Like many of America’s institutions, art museums have largely left out the contributions of African Americans, women and other people of color, their permanent exhibits generally filled with the works of white men. The racial makeup of the executive staff and boards of these museums traditionally also has been very homogeneous and, therefore, the thinking very white centered.
Baltimore’s two largest museums are confronting and acknowledging this one-dimensional past that essentially treated whole populations as if they were invisible and made no contribution to the art world. Baltimore is a city that is more than 60% Black, but those residents couldn’t find much of themselves in its museums even today. That must change, but the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum are not just focusing on the paintings on the walls or the sculptures on the pedestals, they’re addressing how their hiring and wage practices have contributed to larger societal racial inequities, as well.
The two museums are raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour for security guards and other low-paid employees, many of whom are people of color. Fifty staffers at the BMA and 31 full-time employees at the Walters are eligible for the boost in pay. Thirteen part-time workers at the Walters will also receive an increase to $13 an hour. In total, about 30% of the employees from both museums will have a little more in their paychecks to take care of their families, with each increase paid for, in part, by donations.
Such initiative goes far beyond hosting the occasional traveling or temporary exhibits of Black artists that rotate through museums — typical token diversity initiatives — and represents a good start at the challenging task of changing the culture in the art world. It dives head first into one of the root causes of racial inequities: economic injustice that keeps African Americans in a perpetual cycle of poverty. A $15 an hour minimum wage certainly won’t make these workers rich (for a 40-hour workweek, it adds up to just $31,200 a year), but it helps. Both institutions would have been required to eventually raise the wages under state law, but the early adoption shows they get the importance of addressing the long-standing issue sooner rather than later.
The museums don’t plan to stop there, and they should not. Their permanent collections need to better represent the diversity of the country, something both museums admit. At the BMA, 96% of its 95,000 pieces of art are by men, predominantly white. (Most aren’t on display because of sensitivity to light). The Walters doesn’t have an exact accounting of the diversity of its works because, officials say, the time period of the art — which spans seven millennia, from 5000 BCE to the 21st century, and encompasses 36,000 objects from around the world — makes it difficult. Among the things they aim to do is uncover those who contributed to the art, but weren’t given credit for it, and to better determine origin in the future.
Both museums have made efforts to diversify their art collections, with more plans in the works. The Walters recently incorporated pieces from Philadelphia potter Robert Lugo, who’s of Puerto Rican descent, in its permanent collection and collaborated with other artists of color, including performance artist Nicoletta de la Brown and interdisciplinary artist Krystal Mack. Representatives say they are also working to increase staff to put more investment in women and minority-owned firms.
The push for diversity doesn’t always come with fans, however. BMA Director Chris Bedford, in particular, has been criticized for pushing the envelope in the name of fair representation. In 2018, the BMA sold seven works by white men to pay for the acquisition of contemporary art by women and people of color, and a year later, it declared that the museum would only acquire works by women in the following year. Another effort last year to sell significant works in the BMA collection, including Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” to raise funds for equity and inclusion efforts was scuttled after public backlash.
Mr. Bedford acknowledged last week that the full scope of change needed isn’t likely to occur in his lifetime. But that won’t deter him from pushing forward, he says. We applaud his efforts and those at the Walters. The rewards are worth the fight.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.