Art museums have, for quite some time now, been under intense critical scrutiny over the ideological content of their exhibitions and programmes, and over how they relate to audiences, in terms of who they speak to and for. More recently, the critical gaze has shifted, initially to museum boards, and the socio-economic and political interests and power structures these typically represent. And now they have shifted again to the inner workings of museums, to the politics of the leadership and staff. It started, quite predictably, with sexual harassment allegations, as has happened in almost every industry, and now it is about allegations of racism and toxic work environments caused by dysfunctional leadership, as well as more general calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the museum world, especially at the leadership level. The Black Lives Matter movement has added further urgency to this.
Arising from this, there has been a string of high-profile resignations and firings in North American and European museums, recently, as well various open letters and campaigns, many of them targeted at individuals in leadership positions. One of the latest and most poignant instances has been a public letter denouncing a longstanding “culture of racism” at, quite ironically, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, with calls for the resignation or removal of its long-serving deputy director and chief curator. These incidents have received significant attention in the specialized and general press as most of the persons fingered are prominent, highly accomplished figures in the museum and art world.
It is part of a crisis that is long in the making, a long-overdue reckoning and, hopefully, there will be a balancing of the scales that will turn museums into more socially relevant, responsive, equitable and well-managed organizations. However, I have some reservations about the present spate of firings, resignations and denouncements. One is that female museum professionals are disproportionately targeted, and that often the removals often involve women who were among the first to ascend to leadership positions in their museums. As most, if not all of the professionals in question are white, it raises questions about how white women are positioned and interpreted in the present debates about race and social justice. And, even more importantly, it raises questions how these white female museum professionals have positioned themselves in the racial dynamics of their organizations. But something appears to be off and I cannot accept that white female museum professionals, who are still a minority in senior museum positions, are somehow more racist than their male counterparts, or that their leadership style would somehow be more problematic and toxic.
Like many in the museum profession, I am aware of several instances where male museum leaders, of various racial backgrounds but all card-carrying members of their local Boys Clubs, have engaged in deeply toxic, even outright abusive behaviour (including sexual harassment and multiple affairs with junior staff) but they have only rarely been called out or held to account over it. So, racial dynamics aside, it appears that the present reckoning is an asymmetrical one, and that women are, once again, held to different, much more exacting standards than men in terms of their professional conduct and management styles, and still resented if they ascend to positions of leadership. I would rather see a situation in which any inappropriate professional conduct from museum leaders, or for that matter, any other staff members, is reported, denounced and resolved or penalized, irrespective of who they are and without perpetuating the culture that this is somehow to be tolerated from powerful, well-connected “eminent” men.
Another concern is that the present reckoning may inadvertently open the door for opportunistic moves and intrigues that have nothing to do with what is purportedly at hand. At least one of the instances that recently reached the international press, with accusations about what may well have been toxic and dysfunctional professional conduct, appears to have been compromised by an agenda to further a nepotistic appointment. I am referring to the firing, with immediate effect, of Nathalie Bondil, who had led the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for many years, in a context which seems to have been mired in board and succession intrigue and which is now subject to an official Quebec government investigation.
If a museum professional is genuinely and consistently problematic, by all means, discipline or fire, but now is not the time to push aside highly accomplished and performing museum professionals over personal grudges, vendettas, and other self-serving agendas, or to make way for individuals who just happen to be well-connected, accommodating of meddling boards, or good at playing the current politics, but who may have less to offer, professionally. If there is to be greater exclusivity and justice in the museum profession, the integrity of the present reckoning cannot be muddied by pandering or opportunistic agendas, and professional merit and performance must remain the key criteria for appointments and promotions.