The Mellon Foundation recently released its 2022 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. He is plagued by issues of race and gender, the obsession of the upper middle class.
The Mellon is the 28th richest charitable foundation in the world, with an endowment of $6.2 billion. Its ultimate source lies in the wealth accumulated by banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon (1855-1937), one of America’s robber barons and Secretary of the Treasury at the time of the Wall Street crash of 1929. Like others of his type, the foundation, in the final analysis, pursues issues and funds projects aligned with the interests of the American corporate establishment.
Current Mellon President Elizabeth Alexander, in her foreword to the inquiry, says that given “their unique role in our society, art museums must reflect the demographics of our richly diverse country.”
Alexander takes it for granted and assumes his readers will too that “demographics” simply refers to race and gender. In fact, the vast majority of the American population depends on a salary and therefore belongs to the working class.
In addition, tens of thousands of these workers are employed by museums and other cultural institutions.
Museum workers have had a nightmarish few years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The loss of jobs and income has been enormous. Many have left the profession. Those who remain face high levels of financial and psychological insecurity, as institutions everywhere attempt to shift the burden of their economic hardship onto the backs of workers as much as possible. On top of everything else, inflation is now eating away at wages.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment at “museums, historic sites, and similar institutions” stood at 174,300 in December 2019.
The conditions produced by the pandemic, above all the temporary closure of many institutions, led to a sharp drop in this figure, to 125,600 in April 2020 (compared to 172,200 the previous month) and to 121,300 in July of the same year. Since the peak of the previous December, the July 2020 figures represented a loss of 53,000 jobs, or 30% of the workforce. In November 2022, the BLS calculates that employment has rebounded to 164,600 (equivalent to 2017 levels), still down 6% from three years earlier, or 9,700 jobs.
In March 2021, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) released its findings on “the impact of COVID-19 on people in the museum field”. The AAM estimated that 43% of museum workers as a whole saw their earnings decline by an average of 31% over the course of 2020, or $21,191 per worker. Some 13% lived paycheck to paycheck.
More than 60% of part-time staff, already living at the poverty line, testified “to having lost income due to the pandemic, with a median of $8,000 lost due to a reduction in salary, benefits or hours for a median reduction of 50%. ” Independent contractors have also been hit hard – 78% of people in this category lost income in 2020, according to the AAM study, “at a median of $25,000, the equivalent of about 50% of income in ‘before the pandemic’.
How many hundreds of millions of dollars was lost in total revenue? How long will it take workers to recover from this drop in income, if they ever do?
The BLS employment figures do not reveal how many full-time jobs have been replaced by part-time jobs or other types of precarious work. (An indication, however, is provided by the AAM’s finding in April 2021 that 14% of museums responding to a survey indicated that they “have or will use more contract labor to instead of in-house staff, while only 2% said they would use less contract labor in place of in-house staff.”
Faced with these painful and pressing conditions, museum workers have turned to various means in an attempt to defend themselves. Unsurprisingly, unions desperately looking for dues-paying members presented themselves as the solution. Workers at many institutions have registered with AFSCME, the UAW and other unions in recent years.
However, as the results of the recent 19-day strike at the Philadelphia Museum of Art reveal, there is no way out of the current crisis situation. The leadership of AFSCME Local 397 ended the Philadelphia strike without members seeing details or voting on the contract (which was eventually ratified). The union agreed to a contract providing for a 14% wage increase over the next three years. With annual inflation in the US currently around 8%, this equates to a pay cut of around 10% by the end of the contract.
In any case, the Mellon Foundation does not claim to pay attention to the situation of museum workers. It is very relevant here. There is an insurmountable class divide in this social sphere as in all others.
The Mellon is concerned and speaks to the affluent middle class who constitute the “management of the museum” and reports on the state of ongoing quasi-ethnic and gender cleansing operations in this particular area.
