Last week at the American Alliance of Museums Virtual meeting, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Secretary Lonnie Bunch, and Lori Fogarty discussed the protests that have erupted across the country and around the world, in order to start a dialogue about the museum’s role in confronting structural racism in America. Since the reignition of Black Lives Matter protests by George Floyd’s murder, many museums have released statements of solidarity with the movement. Dr. Cole said of this phenomenon, “I barely open my contraption before I see another statement by another corporation, by another museum, by another individual. I mean, it’s like, ‘Did these folks just find their voice? Have they never had anything to say before this?’ But they’re speaking now. I am hearing language that I used to only hear in the Black community.” Dr. Cole articulates an uncertainty about not only the authenticity of these statements, but the organizational ability to follow through. Is there reason to hope that the cultural field will be changed by this movement? Or do these statements simply reflect a momentary shift in the public’s attention?

The consensus was cautiously hopeful that this movement does feel different. Lori Fogarty acknowledged that the first step towards progress is internal, toward cultivating an awareness of systemic racism: “The entire system and structure of this country has been built on racism. And that is what systemic racism is. It is the laws, the structures, the roles, the government, property ownership, every facet of our life. Museums have been built on that power of white people over people of color and particularly Black people.” Secretary Bunch insisted that museums are more able than most institutions to “define reality” in the sense that museums poll as the most trusted institutions in the US and they are able to deliver cultural narratives to major audiences. During the COVID pandemic the cultural field has suffered and craved a return to normalcy. But while returning to normal would have been miraculous in May, now it would be considered a failure. 

How to avoid such a failure? As the speakers made clear, anything short of participating in the transformation of our broken, racist system of detainment and policing will not be enough. To this end, museums should not be afraid of making tokenistic gestures through PR statements. They should be afraid of those statements remaining tokenistic due to inaction. The first step is always tokenistic, it is made authentic by the second, third, fourth step. 

The process Lori Fogarty outlined is, in fact, four steps: Statement, Strategy, Outcomes, Transparency. Of course, listening skills are critical in crafting one’s approach to each of these stages, though listening is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Should museums listen selectively to voices that ask little of cultural institutions? Is the museum relieved that this week the protests aren’t at their own door, as they have been on occasion over the last few years? Or do they listen to the voices in the streets and ask what meaningful contribution can be made? This might look like the difference between tweaking wall labels versus running programs that support and make space for those who are victims of the carceral system. 

At protests over the last two weeks there have been calls for defunding the police. Will museums connect their statements of solidarity more deeply with these kinds of demands? This depends in part on how museums listen to and understand them. At the moment, museums are responding in a range of ways. To be sure, some are trying to maintain a neutral political stance, as was recently the case with Toledo Museum of Art. Others, though, work to express solidarity with protestors as part of a vision of ending state violence towards a more peaceful, more just society. That vision can be advanced through well developed models for restorative justice, mental health care reform, decriminalization of non-violent offenses, and direct democracy at the community level. 

Certain cultural organizations have experimented with community programming in these directions. Take, for instance, the Brooklyn Museum and the New Museum, which have partnered with the Center for Court Innovation to run a diversion program called Project Reset for community members who have received court summons for low level misdemeanors. Through this program, these museums have diverted hundreds of individuals away from the courts, using art education as a community building tool. 

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has partnered with academic researchers to better understand the impact of art on mental health, wellness, and empathy by establishing the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts. This work is a strong starting point for museums to consider how they can contribute to fixing the mental health care system in the United States. Unlike many other countries, police in the United States are often called on to manage mental health crises, which they are not trained or equipped for. How might museums find a way to offer preventative support, or care for those living independently with mental illness, in order to contribute to healing and strengthen ties with local communities?

The Brooklyn Public Library is engaging its visitors in a civic exercise called the 28th Amendment Project, allowing Brooklyn residents to workshop the US Constitution, exploring what should be added and what should be removed. The project aims to engage library users throughout the borough in a collective negotiation process that will result in critique, revision, compilation, and ratification by participants. 

For these types of efforts to evolve and expand across institutions, development departments will need to conceive of the museum’s financial sustainability in relation to their role in addressing and supporting crucial social needs. Secretary Lonnie Bunch is optimistic on this front, saying, “As I reach out to the corporate community and the foundation community, this is the moment where they’ll step up to support these kinds of initiatives. What they’re asking is ‘Show me this [program] matters, show me this is transformative, show me that this helps us move as a nation.’ I think this is a horrible time. Financially we’re all struggling, we’re all trying to find the right models. But I do believe that as we reimagine and restate our commitment to fairness, there are resources out there that will support us.” Evidence of this trend can be seen in the recent announcement that the Ford Foundation is increasing its giving from six percent of its total endowment to ten percent. Many other foundations are following suit. If indeed corporations and foundations are willing to open their wallets for initiatives that align with the collective grievances of those fighting for change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, museums should establish the necessary partnerships and make the necessary investments to connect their financial sustainability with the health of their communities. This can be done, in Bryan Stevenson’s words, by “getting proximate” to the pain that is driving these protests, and finding paths towards healing.