color of art: a debate on cultural diversity in museums
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.
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?
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.
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."
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
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
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."
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."