After arguing that cultural institutions should reflect the “demographics” of the United States, as noted above, Alexander, in his preface, falls back on the usual jargon. She refers to art museums struggling “to hire a workforce that is equitably represented in terms of race and gender.” We know, she says, that “people of color are less likely to feel welcome in museums than white people. We know that historical collecting practices favored the art and cultural works of men of European descent.
In fact, making art museums more “welcoming” to working-class audiences of all ethnicities depends very much on a radical change in the economic and political system. Workers are cut off by bourgeois society from access to culture in general (“the very reason”, Leon Trotsky pointed out, they are “forced to overthrow” this society), but the American ruling elite in particular has devoted decades to eviscerate all the possibilities of such access that existed before.
As museum workers have faced upheavals in their lives, the Mellon Foundation study shows that the upper echelons of the arts culture world have become “more diverse”. The data “shows a continued and moderate increase in the number of people of color (POCs) in all museum roles.” While museum management and curatorial positions, although “increasingly diverse”, “still have not exceeded one-fifth of overall POC representation”, more than “40% of young employees and new recruits are POC,” the survey said.
Eight years ago, less than a fifth of “thought leadership positions” were held by “POCs in this category”. Since then, the field has seen continuous progress in diversifying these positions; POC staff now make up 27% of intellectual leadership positions among respondents. »
Tellingly, the survey notes that while there has not been a significant increase in black staff overall, between 2015 and 2022 the number of black staff in museum management has more than doubled, while tripling in information technology and quadrupling in curatorial positions. .” Additionally, we learn that “Hispanic and Asian Conservatives have roughly doubled in total numbers since 2015, and Black Conservatives have quadrupled in total numbers since 2015.”
With regard to “male-to-female ratios”, in “museum intellectual leadership positions, female employees constitute a large majority, more than 75%. Representation of female employees in museum leadership has increased significantly, from 58% in 2015 to 66% in 2022.”
Overall, “museum leadership and curatorial positions, which saw very little progress toward diversification during the 2018 survey cycle, ‘unstuck’ and diversified by 7 percentage points. percentage over the past four years. »
Again, this is more or less the same period in which museum workers suffered systematic attacks on their jobs and standard of living. On this basis alone, it becomes utterly impossible to identify racial and gender “diversity” with social progress or as a leftist cause. This is clearly the selfish tendency of the well-to-do petty bourgeois aspirant.
The Mellon Inquiry gets lost in the more exotic and detailed examinations of museum administration by department, ethnicity, gender, age group, “year of hire and retention,” and so on. The section “Attitudes of museum directors towards diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion” highlights the increasing pressure of identity politics on cultural life. Percentage of museum directors who say they “value and engage” in “diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion” (DEAI) triple from the 2020 survey to that two years later. The word is out, so to speak.
Much of the reporting will be tedious for those not caught up in the fight for their own advancement and income, and therefore keen to check the status of the processes involved.
The desire for “diversity” is now at the center of many cultural fields, be it the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood, virtually every major film festival on the planet, music education, history art, etc.
As the World Socialist Website argued a number of times, it’s not trueThis is, social diversity is simply about opening up a given field to individuals from the same social background, with many of the same petty-bourgeois prejudices and limitations, but who happen to be female or of different national or racial origin . Nothing positive is thus accomplished, other than the constitution of the bank accounts of the newly included social strata, but the exercise is useful for the ruling class to divert attention from social inequalities, poverty, war and the threat of an authoritarian regime.
The Mellon Report is silent on what could be seen as critical questions raised by a development as drastic as the sharp or steady increase in racial and gender “inclusion” – again, a question that would supposedly have “progressive” connotations. (Film festivals and other institutions are equally tight-lipped on similar issues.) How has the growth of “diversity” opened up new possibilities for exhibiting artwork? How did he help encourage people to appreciate art and culture? What has it done to face the undeniable crisis of intellectual life in America, its serious cultural backwardness?
The investigation does not address these issues because its political and class interests lie elsewhere.