Gen X Loves Museums. Do Museums Love Us Back?

*Hat-tip to The Pinky Show for completing biting their title

I wrote a post for my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities, bemoaning the lack of racial diversity (for the lack of a better word) in museums, particularly in leadership positions. It’s not like I expected things to miraculously change in the two years since it was written, but I confess that in my heart of hearts burned the desire that the collective ship would have at least begun to recognize that it was hopelessly off-course and begun the process of righting itself.

But in keeping with my sailing theme, it seems that not only has the industry failed to find its way, it has been magnificently obstinate about remaining lost at sea. Expand diversity to include ethnic, gender and age differences, and it’s even worse.

Museums Need to Admit They Have Image Problems

My former museum gig involved (among way to many things to list here) sitting in a very public space and discussing educational programs, how they actually allow us to have art Kansas City (“Wow! I can’t believe this is the Midwest!”), and helping them find the bathroom (right next door). It was also a prime spot to observe visitors’ perceptions of that museum in particular and the industry in general.

I often heard variations of the following:

  • “I’m so glad to see you here.” This from black folks who appreciated the fact that I was in the building and operating in what seemed like a “professional” capacity (not food service, security, or maintenance.)
  • “Why is there nothing but old, white man art on the walls?”
  • “How come there’s no art by (insert ethnic/racial group here)?”
  • “I haven’t been here since the third grade. It just doesn’t feel like a place for me.”

The last bullet is particularly troubling. Why would someone feel this way? What vibe, overt or otherwise, is the museum projecting? Are museum leaders aware that people think this? Do they care?

Museums Need to Admit The World Has Changed

Much literal and virtual ink has been devoted to rapidly changing demographics, particularly in the United States.  It boils down to this: changes aren’t on the horizon, they are here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • U.S. population tripled during the last century, with the fastest growth among “minorities.”
  • In 2012, 50.4% of children in the U.S. under the age of 1 are of a “minority” group.
  • “Minorities” are expected to become the majority by 2042. Do the math, people. That’s 30 years.

Anyone who truly believes that the status quo can be sustained is misguided at best and delusional at worst. Your current and future visitors, students, and donors will expect to see themselves reflected in your trustees, staff, collections, and exhibitions. This may be a good time to revisit (or create) that diversity policy.

Museums Need to Admit They Give Gen X the Gas Face

The National Endowment for the Arts released a report called “Age and Arts Participation.” While it narrowed its focus on the Baby Boomers Cohort, their data showed that “Baby Busters” (defined as those born between 1966 – 1976) ranked second highest in art museum attendance. Obviously, you have fans in Gen X but as a whole you’re not checking for us, especially when it comes to hiring for leadership positions. If you want your museum to be truly progressive, consider the following:

  • Gen X is an untapped pool. We are highly educated, with 60% of us having some college education, yet we value experience as highly (if not more so) than formal education. We work more hours as a whole, love flexibility, and base our career choices on the potential for skill development and continuing education.
  • Gen X is your next board of trustees.  We are the most diverse generation alive, with less than two-thirds of its population reporting as White non-Hispanic. The U.S. Census reports that 29% of immigrants are aged 29 to 40.
  • Gen X is adaptable.  We are independent, adept at problem-solving and securing coalitions of the willing. While our foundation is in the early pre-information era, we came of age during the rise (and fall) of the dot-coms, and are well-versed in technological innovation. Connectivity is a key value, and given the proper due, we will become your biggest cheerleaders.

I  believe there’s more than enough room for Gen X at the table. Museums just have to offer us a seat.

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