Remaking the Art Museum

How can the art world move forward into a more just and inclusive space when its history is rooted in inequity?

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The traditional canon is notorious for its exclusion of many underrepresented groups. The movement to change it up has engaged the talents of many in the Mills community.

By Jessica Lipsky
Halona Norton-Westbrook ‘05 in the galleries at the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she began work as the museum’s director in early 2020. Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo.

THE ARTIST NICK CAVE’S LARGE, multimedia “soundsuits” immediately draw the eye. They’re futuristic and avant-garde, engaging and imposing, designed to make viewers contemplate ideas of space and safety. One of the soundsuits from Cave’s 8:46 collection—a reference to the amount of time that Derek Chauvin was thought to have kneeled on George Floyd’s neck—now anchors a gallery at the Honolulu Museum of Art dedicated to the depiction of human form from the Classical period to present.

Chicago-based Cave began developing soundsuits in general after the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and his series encourages viewers to reflect on the myriad physical responses to violence. “It’s this incredibly powerful, vibrant work. The idea of this work is that somebody could wear it and be transformed, and be concealed simultaneously,” says Halona Norton-Westbrook ’05, director and CEO of the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA).

Diva Zumaya ’10 is one of the few women of color who specializes in European painting and sculpture, particularly from the 17th century, but a love for cultural properties like Lord of the Rings led her down this unusual path. Now an assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she’s naturally come up against obstacles in a very white field, though Zumaya counts herself lucky when compared to a colleague at a different institution who was told they couldn’t use the word “colonialism.” “I am so lucky to work at a place that is physically and figuratively rebuilding itself into something completely new,” she says.

While Cave’s work is certainly within the realm of what HoMA would collect (and has been exhibited internationally), anchoring the gallery around a Black artist whose work discusses race and police brutality is fairly novel and among the solutions to a wide-ranging lack of diverse representation in art museums. Norton-Westbrook, one of the youngest-ever woman directors of a major US museum, notes that “rather than making certain works a footnote, it’s actually about putting those works that are front and center in the narrative.”

Fine art museums have been reckoning with issues of representation and diversity for years, and are generally making efforts to present work from more artists of color, women, and other underrepresented groups. Yet the stats aren’t great: A 2019 study found that 85 percent of artists in 18 major US museums were white, and 87 percent were male. The path to equity is long and burdened by complex power structures and systemic inequality—all of which have been further brought to light during the pandemic and civil rights uprisings.

A “soundsuit” by artist Nick Cave, which is on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art in a gallery that celebrates the human form. Photo courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art

Museums across the country have responded in a variety of ways, from local community-engagement initiatives to deaccessioning, or officially removing works. Many are trying to recontextualize encyclopedic collections to develop narratives that are more relevant to contemporary audiences.

Norton-Westbrook is one such professional and has focused her career on the history of collecting and the development of curation. She majored in art history and museums while working at the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM), then received her Ph.D. in London. She spent six years at the Toledo Museum of Art, beginning as a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Leadership fellow, then becoming the director of curatorial affairs. She also appeared in the video “Turning Uncle Tom’s Cabin upside down,” produced by Smarthistory, which critiqued the sculpture “Topsy and the Golden Fleece” by artist Alison Saar.

Norton-Westbrook, whose parents lived on Oahu before she was born, joined HoMA just 10 weeks before the pandemic, becoming part of an institution with deep ties to Mills. Namely, the museum itself was founded by an alumna: Anna Rice Cooke, who attended the College in 1871–1872 as a Seminary student.

After a museum career that’s taken her across the United States, Patricia McDonnell ’78 is currently the director of the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas. The organization has been diving deep into diversity and inclusion work, and for her, it all boils down to a simple truth that every museum should keep in mind: “One of the things we really have to notice is the experience people have when they come into the museum,” she says. “Does everyone feel welcome? Do they see themselves reflected in what’s on the walls? Do they have a sense of belonging?”

She spoke at the 1927 opening of the museum, which originated with the Cooke family home and art collection. “That our children of many nationalities and races, born far from the centers of art, may receive an intimation of their own cultural legacy and wake to the ideals embodied in the arts of their neighbors,” she said. “That Hawaiians, Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Northern Europeans, and all other people living here […] may perceive a foundation on which a new culture, enriched by the old strains, may be built in the islands.” Cooke’s parents, however, came to Hawaii as missionaries, and her husband, Charles Montague Cooke, was a businessman who advocated for the United States to annex the islands—giving the museum colonial roots in a place that has been continuously shaped by that legacy.

