At a time when division is raw in American society, no sector should remain immune to self-reflection, or ignore the call to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Museums are no exception. Today, museums need to work to improve not only who feels welcome attending them, but also who works in them.

Mindful of this, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) launched the Diversity in Museum Leadership Initiative (DMLI) last November, in collaboration with 20 museums across the United States. The initiative aims to address the legacy of historic and pervasive inequity in American society as it relates to museum staffing in the arts. The primary focus of our collaboration is to support and develop qualified talent from underrepresented backgrounds. The goal of the initiative is to help American museums fulfill their promise of serving as inclusive “anchor” institutions in their communities.

DMLI builds on a 2015 report from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which sheds light on the underrepresentation of non-White ethnic and racial groups in museum staff, particularly in creative, educational, and leadership roles. It states that only 4 percent of staff are African American, and only 3 percent are Hispanic—both far below their representation in the overall population. The report suggests that greater representation of racially and ethnically diverse staff is critical to the long-term relevance and flourishing of museums, both in reflecting on and speaking to the ever-increasing diversity of American culture.

We also believe the lessons emerging from this initiative—particularly related to how the foundations and grantees have chosen to approach measuring and learning together—hold value for the broader social sector, not just art museums. Efforts to develop and place leadership talent from underrepresented backgrounds at cultural institutions and beyond share a common set of dynamics: the importance of networking, the challenges of mentoring when staff themselves are not representative of a participant’s  background, and of course how best to address financial needs, to name a few.

The project

In the summer of 2017, the Ford Foundation and the WFF partnered to contribute $6 million ($3 million each) toward advancing the diversity of curatorial and management leadership in art museums. Our approach is to strengthen the pipeline of talent coming into the field through K-12 education programs and postdoctoral fellowships. The initiative is supporting 11 new professional positions. It is also furthering the careers of 33 graduate and post-graduate museum professionals, providing internships and fellowships for 360 college students, and engaging more than 1,300 teenagers in museum studies and arts councils.

Once each foundation had committed to shared funding, a committee of advisers and program officers selected 20 proposals from museums for funding based on geographical breadth and cultural diversity.

Museums funded by the Diversity in Museum Leadership Initiative (DMLI). Click the image to enlarge.

The leadership programs supported by these grants—which range from less than $100,000 for smaller programs to more than $500,000, for up to three years—are as varied as the communities they serve. Some have been around for decades, and the organizations are supporting them in part to better understand their long-term impact, while others still need grantees to pilot and scale them. As an example of the former, the Romare Bearden Graduate Fellowship at the St. Louis Art Museum—established to develop young diverse talent for careers in art museums, galleries, and arts organizations—has been in place since 1992. As a DMLI grantee, the St. Louis Art Museum will implement the first formal evaluation of the program since its inception, and use its successes and lessons learned to create a blueprint for other museum programs. A newer program is the development of paid internships at the Art Institute of Chicago, which, in addition to financial support, will provide stronger mentoring and networking opportunities to aspiring professionals.

Funded DMLI programs also vary among themselves in their cultural scope and targeted age groups. For example, the museums at Fisk University in Nashville and Clark University in Atlanta affiliate with historically black universities, so their collections and programs have an African American focus, and the program at Wing Luke Museum in Seattle aims to improve opportunities for Asian and Pacific Americans in art museums. Other funded programs, such as the Teen Art Council at the Phoenix Art Museum, target diverse high school students to help lead community outreach efforts and gain exposure to the museum’s curatorial work.

Meanwhile, the grant to the Newark Museum supports a three-year undergraduate program for six participants integrating internship, externship, and mentoring opportunities with their academic progress toward degrees. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is receiving funding for two advanced post-baccalaureate fellowships focused on career development generally, as well as the curatorial, technical, and administrative skills necessary for art museum leadership. Finally, some museums are using funding for efforts across a range of ages, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which is supporting its own Teen Arts Council, as well as postsecondary internships and curatorial fellowships.

