This week I had coffee with a former museum director, who spoke at length about his former museum’s Board of Directors. He said that when he began his tenure at the museum, the Board’s approach to finding new members was to invite their friends at the country club. For him, the challenge was to diversify the board: how do you add representatives of minority groups? How do you have a board that looks like the community you want to serve?
Diversification is certainly laudable. But the issue of looking like the community is somewhat misleading. Most museums nominate board members based on their ability to donate or find large sums of money. So when this director began to diversify his board, he looked for a wealthy African American board member. This former director’s museum is in a city where over 25% of the city is African American, and 40% of the city’s African Americans live below the poverty line. I am not convinced this audience is best represented by someone capable of donating tens of thousands of dollars to a museum.
While the push to reach out to communities that might not otherwise visit the museum is partly a marketing initiative, it also reflects an interest in museums as democratic spaces. We want museums to be places where everyone is welcomed. We want museums to be places of debate. We want museums to be places where disparate voices come together. If museums are truly to be democratic spaces, we need more democratic forms of governance. We need boards that can represent the range of communities served by our museums.
Museum blogger and consultant Gretchen Jennings has been writing about The Empathetic Museum. She argues that museums need to better understand and connect to their audiences. In one of her posts on this topic, Gretchen notes the lack of diversity among docents and staff. This lack of diversity is a serious problem for museums. But, ultimately, the power in a museum lies with the museum’s Board of Directors. They, too, need to represent their audience. And not just look like their audience, but actually represent the communities the museum draws or wants to draw visitors from. As long as the criteria for museum board members is their ability to fundraise, the board will represent a small, elite portion of potential visitors. And as long as the board represents a small, elite portion of potential visitors, a large segment of the potential audience will remain unconnected to, or even alienated from, the museum.
One final argument for diversifying boards: Many wealthy board members are successful business people. They know how to run a business. In running museums, they adapt this business model. Thus, museums are more and more often run like businesses. How might museums be managed differently if boards included community organizers, urban planners, or social scientists?
There are alternate models for non-profit boards. I have served on two working boards for small non-profits, for which the criteria was time rather than money. In the United Kingdom, non-profit board members are rarely expected to donate money. I have often wondered if any museums have experimented with rethinking their Board of Directors, so that it includes a significant number of members who do not donate, but rather advise and connect. If your museum does this, please share what you have done, and what the institutional impact is.