The lack of Black and Indigenous people and people of color in curatorial and leadership positions at major art institutions has been well known for close to a decade. An oft-cited survey published by the Mellon Foundation in 2018, following up on a similar one from 2015, found that 16 percent of curatorial roles were held by people of color. Some museums took the survey to heart and began implementing changes, starting with appointing a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Others, however, were slower on the uptake, and increasingly found themselves combating a problem created by people in positions of power: due to a lack of significant investment in the mentorship of arts professionals of color, the pool of candidates with prior experience in an arts institution—which was small to begin with—had gotten even smaller.
“Then came the summer of 2020,” said Tory Clarke, “and some of these organizations were kicking themselves that they hadn’t moved faster, because now it looks like a knee-jerk reaction.”
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Clarke is a partner and cofounder of Bridge Partners, a minority-owned executive search firm that over the past 18 years has quietly emerged as one of the preeminent search firms for diversity hires in the arts and culture industry. Clarke believes that in order to find leadership talent now, museums must look beyond the assumption that prior museum experience is needed—and two of her recent placements prove the point: Alphonso Atkins Jr., the first-ever Philadelphia Museum of Art DEI officer, joined the museum from the University of South Carolina Upstate, where he was chief diversity officer and special assistant to the school’s chancellor for equity and inclusion, and Lavita McMath Turner, the first chief diversity officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was recruited from the City University of New York network.
“The standard position [taken by employers] is an expectation of prior museum experience because the assumption is that the person needs to understand exhibition or curatorial operations to be successful,” Clarke said. “But very few arts organizations prior to two years ago had DEI leadership, narrowing your pool of candidates to less than five people—and everybody in 2019 and 2020 wants those people.”
Clarke and Larry Griffin, a longtime leader in the recruitment industry, founded Bridge Partners in 2003 with a mission of diversity recruitment initially in the for-profit sector: CEOs, executive directors, board members, and more, at companies like Barnes & Noble, Estée Lauder, and Starbucks. Some of their clients occupy board seats at philanthropic foundations, and from these positions of power, a few became discomfited by the homogeneity at the table. Around 2007, a client and board member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation approached them for help diversifying the organization’s leadership. Nonprofit consultation was smoothly added to the firm’s repertoire. It was nearly another decade, however, before they broke into museums and other art institutions.
Clarke, who has a background in art history, described early meetings with arts organizations as a series of starts and stops, tepid interest that heated up around 2016, a year after that first Mellon study. In one of the earliest cases, the Newark Museum of Art sought help building a leadership team that reflected the city’s residents, over half of whom identify as Black.
“I started considering inclusion before the start of what I call ‘the second pandemic,’ the moral pandemic of racial inequity,” said Newark Museum of Art director and CEO Linda Harrison. She first contacted Bridge Partners during the search for a new chief financial officer, traditionally one of the least diverse positions in the arts and culture sector.
“As a Black leader of a major museum, and coming from the corporate world, I have often been that only person of color in the room or on the team. It’s a tough position. The job is already hard, and now you’re working extra hard because you have to deal with these additional issues,” Harrison said. “Of the search firms we talked with, Bridge Partners seemed the most sensitive to that.” In 2019, Bridge Partners helped Harrison recruit Sayaka Araki, who’d worked for New York’s Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum as CFO and deputy director of infrastructure.
Newark does have a manager of inclusion initiatives—Natasha Baruah, who was recruited internally—but her position was designed with an emphasis on collaboration: a task force comprising staff from each department regularly meet to plan events like workshops on unconscious bias and listening sessions. That way, said Harrison, it’s not “just on people of color to correct a museum’s wrongs.”
“I’m of course pro-hiring people of color as diversity officers,” Harrison continued, “but that is not the only place we should be seeing people of color in a museum. If we are really going to break down institutional racism and open the door on equity, we can’t expect one diversity officer to come in and save the day. We need to spread the work throughout the organization.”
Bridge Partners isn’t the only firm counseling museums on change. Sarah James, a consultant at Phillips Oppenheim, one of the preeminent search firms in the art and culture sector, said there are new expectations for museums. “The younger generation of museumgoers and workers expects equity, parity—for their museum to be an aspirational place.” Recruiters like James and Clarke say that in finding matches for highly desirable candidates, they make sure that institutions are committed to equity in the longterm, and that the trustees and directors will invest time and money into professional development.
Even as institutions move toward redressing systemic inequities, they are having to examine how they hire. This past February, Charles Venable, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, stepped down after widespread criticism of a high-level job posting that referred to a mandate to “…attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience…” Clarke said her team advises throughout the hiring process and helps HR shape job postings—suggesting, for example, that prior museum experience, while welcome, is optional—to attract the widest range of candidates.
Bridge Partners, itself a diverse company, also tries to ensure that the interview panel—which often conducts multiple rounds—includes staff members of color. It has become apparent in recent years that having people of color in decision- and policy-making positions makes a big difference. Under Sandra Jackson-Dumont, director and CEO of the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, six women of color were appointed to leadership roles across its curatorial, events, and educational departments. Mentorship programs also help underrepresented individuals find support from professionals who understand their struggle and share their lived experience. In theory, it also helps create a pipeline into employment for groups historically excluded from professional opportunities. The Guggenheim, for example, launched an internship program in 2017 for New York City high school students to receive a stipend while they work at the institution.
While employers are generally receptive to her advice, Clarke said she always prepares for pushback, which is inevitably part of the job of dispelling assumptions about who has the potential to excel in an institutional setting. The firm advocates for skill sets that stress collaboration, education, and strategic thinking. However inadvertently, their clients sometimes expect a reflection of themselves.
“But that’s why we have a homogeneous leadership profile in many major institutions across the Western world,” Clarke said. “Because people tend to orient toward their comfort zone—what [they’ve] always known.”
A version of this article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Mind the Gap.”