In early June, as the energy, engagement and passion of the Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis grew, people, businesses and institutions in the US struggled to react in ways that would show support.
Since Covid-19 had shut museums, theatres and concert halls, a movement emerged among arts institutions calling for the use of the closed public spaces as a rest and support station for demonstrators.
Organisations were encouraged to provide water, hand sanitiser, masks, phone chargers and snacks. In a short time, hundreds of organisations took on this role. It brought to the fore the issue of to what extent this constitutes a satisfactory response.
For some time now, many museums have been delivering on the issue of community engagement. They have begun to think through what it takes to be a place for their community and to interrogate themselves on whether or not they really understand who is their community, what they want, how their community sees the world and what their expectation of us is. A lot of this thinking has been led by outreach and education staff.
A few museums have been “opening their lobbies” for some time. My most recent museum home has, for a number of years, been the official gathering refuge in emergencies for a nearby high school. The museum lobby been a cooling station during heat wave emergencies, a mobile phone recharging station when overhead power lines have been downed by storms, and a place for people to use toilet facilities during major community events in the adjacent park.
We had the staff who knew how to do this and had the standing and presence in the community to work effectively with officials and neighbours. Anybody with smart, capable and empowered education and outreach staff can and should be in this space.
So, I am totally on board with the Open Your Lobbies idea. But here is my concern. What we are in the midst of today is clearly something different. Buried in the outpouring is the message that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
Is “here’s a glass of water and a bathroom” not much more than thoughts and prayers? More insidiously, is it a way for us to feel we have done our part, that we are part of the movement.
From that perspective it is not so much that “Open Your Lobbies” is wrong, but that it is not enough and it is also a distraction from the real work we have to do. The lesson of this last month is not that we are being asked to “support” a movement.
The lesson is that we are being challenged to do the hard work needed to make real change in our world. We can yell “defund the police,” and lots of other things, but the challenge for us is to ask ourselves: “What are the issues in the museum world that derive from historical wrongs, structural inequalities, and a monochromatic, white world view?”
I don’t know the answers, but I think we all know some of the questions:
1. Most American museums are not significantly supported by government funding, unlike many colleagues in Europe. As such, our funding models are overwhelmingly driven by private philanthropy. In that realm, how do we manage the conflicts that arise from accepting funding from brand name needy corporations? As society begins to hold businesses to account, are we managing that change properly when it comes to our museum’s fiscal and reputational bottom line?
Museums are often built on the fortunes of 19th and early 20th century men whose conduct, ethics and life stories, while common for their time, are deeply problematic today. These are legacies that our white, upper-class supporters have revered until recently. If we ignore the full reality of those lives, are we certain that we correctly understand our own times?
2. History is a complicated and ever-changing narrative. We have all learned that the Dukes of Lombardy did not commission women artists, that the medieval church felt there was a canonical basis for the defined subservient role of women, and almost every US president up until Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. But as we become more adept at interrogating history, are we being equally demanding of ourselves to question our present?
3. We have lots of creative and smart senior museum executives. They can earn as much as $1m a year and are, on the whole, male and white. Maintenance and security staff are more diverse and some are paid the U.S. Federal Minimum Wage. That would mean $13,195 a year. If they are lucky enough, let’s say they are paid double the Federal Minimum Wage for a salary of $26,395. That is the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four. Are we doing the hard work when the chief executive earns 30 to 50 times what the support staff earns?
4. We are, by and large, governed by trustees. But the experience of most board members is the business world. Have we been able to get them to think in terms of being partners in an enterprise that is in trust for the larger public? Have we done the hard work of getting them to join with us in thinking about how we define mission, how they hire directors, and how they define institutional practices and priorities?
5. Many of us have devoted our professional lives to supporting institutional commitment to some of the great sweeps of history, intellect, creativity and educational development. Some of the successes are breathtaking. Metaphorically, the people marching in the streets are not asking us for a glass of water. They are asking us to look at ourselves and try to understand to what extent we are no different from the other actors in this story. They are asking us to do the hard work of trying to see how we resemble the problem, the structural problem.
We shouldn’t allow our ability to so easily offer a glass of water to distract us from the challenge of facing the structural problem and tasking ourselves to address it. We aren’t the bad guys, but we are not off the hook.
This terrible confluence of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter is, to pick an uncomfortable metaphor, a gift. There is nothing in our recent history that compares to the way this moment has swept across traditional lines of demarcation.
The mood is so broad we may have been presented with a chance to truly enlist more parts of our institutional world in thinking about real change. This may be the moment when communities, staffs, boards, foundations, donors are being affected and educated by the enormity of what they are seeing.
This may be the moment when we can do things that we have never before been able to get close to. This may be the moment when we can affect actual change rather than undertake studies, initiatives, conversations and outreach.
George Floyd was murdered before our very eyes. And because of the pandemic, millions of people were there to see it. They weren’t in a meeting, studying for finals or installing an exhibition. They were locked up at home and they could not avert their eyes.
The gift is that, all over the world, they then came out into the streets. Not in response to a big planned march, but out of the passion of their own moment. An awful lot of them are ready to listen and to act.
Michael Botwinick is the director emeritus at the Hudson River Museum