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image: Campus NewsThe color of art: a debate on cultural diversity in museums
Chicago has perhaps the largest number of 'ethnic' museums in the country," said Lawrence Rothfield, faculty director of the U of C's Cultural Policy Center (CPC), at an April 18 roundtable launching the center's spring workshop series, Cultural Policy and the Minority Question. While small museums are most committed to culturally rich exhibitions, it's larger museums-which may only marginally address minority issues-that receive public funds for diversity programs. "It isn't clear how [small ethnic museums] can survive," said Rothfield, associate professor of English language & literature and comparative literature.

An interdisciplinary initiative of the Humanities Division and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy, the CPC assembled about 25 members of the University community and a variety of Chicago citizens for the roundtable of city museum professionals. The question at hand: do museum display practices adequately reflect Chicago's diversity?

Theme exhibitions do, agreed several panelists, and they're the most effective way for mainstream museums to integrate the art of diverse cultures. "Exhibits are the most symbolic means of representation [of minority voices]," said Rosa Cabrera of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change at the Field Museum, which consults with the Field on exhibition content. The Mu- seum of Contemporary Art (MCA) made space for minority voices last fall by removing parts of its permanent collection to mount the exhibition Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945- 1994-a decision that upset some trustees but underscored the museum's commitment to diversity, said MCA curator Sylvia Chivaratanond.

But, in general, mainstream museums' efforts to represent minorities, argued Carlos Tortolero, executive director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, have had little impact. For these institutions, Tortolero said, "diversity is not a priority."

The major problems facing both ethnic and mainstream institutions, Tortolero stated, are minimal funding for diversity programs and a lack of staff diversity. Since Tortolero founded the museum 18 years ago in the largely Latino Pilsen neighborhood on an initial $900 budget, it has become the nation's largest Latino institution with a budget of $3.6 million. Other ethnic museums, he said, are not so lucky. And while they struggle to stay afloat, larger museums-such as Chicago's Muse- ums in the Park, a group of nine publicly funded museums including the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum-do get funding for diversity projects.

The staff-diversity problem, suggested artist Gregory Sholette, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, may be traced back to the elite art schools, where future artists and curators get their start and which, he said, fail to create opportunities for minority students. The Art Institute's classrooms are woefully homogenous because, he argued, the school is "not dedicated to diversity."

Noting that the staffs of well-funded mainstream museums-and major cultural institutions in general, including the U of C-are largely white, Tortolero blamed "racism." Panelists and audience members bristled, and several Chicago professors took on Tortolero's charge. "The big question is whether museums-and universities-are doing all they can to integrate their staff and faculty," Rothfield said. "Race cannot trump all other considerations in hiring decisions, and the underintegration of institutions is a result not of racism but of the structural inequities in the education system that supplies curators and professors for the museum and academic job market."

How can policy help museums find solutions? asked Carroll Joynes of the Cultural Policy Center. It can start by providing hard numbers, Rothfield replied. Museum professionals currently have no data on diversity in museum staffs and boards. "Policy research," Rothfield concluded, "can help by bringing forward the facts, offering models that can explain how the labor markets for staff are structured or how boards choose their members, and by identifying tools that could be used to make diversity a reality rather than cheap talk."
-A.W.



 

 


  JUNE 2002

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