For her part, Norton-Westbook uses her experience as a curator to consider “the stories that we tell with the objects, and being transparent that those stories always do have a point of view.” While she has been lauded for her innovative approach to exhibits, operations, and fundraising in Toledo, Norton-Westbook believes that all museums must attempt to tell more inclusive and accessible narratives, which is especially important in a place like Hawaii.

Broader societal conversations around decolonization are also furthering the push for thoughtful evolution within and surrounding art museums. “This sense of urgency is positive, enhancing not only the frequency but the depth of conversations around the future of art museums and how they can grow in new and different directions to authentically connect with those in their communities,” Norton-Westbrook says.

At MCAM, improving representation and diversity includes adding to and reframing the existing collection. MCAM already features a sizable number of female artists, but must consider “the content of our exhibitions and making sure that we’re centering women artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists,” says Director Stephanie Hanor. “So we’re really thinking about who’s here in our community, and making sure that all of that is represented in our exhibitions and our programs.”

Hanor continues: “It’s hard to feel welcome if you don’t see yourself somehow represented in what is being presented at a museum.”

Umpqua Valley Arts Association in Roseburg, Oregon, is a community arts organization with five gallery spaces for work from artists across the country. As exhibitions program director, Sandee McGee ’05 intentionally staffs her committees with a broad swath of artists to bring a range of experiences and perspectives to the table. She also works to find those the association hasn’t reached yet. “Our community is constantly changing,” she says. “It’s something we continually have to work on because it’s central to our programming.”

Mills’ semester-long museum studies workshop (taught by Hanor) offers students the opportunity to add to the museum’s permanent collection, working through the entire curatorial process— including acquisitions. In fall 2020, students acquired the work of artists including experimental composer, sonic architect, and performance artist Guillermo Galindo, MA ’93, whose work brings attention to humanitarian and sociopolitical issues. The resulting exhibition, Shifting Perspectives, also included works from MCAM’s permanent collection that the class cohort pulled because of their “contemporary [..] critiques of traditional visual representations of race, culture, and gender,” according to the program.

“Women’s Work is Never Done,” by Yolanda M. Lopez, was part of the Mills College Art Museum’s collection when students pulled it out of the archive for the Shifting Perspectives exhibition.

For Ellis Martin ’18, who now works in museums and archiving, the museum studies workshop was an invaluable opportunity. “It was sitting with my fellow classmates—all of us having different perspectives, insights, and ideas— coming together to try and put together a show with a really solid thesis that addressed [issues of representation],” he says. Hanor notes that students have become more interested in issues of diversity and representation over the past decade: “There’s sort of a sense of purity in museums, and to see that being opened up and examined in all sorts of ways I find really interesting.”

The Bay Area’s broad museum ecosystem makes it a particularly stimulating place to be a museum studies student or observer of museum culture. “There are academic museums, which have one way of approaching the world, and there are these big monolithic museums, which are probably slower to change. And there are lots of smaller scrappy, artist-run institutions that are also doing super interesting things,” Hanor says.

In addition, museums can be microcosms of the surrounding area by reflecting their communities. Recent exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), for example, have included Pacific Worlds, which combined items from the museum’s collection with contemporary California Pacific Islander artwork and voices; and the massive All The Power To The People highlighted the complex history of the Black Panthers through art, photography, and first-hand accounts.

Across the bay, SFMOMA has publicly struggled with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as the removal of accusations of racism made by a Black former employee on the museum’s Instagram account. In February 2021, Director Neal Benezra announced that he would step down from his role, but said the move was not related to issues of inequity or racism. In August 2021, the museum announced that it would cut several long-standing public art and film programs—a move that was widely criticized as a step backward in the museum’s ongoing accessibility issues.

As the interim director of the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, Lauren Baines, MFA ’15, considers community engagement and collaboration as essential elements for the future of museums. Working closely with locals and students from SCU, she encourages difficult conversations in order to decolonize the art world and create authentic partnerships. “We’re supposed to be a space about learning and questioning,” she points out. “How can we become transparent as we work to practice decolonization, to practice diversification, to practice equity?”

The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have given issues of staffing parity even more urgency. COVID-19 forced mass museum closures and furloughs—an October 2021 report found that 228 larger institutions laid off or furloughed more than 14,400 employees during the early stages of the pandemic, greatly affecting lower-paid museum workers, who are often members of underrepresented groups. (SFMOMA furloughed more than 300 staff members.) The same survey found that Black and Indigenous people of color and Hispanic/Latinx respondents placed more weight than white respondents on the barriers that may prevent them from remaining in the museum field, including compensation, opportunities for advancement, and discrimination.

