Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Ethics Recommendations Museums Can Implement Right Now

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With President Biden now in office, the art world is vocalizing ways the federal government can save museums and the arts from the crises precipitated by the pandemic. However, the pandemic did not create these crises. Rather, it revealed and compounded existing problems. Prior to the pandemic, the art world was inundated with a series of scandals that led to the resignations of several directors and trustees. Museums were forced to respond one by one, a separate set of protests for the removal of each board member or trustee. These situations demonstrate that museums only respond to public calls for change when indignation reaches its peak, and their struggle to respond to calls for change have grown increasingly frequent this past year.

The stresses caused by COVID-19 and a tumultuous year have further highlighted systemic ethical misconduct and deep-rooted problems around race, gender, and socioeconomic class. The sharp contrast between museum boards, comprised of “ultra-high net worth individuals” and the layoffs of nearly 50% of museum employees during the COVID-19 related closures alone lay bare these deep socioeconomic tensions.

Museum stimulus packages presented as “solutions” can only ever be temporary unless museums address larger systemic issues. We recommend museums and their stakeholders address – fix – these issues by implementing three basic transparency measures. Museums have the incentive to put transparent ethics into action. We have outlined three meaningful transparency measures to help museums commit to a more ethical and equitable future, as foundations for institutional accountability and responsibility. The public should demand nothing less:

1. Institute transparent performance and payment metrics.

Executive salaries and promotion criteria should be transparent. Museums should work towards implementing transparency of compensation and benefits for their entire pool of talent, including employees, interns, freelancers, contingent, and part-time employees.

Museums cannot ignore transparency since the digitally connected world increasingly generates it on its own. In 2019, 1,900 museum employees shared their salary and other pertinent details in a publicly viewable Google document to highlight unfair wages and cultivate solidarity among coworkers to address this injustice. 

2.   Publish an annual diversity report. 

Museums should publish an annual diversity review that includes statistics, analysis, and strategy on hiring, development, and retention across protected classes with an intersectional lens on board members, staff, interns, and freelancers. Diversifying museum workplaces makes financial sense – studies have shown a correlation between increased diversity and greater financial performance. Museums should also assemble boards with a mind to driving global dialogue across audiences by increasing age, racial, gender, and vocational diversity in boards

3.   Make the process of vetting board members transparent.

Museums should publicly share criteria and strategies for selecting board members such as diversity and inclusion metrics and name the industries their board members operate in as part of due-diligence management. It is not easy to avoid conflicts of interest when art professionals combine their governing museum positions with other roles in the art world. Can a climate change denier be a board member of a science museum? What happens if board members streamline their private collections to museum acquisitions in order to profit from institutional career support? Clear criteria on how museums should vet their boards will help museums navigate an ethically driven work culture.

In conclusion: Museums must demonstrate their responsibility as public institutions and cultural bellwethers. Afterall, museums serve as lighthouses for the public art world, archiving and protecting the greatest of our material culture. We can all pressure museums to integrate the above transparency measures into operating practices and collectively set an industry standard of transparency. Large oversight groups like the AAM and AAMD can play an instrumental leadership role through collective goal setting of transparency protocols for their members.

Museums that are ethically minded will not only engage broader audiences, they will also gain board members who are more loyal to the institution, stakeholders who are more motivated to contribute, and, consequently, a budget that can weather the current climate, as well as future crises. Ultimately, museums that fail to respond to the ethical demands of our present age do so at their own peril.  

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