By: Peter Linett

March 14, 2023

Photo courtesy of IMLS/National Press Club. From left, Crosby Kemper, IMLS Director; Zannie Voss, Director of SMU DataArts; and Peter Linett, Co-founder & Catalyst of Slover Linett Audience Research.

A few weeks ago I was in DC for a gathering of a hundred or so leaders from around the museum field, organized by the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services. I’d been invited to join a keynote conversation with IMLS’s director, Crosby Kemper, and Zannie Voss, director of SMU DataArts.

Our theme was supposed to be, “What Does the Data Tell Us About Our Present and Future,” and we did a little of that. But we ended up in a wide-ranging conversation that, for me at least, was about trying to recognize the creative, courageous work of the folks sitting at all the tables in that room — almost all community-centered practitioners and changemakers, any one of whom I’d have loved to hear a keynote from. (Kudos to Laura Huerta Migus, IMLS’s deputy director on the museum side, for curating such a great group.)

Crosby, who in his role has interviewed and shared podiums with major authors, poets, artists, and thinkers, was a thoughtful and curious moderator and easily rolled with it when Zannie or I pushed back against the premise of some of his questions. Zannie, whom I’ve known for years and is one of the brightest lights in the cultural research field, brought both wisdom of her own and a humble interest in hearing what others had seen and learned in their own contexts. (In other words, a real researcher.)

But the pleasure and value of being there was in reconnecting with old colleagues and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, and meeting new people from around the country doing the work of reclaiming, rebalancing, and rebuilding the museum field on more equitable and community-centered principles. More than a few of those conversations were galvanizing for me, and I hope some will lead to new collaborations.

Here a few thoughts and observations from those two stimulating days:

  1. Belatedly and deservedly, lots of attention is being paid to what we sometimes call arts organizations of color (or museums of color) and sometimes still call “culturally specific” museums and arts organizations. (On one panel, Magdalena Garcia, founder of El Museo Latino called these “first voice” museums, which I love.) The attention has to do with the fact that those organizations have community purposes and identities as their missions and founding principles; they didn’t come fashionably late to those purposes, as many large, predominantly white cultural institutions have. Remarkably, those community-specific, locally engaged (and in some cases also very much nationally engaged) enterprises have accomplished so much despite vast imbalances of funding and other resources, and in many cases despite the direct effects of racism in their cities and communities. As one attendee put it (I think this was Joël Tan, director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, but forgive me if it was someone else at the breakout session), they’ve had to spend a great deal of protective energy, while some other institutions have had the luxury of spending mostly creative energy.

    One problem with all the attention is that the skills, practices, mindsets, and community trust that organizations of color have worked so hard to develop are now in demand at larger, historically white-led and white-serving institutions. So the smaller organizations are losing talented staff, often to organizations that can pay higher salaries. Another problem is that many large museums and arts institutions are now being funded more generously to do the kinds of community work that smaller and culturally specific organizations have long done, leading to competition and a sense of intrusion or extraction among longtime community practitioners. (Are both unintended consequences of philanthropy? Program officers take note.)

  2. Tsione Wolde-Michael is a brilliant choice by the White House to lead the newly reconstituted President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. Tsione gave a brief but inspiring talk about her hopes for the Committee and her own work in restorative history and international cultural diplomacy, describing herself as a public historian and “proud product of Black museums”: she helped create the core exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and was curator of African American social justice at the National Museum of American History (both Smithsonian museums). When she enthused that Biden’s order re-forming the Committee, which was co-drafted by the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, “is historic in its focus on equity and inclusion,” no one in the room doubted that she would put those words into vivid, powerful action. Stay tuned, because members of the Committee will be announced by the White House soon.
  3. As Zannie mentioned on our panel, she and her DataArts team have conducted research and analysis that clearly ties “community orientation” to stronger economic performance by arts organizations of all kinds. And when they went back to take a deeper look at how arts organizations of color thrive and change, they found even stronger evidence that community-based, community-serving priorities, coupled with high quality programs, are crucial to a healthy, sustainable operation. Tell that to your board members!
  4. A number of the leaders I talked with in the hallways spoke passionately about the need for research in their domains: children’s museums, African American museums, culturally specific museums as a whole, university-based arts initiatives, etc. Those conversations helped me see that research for the purposes of advocacy isn’t a bad thing — in fact, is a necessary catalyst for systems change. I’d always been suspicious of research undertaken with advocacy in mind, e.g. those economic impact and public-opinion surveys from Americans for the Arts, because the need to prove how great and valuable things are can prevent the study from revealing what needs to improve and change. But the people I spoke with aren’t looking for advocacy for the status quo; they need research in support of  their activist, ongoing projects of reclaiming, healing, and change in their communities and fields. And “in support of” doesn’t just mean “show the world how great we’re doing.” It also means “show us where we can do better.” That’s research I would love to do.

My deepest thanks to Crosby, Laura, and the whole IMLS staff for inviting me to that gathering. It was an honor to share that mic and have those conversations. If you were there and want to share your thoughts or follow up, email me.

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