“We’ve done some, but our work must continue,” Clay wrote, noting that the museum board remained predominantly White, that it hired its first Black curator in 2017 (and only for a single exhibition) and that recent efforts toward diversifying its collection and exhibitions had minimal impact.
“Our goal is not one-and-done performative acts of solidarity, but a thorough change agenda,” she wrote. “We commit to transparency and will share our plans as they crystallize. The task ahead is daunting, but we are ready and eager to step up.”
This week, the Washington art museum announced another groundbreaking step in its DEAI effort: a $2 million gift from trustee Lynne Horning and her husband, Joe, that will permanently endow the chief diversity officer position. Only the museum’s second endowed position — after its director and chief executive — it serves as an example of the museum field’s attempts to actively confront its diversity problems and as a model for other museums that have committed to the work.
Making the trailblazing position permanent emphasizes its importance and the museum’s long-term commitment to change, said Phillips director Dorothy Kosinski.
“Makeba’s work is not a stand-alone, isolated effort. She works with us to change the entire institution’s culture. All of us share that responsibility — leadership, staff, trustees,” Kosinski said. “We all feel how important it is that the museum demonstrate its relevance to today and to the future.”
Many major arts organizations — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art — hired diversity officers after the summer’s activism and calls from staffers to address inequality and racism. The Phillips’s effort dates to 2016, when a staff-driven task force began to address cultural competence, diversity and inclusion, Kosinski said. That work pushed her to “move the needle” by raising funds for paid internships and fellowships, and a grant was secured to support a senior-level diversity officer. Clay started in March 2018.
The work she’s been doing since then took on new urgency last year.
“These issues around polarization and social unrest and inequality are not new, but people now seem to see them differently,” Clay said of the activism that rocked the museum field. “What was on display became so real, and the fact that we were stuck at home, that made us pay attention to it. It gave individuals within institutions that voice to say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve been experiencing, what I’ve been talking about.’ ”
The progress made during her first two years helped the Phillips engage with the 2020 crisis, Clay said, and led to the Horning gift.
“I know how critical it is for the board to be laser-focused on this work,” she said. “They have been very supportive, and obviously, this is how we’ve gotten this gift.”
Lynne Horning is an artist and arts education advocate who has served on the Phillips board since 2007. She was involved in the museum’s work with the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) in Southeast Washington, where the Phillips has been a resident since 2018.
In an email, Lynne and Joe Horning pointed to Kosinski’s leadership as critical to helping the museum address such issues.
“The events of 2020 make it more clear that this is essential and urgent,” the couple wrote. “We are honored to make a gift that builds on these efforts at The Phillips Collection and creates a lasting impact. It is our hope that this gift will inspire other museums and their trustees to consider race and equity as an important part of their work.”
Since 2018, the museum has improved its hiring practices, held training sessions and launched paid internship and fellowship programs while recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. The board established a standing committee on equity and inclusion, and exhibition and programming decisions are more transparent and welcoming, according to Clay and Kosinski. The museum has asked the community to weigh in on programing and exhibitions, bringing new voices to the table, they said.
“There is a major movement around accountability and transparency,” Clay said. “This is what people want from us. We have to be willing to go there.”