Ithaka Report Offers Equity Best Practices

A new report from Ithaka S+R looks at eight case studies of best practices and methods for addressing institutional challenges around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). While the cultural institutions profiled are art museums, the authors suggest that these studies hold relevant, and applicable, lessons for libraries.

A new report from Ithaka S+R published on September 20, “Interrogating Institutional Practices in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Lessons and Recommendations from Case Studies in Eight Art Museums,” looks at eight case studies of best practices and methods for addressing institutional challenges around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). While the cultural institutions profiled are art museums, the report's coauthors—Ithaka Libraries and Scholarly Communication analyst Liam Sweeney and Roger C. Schonfeld, director of the Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums Program—suggest that these studies hold relevant, and applicable, lessons for libraries.

As part of an ongoing series of demographic studies of cultural and academic organizations, in 2015 Ithaka S+R partnered with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and American Alliance of Museums (AAM) to conduct a survey of the staff of North American art museums. The data, collected from 77 percent of AAMD members, revealed that museum employees, particularly “intellectual leadership positions”—senior administrators and education, curatorial, and conservation staff—are predominantly white and “not remotely representative” of the populations they serve.

“In a rapidly changing country, a lack of diversity on the staff responsible for developing collections and programs inevitably affects a museum’s ability to understand the interests, contributions, and needs of its public, whether locally or on a national level,” wrote Sweeney and Schonfeld in their foreword to the new report. “As art museums are public amenities that can bring significant benefit to those who participate in their programs, this condition is both a challenge of social justice and of long-term institutional relevance and health.”

 

IDENTIFYING SUCCESSFUL EDI WORK

Since the 2015 survey’s publication, many museums have stepped up to address EDI challenges through programs, collection development, community engagement, partnerships, and board development. In order to offer a more detailed picture of what’s being done—and what’s working—Ithaka S+R’s research team, in partnership with the Mellon Foundation and AAMD, decided to produce an in-depth, qualitative study of representative museums.

"The quantitative work is really important for establishing baselines that are…well understood, but often are not documented in as clear a way as we believe is important to drive forward further discussion on these topics, [and] moreover to provide a baseline from which change—hopefully positive change—can be measured,” Schonfeld told LJ.

Researchers identified 20 museums at which one-quarter of the intellectual leadership staff are people of color—a “relatively substantial presence” in the current demographic climate. The framework for successful EDI efforts included not only staff diversity, explained Schonfeld, but also board diversity, programming, audience engagement, and how museums reach communities that have not historically engaged with them. Ithaka conducted a series of site visits and interviews to determine what those institutions had done to bring about equitable change, as well as the challenges they faced in the process, and ultimately identified eight to serve as case studies: the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Detroit Institute of Arts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Spelman College Museum, Atlanta; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

During 2017, Schonfeld and Sweeney spent three to four days at each, conducting between 12 and 20 interviews with staff at varying levels of seniority across different departments, as well as with external partners. They also attended public events and cross-departmental meetings.

 

RELEVANCE FOR LIBRARIES

The case studies were published on the three partners’ websites, and featured at a session at AAMD’s annual conference in May. Schonfeld and Sweeney synthesized findings across the studies into a capstone report, connecting themes among various institutions, so they can serve as a road map for other institutions—in particular, they noted, libraries.

“There are a lot of findings here about running cultural organizations that are probably relevant to all kinds of libraries,” Schonfeld told LJ. “There's a lot about community engagement here for a broad, municipal public [institution].”

As is the case for many libraries, museums are moving beyond a focus on collections and thinking more about outreach and education. For all the report’s participating institutions, effecting both internal and external change required finding new ways to engage with communities that may not have traditionally seen themselves reflected in the institution’s culture, and went beyond simply hiring more employees of color. Each of the featured cities, noted Sweeney, have histories of racial tension. “So the nature in which these museums have engaged or have not engaged with those histories, and the disenfranchisement of a lot of communities in those cities, became really central as well to understanding the trajectory that the museums have had."

In some cases, engaging with controversy helped drive institutional change. When a 2014 ad campaign for the Warhol Museum offended members of the African American community, for example, leadership invited local artists and activists who had spoken out to enter into a dialog with museum staff. The resulting conversation led to an ongoing program, supported by the museum, that provides funds for Pittsburgh artists to produce and exhibit their work. The often politically charged artwork, in turn, inspired a community forum on police brutality hosted by the museum. The end result “served as a powerful venue for trying to bridge the wide gaps in social issues in a way that I think everyone at the museum became very proud of,” Sweeney told LJ.

 

ACCOUNTABLE EDI

Many of the museums profiled strengthened their equity framework by refining organizational structure—another powerful suggestion for libraries, Schonfeld noted, including redefining job qualifications, building employee teams to be more inclusive, growing mentoring and internship programs, and increasing diversity in board governance.

“Certainly for public libraries [the report holds] a lot about organizational structure and how to bring values into that work, and how to think about internal alignment across the organization, so that it's not just about stating a value but really about bringing that value to implementation."

Leaders who embody the values of EDI are key to bringing the rest of the museum—or library—on board, Sweeney told LJ. “As the leader you indicate what the institutional values and the priorities are, and you explain to all of your staff that they are given a green light to integrate these values into their work.”

However, as in a recent study on the impact of Chief Diversity Officers at academic institutions, which shows that executive-level diversity positions alone don’t significantly increase diversity among faculty, Ithaka’s study bears out the need for organization-wide accountability.

At Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, diversity initiatives originally reported to the head of marketing, making all equity work a single department’s responsibility—and thus effectively allowing others to internalize the idea that it wasn’t their job. When current director Madeleine Grynsztejn took the helm, she implemented a new model, pairing staff from various departments with board members to work on specific issues; this created momentum on the board for engaging with issues as well. All EDI work ultimately reported to Grynsztejn. “The fact that it reported to the director meant that everyone in the museum understood that this is an institutional priority, [not] a side track," Sweeney noted.

Waiting to diversify collections and programming until someone who fits the bill has been hired can also present barriers to action. “There was a lot of resistance from the museums I talked to about that kind of approach,” he pointed out, “because it can be treated as an excuse to focus on the order of operations of how to bring diversity equity and inclusion into the institution, rather than what we found—which was that you have to push in all directions simultaneously, and it's never really clear how specifically one kind of success reinforces or leads to or supports another." 

Establishing EDI as everyone’s priority empowers staff at all levels to act. “A leader can't do all that work themself,” Sweeney told LJ. “You have to signal to your staff that this is an institutional priority and then rely on the champions of this work at various levels in the institution to all come up with a great idea for how they're going to expand access, how they're going to develop a new software program that's going to make the blind able to access text.... In any number of directions you activate your staff to start getting creative about how they implement the values of this institution."

Schonfeld and Sweeney also pointed to a recent EDI assessment conducted by DeEtta Jones and Associates for Evanston Public Library, IL, in the wake of calls to address racial disparities within the library. The assessment revealed a desire for more library presence in underserved neighborhoods—primarily Evanston’s Fifth Ward. This wish for institutional engagement that goes beyond programming or collections to connect all facets of the institution’s work was a key piece of EDI best practices across Ithaka’s study.

"What I took away...was the need to get away from thinking about ‘here's our list of services’ to ‘here are the genuine ways that we're engaging’—not asking the community to reach into us, but 'here's how we are reaching out to this community that we're here to serve,'" said Schonfeld. "One of the insights…was how closely connected efforts to engage the community and efforts to diversify the employees of the organization can be.”

He added, “There might not be a quick fix, but remaking the organization to serve the community is so essential."

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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