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Inside Beat

From MoMA to Zimmerli, diversity in arts is rising focus

 – Photo by Courtesy of Rhea Swain

It’s been nearly 90 years since The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened in Manhattan. Today, the museum houses an impressive permanent collection with iconic artworks like impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” pop artist Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.” As MoMA’s 90th anniversary approaches, it has decided to close its doors to the public from June 15 to Oct. 21 to expand its main building in Midtown and diversify its artistic spaces. 

The new and improved MoMA intends to display itself as a more culturally rich museum, with a modernized curatorial vision. As MoMA aims to change its historical narrative from one that is ethnically static to one that is more dynamic and diverse, artists from underrepresented and neglected social groups in the art world — such as women, Asian, Latinx and Black — will be thrust into the spotlight they deserve in the new, larger exhibition spaces. MoMA’s radical-but-necessary revitalization is worth the financial costs the museum will incur — the renovations will cost approximately $400 million, according to The New York Times.

Museums struggle with realizing the concept of diversity and balanced perspectives in the workplace. Eighty-four percent of curators, conservators, educators and leadership in museums that are members of The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) are white non-Hispanic. From a race and ethnicity perspective, 72 percent of AAMD museum staff as a whole are white non-Hispanic. 

In terms of gender, the art world is informed by largely female presences in museums, with approximately 70 percent of curators, conservators, educators and leadership and approximately 60 percent of all AAMD museum staff identifying as female. These imbalances in diversity only make the art world and art historical knowledge more distant from the public. 

The public’s general knowledge of art history is often confined to the knowledge of famous white male artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Monet. Artists like Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, M.F. Husain and Yayoi Kusama are all critically acclaimed exceptions to this general knowledge. Still, beyond these noteworthy talents lies a world of artists representing minority communities that people need to acknowledge and appreciate more. Museums have the power, and thus the responsibility, to increase public exposure to a more holistic depiction of art history.

Dr. Donna Gustafson, the curator for American Art and Mellon director for Academic Programs at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, believes that the extent of an art museum’s diversity is rooted in its leadership. “I would say that what makes a museum ‘diverse’ are the people who lead it: the curators and the director. Those are the people in the museum who help move forward the intellectual content put on display — the exhibitions, programs and collections. It helps enormously to have a diverse pool of people with diverse ideas,” she said.

Gustafson went on to discuss the efforts that museums need to make and are making to diversify, in the context of both smaller institutions like Zimmerli and larger institutions like MoMA. “We at the Zimmerli Art Museum, for example, have three strengths in our collection: the American, the European and the Soviet and Russian collections. These collections are not what I would call extraordinarily diverse. They are very euro-centric. Building collections is, however, an expensive proposition and we’re a university art museum with limited funds for acquiring art," she said.

In spite of this, Gustafson shared what she does to to make collections representative of a variety of cultures.

"One of the things we do at the Zimmerli, and one of the things I try to do in the American galleries, is to exhibit diversity to the extent that we can. We have wonderful examples of African American artists, Asian American artists and artists who immigrated to America and made a place for themselves here. I always try to include Native Americans in our narrative too because they are a part of American art history. So, even though the collection is American art, it is a diverse presentation of American artists. Also, I think what the MoMA is doing is fantastic,” she said.

Museums must portray themselves as more attractive and viable workplaces to the youth to have a more diverse approach to art historical storytelling. 

“For example, there should be opportunities for middle school and high school students in museums because it seems to me that young people really do not think of the museum as a place for a possible career until they get to college and begin to take art history classes. I also think that museums need to be more open to experimentation and change. Fortunately, a lot of museums are embracing change now,” Gustafson said. 

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