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The COVID-19 pandemic that has upended life around the world has had an especially consequential impact on art museums. A study released in July 2020 by the American Alliance of Museums estimates that one in six museums in the U.S. risks permanent closure before fall 2021, due to prolonged economic difficulties related to the pandemic.
Since the shutdown that was put into effect across the U.S. in mid-March, thousands of arts workers across the country — including, heartbreakingly, at Asia Society Museum, where I have worked for more than eight years — have been laid off or furloughed, with an estimated 42% representing permanent job losses in the field. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which boasts an endowment of $3.3 billion, has been forced to trim its staff by 20%. The job losses are being felt most keenly by junior staff and communities of color, increasing calls for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field.
For museums, this mandatory pause forced many difficult issues to the surface regarding long-term financial health, work culture, and audience engagement. But while the months and years ahead will present many grave challenges, the pandemic also represents a rare opportunity for museums to identify and implement the fundamental changes needed to ensure the field’s enduring relevance.
Embracing diversity is crucial to bringing museums back. The field cannot expect to thrive if it excludes, subconsciously or consciously, large swaths of the population. Historically, the visual art field in the U.S. has been a rarified domain for the privileged, and driven largely by a Eurocentric perspective. Institutions including the Frick, Getty, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney, and Asia Society Museum, among others, were initially founded, supported, managed, and frequented by individuals from a certain social and cultural milieu. For years this determined the scope and tenor of their missions and collections.
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Likewise, the education and professional training necessary to excel as a museum professional, years accompanied by little or no pay, enabled only those with other economic means — and of course the knowledge that these types of jobs even existed — to pursue a career in the field. For historic reasons, this has largely excluded minorities and communities of color. Accordingly, many museums have historically presented narratives implicitly catered to the wealthy white establishment, perpetuating the idea of the art museum as an elitist and inaccessible space.
While these inequities are not new, the pandemic, along with the recent wave of racial justice protests, have brought them to the fore. And, as with virtually every other sector in American life, calls for systemic change have arrived at the doorstep of art museums. Art workers have created virtual platforms like @Art + Museum Transparency, @ChangeTheMuseum, #ForTheCulture, and #MuseumsAreNotNeutral to address issues relating to systemic racism and sexism, best practices, income equality, and the need for more inclusive representation and engagement. Among the Asian American arts community, coalitions like the Los Angeles-based GYOPO and the recently formed Stop DiscriminAsian have addressed these concerns while also providing resources and support against anti-Asian harassment and discrimination amplified by the pandemic.
While the near-term picture for arts organizations seems bleak, the moment is here for museums and arts institutions to come back stronger and more focused in their mandates. By 2045, the white population will become a minority in the U.S. for the first time in history. Thus, it is imperative for museums and cultural institutions to address their own standing relating to the diversity, equity, access, and inclusion of their programming and staffing, to ensure they remain vital contributors to contemporary society going forward.
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The soul-searching necessary for this kind of transition will entail recognizing uncomfortable truths and having the courage to transcend comfort zones in order to realign institutional missions and goals. It will not be alleviated by a quick fix. But there are steps museums can take right now that will build a bridge to the future. A renewed focus on youth education programs is key not only to instilling greater empathy through the content being communicated, but will also cultivate the next generation of museum patrons. Creative partnerships with artists that benefit the larger community could also be a compelling means to activate the museum experience. Cultivating deep and ongoing relationships with local communities will ensure steady visitorship and alleviate a reliance on tourism in light of the foreseeable limitations of travel. The creation of a more inclusive and welcoming environment entails a reassessment of visitor accessibility, both physical and virtual. Making multilingual didactics and interpretive materials available both in the galleries and online has the potential to provide more equitable access and outreach to a broader and more diverse audience. One positive trend that the shutdown has sparked is improving the breadth and quality of online resources for virtual audiences, such as greater contextualization of museum collections and an emphasis on aligning museum programming to engage with current events.
Museum programming must encompass more inclusive curatorial narratives for temporary exhibitions and permanent collecting practices that consider previously under-recognized peoples. It must elucidate timely social issues to meaningfully include, integrate, and unite disparate perspectives. Asia Society Museum has long sought to champion the marginalized voices of Asian and Asian American artists since the inauguration of its first contemporary art exhibition in 1994 and continuing most boldly with We Do Not Dream Alone, the inaugural edition of the Asia Society Triennial, which launched in October with strict social-distancing in place and will run through June 2021. The Triennial, a recurring exhibition featuring Asian and Asian American artists, tackles issues relating to ethnicity, identity, and cultural representation as an antidote to the rising xenophobia and racism against these communities and illustrates the uniquely transformative power of artists to inspire empathy and mutual understanding across perceived differences.
Looking inward, museums can improve their respective work cultures through real efforts toward salary equity and the creation of paid internships, fellowship programs, and mentoring programs to provide professional opportunities for a more diverse workforce. Greater diversity throughout the ranks from the most junior staff roles to senior leadership must be attained. Diversity at the top, through trustee oversight, is also key to ensuring equal representation.
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Given the current financial and social climate, the period of offering spectacle-driven entertainment has given way to a more sober and thoughtful moment in which museums must once again redefine their purpose and meaning. We must continue to push boundaries and promote difficult discussions both inside and outside our respective institutions with empathy and compassion. As with all crises, this moment, as painful as it is, provides a rare opportunity for self-reflection and meaningful change, a moment that has the potential to amplify the role museums and other non-profit arts organizations play within the continuing quest for equity and justice.
Museums are integral to the fabric of society. They are receptacles of ideas and dreams that provide opportunities for discovery, empowerment, and inspiration. It is our moral obligation as champions of these sacred spaces to preserve their integrity for future generations, and to ensure they further our collective desire for a more humane and just world.