Thinking about impact across the portfolio, while preserving autonomy

After the selection process, program evaluation was delegated to our Strategy, Learning, and Evaluation Department at WFF. To get started, we met with foundation program staff, and each of the 20 DMLI grantees to develop a framework for evaluation and learning. Our goals were to come up with a shared vision of success for each project and to build a common evaluation framework that would generate lessons across the programs as a whole. We met with each grantee to help them develop their own frameworks for measuring success, ensure that those frameworks were appropriate and meaningful, and orient their proposed measures and evaluation practices toward internal ownership and long-term impact. Foundation staff asked that goals be measurable, specific, and ambitious but attainable.

With these standards in mind, the museums were responsible for considering how they would measure their goals and what they considered attainable over the next few years. We framed the measurement process in terms of learning, offering examples of both long-term visioning and useful short-term measurement. Most of the grantees had five types of measures in common:

  • Program participation
  • Program quality and engagement
  • Mentorship
  • Networking opportunities for participants
  • Alumni tracking beyond the programs themselves

Grantees’ evaluation plans varied in response to these measures. Some expanded on them, adding greater depth and detail in their evaluation of program quality and participant engagement, including surveys, interviews, and/or focus groups. The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), for example, committed to tracking participants’ awareness of arts careers through both pre- and post-program surveys throughout the year rather than just year-end. The Art Institute of Chicago meanwhile included measures of staff awareness and culture. Some evaluation proposals were more limited, in proportion to smaller grants or limited staff capacity. Finally, all grantees and foundation staff agreed that tracking program alumni deserved the greatest attention, since it is the ultimate indication of program impact—drawing diverse talent into art museums and seeing them choose careers in the field.

Learning questions for talent development in the arts

In our view, our role as evaluators is to facilitate, not own the knowledge. We don’t have the answers. We likely don’t even have all the questions at this stage. Instead, we aim to provide a framework for learning and support dialogue among grantees around that framework through convenings. Ultimately, this approach puts grantees into the driver’s seat, ensuring broadly distributed learning, surfacing of new questions, and collective ownership of lessons.

Nevertheless, a conceptual starting point is necessary. We see the unique programs our grantees are undertaking as a pipeline of potential museum talent—from first exposure to museum careers in middle and high school, to summer internships for undergraduates, to deep commitments by graduates. While our focus is on diverse students from under-represented backgrounds in museums, other organizations working on career exploration and development programs can easily apply this same framework.

One of the biggest questions we have in understanding this pipeline is: At what point is a well-designed program likeliest to significantly impact career trajectories for under-represented populations? While a program serving mature graduate students may have a high rate of career placement, limiting factors may screen out many promising leaders before then. At what point do interested students from underrepresented backgrounds decide for or against art museum careers, and at what point does a path effectively foreclose?

In summary, we aim to test and potentially revise the following hypotheses, through grantee learning and convenings:

  • To what extent does the success of the later stages of pipeline development depend on participants’ experiences earlier in life?  
  • Are the differences in commitment levels between stages of the pipeline associated with the likelihood of participants continuing to pursue careers in the arts?

Hopes for the future

As we see it, the long-term value of evaluating art museum programs and career pathways for under-represented students depends greatly on the value and meaning grantees themselves take from the project. Grantee ownership of evaluation and learning around these efforts is important; ideally, grantees will find enough internal value in the evaluation process to continue some of the same practices after the grant period has ended. The shared norms and structure we developed for grantees should support this learning. Our hope is that they should also provide actionable lessons both for art museums and, more broadly, cultural institutions prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in staffing and leadership. All of this should ultimately serve DMLI’s biggest goal: measurably increasing representation of individuals from under-represented backgrounds through a strengthened pipeline of talent. If we don’t see an increase in the coming years, then the initiative can claim only limited and qualified success.

In addition to supporting grantee capacity around evaluation, the initiative’s findings should have significant value beyond the grantees themselves, and beyond Ford and WFF. We believe the success of this initiative is important not just for those involved but for society more broadly. As Ford Foundation President Darren Walker has argued:

The arts play an essential role in our society by inspiring people of all ages to dream and to imagine new possibilities for themselves, their communities, and the world. To ensure the future health and vibrancy of the arts in America, we need more arts leaders who understand and relate to the deeply varied perspectives and life experiences that weave the rich fabric of our nation.