Hanor and Norton-Westbrook both note a genuine industry-wide desire to improve racial and gender representation, though actually seeing change through to fruition can be painfully slow. Museums must navigate the needs of many stakeholders, including multi-layered governance structures, as well as the desires of donors and the influence of community. And while these power structures should be carefully examined for bias, it’s important to consider who’s actually at the table.

“The table should reflect the communities of which the museum is a part,” Norton-Westbrook says, adding that more women and people of color have come into positions of power at museums in recent years. “I worry sometimes about questioning that very structure at the moment when it finally seems to be allowing people who have been in a disadvantaged position a seat at the table.”

Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum, giving a recent tour of the museum’s stored works of art. Photo by Greer Rivera.

The language museums use is also important when considering representation, and it has a wide influence in how artwork is catalogued, searched for, and displayed. “It’s this negotiation between trying to do as much with a large amount of objects, while also not trying to ascribe language that is inappropriate, or no longer fits, or goes away from the choice of the artist,” Martin says, citing identifiers in the LGBTQIA+ community. Using nomenclature that’s been selected by community advocates would offer “clarity and a sense of holding language from people’s own perspectives, rather than an institutional perspective.”

Pamela McClusky ’75 spent some of her formative years in Africa, so it was only natural that she helped to create the African and Oceanic Art department at the Seattle Art Museum. “On the surface, people seemed accepting about it, but I heard that there were comments behind closed doors, saying that it wasn’t necessary,” she says. Now the department’s curator, she has tried to convince colleagues to accompany her on trips to broaden their horizons.

“A museum is like a found object,” Norton-Westbrook adds, citing the work of Palm Springs Art Museum Executive Director Adam Lerner. “And it can always grow and change, but it does have an essence of what it is. Museums are a product of society, and they bear all the problems that society has within their own internal dynamics.” Pandemic-related cuts aside, the issues of representation and equity are nothing new.

“Tracker” by Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti) was part of the Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future exhibition at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which was co-curated by Suzanne Newman Fricke ’89. Photo by Jason S. Ordaz.

Improving representation requires operational shifts at all levels. Professional associations such as the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, and the Association of Art Museum Curators are helping their memberships respond to societal changes through education with the goal of creating “a more vibrant and relevant museum culture that audiences are going to support now and in the future,” Norton-Westbrook says.

Nurturing students’ intellectual freedom at a collegiate level is also important in diversifying art museum narratives. Norton-Westbrook pointed to her own experience at Mills of pairing different objects to raise questions, highlight tensions, and analyze the relationships between works of art as crucial learning that has benefited her career.

Additionally, encouraging a variety of students to become involved can benefit the next generation of museum workers. MCAM has about a dozen student staff members and prioritizes diversity of experience within that group. “We really want policy students in here, creative writing students, history majors, or scientists,” Hanor says. “These perspectives are really important. And what we do at the museum speaks to larger issues in the world. Our students can see that as well.”

Regardless of the size or subject matter, museums play an important role as navigators of history. “It’s a very fine balance to strike: to tell history, to question that history, and also not to be bound by that history, because you’re also trying to create a new and different future,” Norton-Westbrook says.

“The flashlight is being shown, and things that felt very opaque in the past are becoming a little bit more public,” Hanor adds, saying that she has seen her students become increasingly excited about the ways museum culture is changing in real time. “Once their eyes are open to the fact that they can have some form of power in this and actually make a difference—and it’s not just an analysis of something happening somewhere else—that gets them excited.”

Since graduating from Mills, Suzanne Newman Fricke ’89 has worked to promote Native American work in a wider art world. As a curator, an adjunct professor at colleges including the University of New Mexico and the Institute for American Indian Arts, and the director of Gallery Hózhó at Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque, she highlights the work of Indigenous artists to counter stereotypes of Native art. The work isn’t just ancient pottery and baskets—it’s still being made by thriving communities today. “I’ve always thought that you can’t go back and drag people forward. But you can make a beacon in front of them and make them look forward,” she says.

When she entered the art world in the early 1990s, the academic study of Indigenous art was limited, and it was very much dominated by non-Natives. Fricke, who grew up in New Mexico, understands the awkwardness of her position. “Now that I have a chance to reflect, 30 to 40 years later, maybe I would have made a different choice,” she says. “There are more Native scholars now, but there are still problems—schools will hire someone, but they have no perception that the systems in place are going to work against these scholars.”

Over her time in the field, she has thankfully seen some evolution in what’s recognized as Indigenous art, from dreamcatchers and looted ceramics to newer bodies of work. For the last 10 or so years, Fricke has been involved in curating shows, including Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future for the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe. She is currently curating a show on the same topic for the Autry Museum in Los Angeles.