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The Atlantic ran an article about how museums are having to deal with questions about equity and representation in their programming that are posed by both external and internal constituencies.
The content of the article is pretty much applicable to every arts and cultural organization, regardless of discipline because the root of the problem seems to be the process by which programming decisions are made.
The collection departments at museums don’t tend to engage with the educational staff—who help interpret exhibitions by organizing lectures and seminars that can enhance public understanding of a display’s importance—until too late. “When I was first in the art-museum world as an educator, we were presented exhibitions after they had been curated and decided upon,” she said. “And then it was our job to figure out how to teach from those exhibitions. How the content mattered, how relevant it was to our community, all those decisions were made outside my office.”
In that sense, context enters the conversation at the end of the decision-making process. And even when educators are involved, they can sometimes focus too much on scholarship—as with the “White Gold” exhibit—trapping museums in a cycle of overemphasizing academics and underemphasizing analysis in a racial and historical context, leading to misguided exhibitions. “What curatorial processes could benefit from are open-ended questions rather than setting out theses to prove,” Bradley said.
This basic scenario has long existed across arts and cultural disciplines. This is part of what people are referencing when they discuss silos in organizations. A programming decision is made by one group and then another group is tasked with marketing it to some segment of the community. What this does is put those who weren’t involved in the decision making in the position of reverse engineering a rationale for the value of the programming and trying to make it stick. A better alternative would be starting from the question of what will be valued by the community and letting the programming decisions emerge from that.
How one goes about discussing the question of what will be valued differs from place to place and organization to organization. Some of the museums mentioned in The Atlantic article received feedback from community partner organizations, others made an intentional decision to involve people without formal arts training so that the process didn’t get bogged down in academic lingo and context.