes occur before the other things, it can come off as pandering to the trendiness of diversity. I’d say that the biggest barrier is convincing museums to rethink their hiring process and understand that what has been working isn’t going to continue to work. Everything starts with the staff, particularly the leadership positions. A diverse staff will have the necessary firsthand experience and informed perspective to consider truly effective ways to broaden the museum’s audience and make it more welcoming. It would trickle down to exhibitions, programming, admissions, visitor services, security, etc.
BH: Security is what typically keeps me out of museums today. It’s a constant back-and-forth of institutions wanting to protect the artwork, and spectators wanting to freely roam a space built to be enjoyed without being stalked by security. Since living in New York, I’ve interviewed many museum security guards who have shared stories of being ordered, by their supervisor, to follow African American men and women during their visits. I’m not sure what could be done about this, but I’ve learned that initiating a conversation is the best way to see progress.
Do you think that incremental change at a museum—whether through forward-thinking programming, a diverse collecting plan, more inclusive hiring practices—can eventually lead to systemic change?
SB: I think so. I think getting the future right is a lot easier than repairing the past, but maybe being fair and more inclusive going forward is the first step. Another challenge museums face is addressing problematic histories and rectifying the wrongs that led to the distrust in the first place. Specifically, how cultural artifacts were acquired and who’s been reaping the benefits.
BH: Pittsburgh is a small city, so if CMOA and other institutions want to create real change… well, engage. What do visitors really need? These things can only be discovered when communities unite and communicate. A focus on the future is much needed, as Sean mentioned. I also believe the change is wider than the museum itself. A call to action must be made for all sides to show up.
Museums are not exclusionary spaces by design, but many factors often make them so. Price of admission and access to public transportation are just a couple that come to mind. How can museums more thoughtfully embrace the communities that they serve?
SB: A lot of museum prices are merely suggestions and plenty of them are free altogether, which is great. Even the institutions with fixed prices are affordable to families who receive assistance, at least in Pennsylvania. Public transportation is a big barrier in Pittsburgh. It takes multiple lengthy bus rides to get to any museum from the suburbs, where so many have had to relocate. Even if discounted fare could be figured out, it’s still a matter of the journey being worth the time.
I think museums could better embrace communities by being a better overall resource, beyond art education. Public libraries do a great job of being a community resource that people can tap into to help themselves, focusing on their needs, not what the library says they need. Whether it’s a safe quiet space, an art class, learning a second language, Internet/computer access, children’s activities, or following your curiosity through thousands of books covering just as many subjects. The library is like a grocery store where you can get whatever you need, whereas museums tend to be more like restaurants with a fixed menu that wasn’t even created with your input.
BH: Ha. I love the grocery store line. My thoughts exactly.
During your various conversations for the series, did any particular response or observation from a guest change the way you think about the role of art—or a museum—in the community?
BH: All of the responses were amazing and needed. One thing I do have to mention is the insight I gained working with a sign language interpreter for my conversation with Aro and Melinda. This definitely highlighted the importance of having a staff available to assist with all of the museum’s visitors.
SB: My conversation with NAN really stands out to me because he was so appreciative to have a contemporary art museum here because there isn’t one in Saudi Arabia, where he’s from. Living in a city with multiple is something I took for granted. We can learn so much about the rest of the world through museums, especially when traveling isn’t always an option. I didn’t realize how much of a privilege it is to live near a museum, even if you never step foot in it. It made me think about what Pittsburgh would miss out on if there were no contemporary art museums and think about how to do a better job of making it so that what museums have to offer (not the museum itself) is better appreciated. The saying goes “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” but I want people to know what they have while they have it.
The 2018 Carnegie International is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art until March 25, 2019.
- Rebecca Shapiro, “Luminous Paintings That Tell Dark Stories,” Columbia Magazine, Spring 2019. Accessed March 21, 2019, https://magazine.columbia.edu/article/luminous-paintings-tell-dark-stories. ↵
- To give one of many examples, consider that the Guerilla Girls formed in response to the exhibition An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. In an interview from 1995, Kathe Kollwitz recounts how the exhibition was billed as an “up-to-the minute summary of the most significant contemporary art in the world,” yet, “Out of 169 artists, only 13 were women.” ↵