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Philadelphia Museum of Art exits a rocky 2020 talking about change: ‘Whose museum are we?’

The year’s events have stirred up calls for change and accountability in exhibitions, audience, educational programs, staff composition, decision-making power, and the makeup of the board of trustees.

Debra O'Connor of Philadelphia, holds a sign reading “#Equity” during a rally in honor of Breonna Taylor at the Art Museum steps on Oct. 4.
Debra O'Connor of Philadelphia, holds a sign reading “#Equity” during a rally in honor of Breonna Taylor at the Art Museum steps on Oct. 4.Read moreTyger Williams / File Photograph

Some time this spring, after the pandemic begins to recede and people venture outside into a world filled with other people, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will celebrate the completion of its massive, years-long expansion, dubbed the Core Project.

Visitors to the museum will enter a building that will seem largely unchanged from the outside, but within the old limestone-clad temple will be something quite different. New galleries, new public spaces, new amenities will jockey for attention.

That architectural change is emblematic of other, potentially deeper changes — some visible and some not —driven by the transformative events of 2020, which began in the turmoil fomented by allegations of abuse and sexual improprieties. Shocks accelerated from there proceeding through pandemic-induced shutdowns, visitor restrictions and lost revenue, large-scale furloughs and layoffs, the upheavals of Black Lives Matter, and certification of the first union for employees.

Now efforts to create a more diverse staff and board are actively, if slowly, moving forward. Plans to achieve a more equitable workplace are being implemented.

More diverse and complex exhibitions and installations are well advanced, including a special exhibition in the museum’s new contemporary galleries devoted to Philadelphia art-making right now. It will feature largely artists of color, according to a museum spokesperson.

Erica Battle, associate curator of contemporary art, has been heavily involved in the Philadelphia-artist exhibition and related installations and performances that will present work of Black and female artists. She said the confluence of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic was “paradigm shifting” for museums in general, giving the museum “an opportunity to shift focus a little bit, to think about different questions, asking what are the stories that we want to tell.”

At PMA, she said, “everyone was moved by seeing the [Black Lives Matter] protest at the steps and this just gigantic convocation of bodies. And of course in the middle of a pandemic that took on even more and more meaning. That backdrop really moved a lot of us and a lot of the artists that we’re working with.”

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‘Whose museum are we?’

The museum’s curatorial and institutional leadership says Black Lives Matter struck to the heart of the PMA’s identity, something that it has been struggling with for a long time.

“Our last strategic plan underscored addressing the audiences of Philadelphia, remembering who are our neighbors in Philadelphia,” said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art. “Whose museum are we? And do the people feel like this is their museum?

“The events of 2020 have only given more urgency to that and made it starker, made it more clear that this is the responsibility that the museum has to the city of Philadelphia,” she continued. “It’s a deep, deep obligation that the museum feels.”

Beyond audiences and exhibition programming, the year’s events have stirred calls for change and accountability in educational programs, staff composition, decision-making power, and the makeup of the board of trustees.

The roots of the museum’s practices, like those of every major art museum dating from the 19th century, are embedded in the paternalism and control of white elites. “Many of these institutions, and the museum is a perfect example, have taken great pride in the continuity of practices, in the solid foundation upon which everything rests,” said PMA board chair Leslie Anne Miller.

“There has been a reticence to make the shift, both in terms of culture, programming, staffing, membership, that is absolutely necessary if we, as cultural institutions, are going to continue to stay relevant,” Miller said. “And that for me is the overriding challenge.”

Change in the galleries

In the museum’s galleries, the great reckonings of 2020 “will accelerate something that we’ve been talking about for a long time,” said Timothy Rub, director and chief executive officer, “but it is easier said than done — and that is: How do we rethink our galleries, the galleries in which we show our collections and interpret and reinterpret them.”

As an example, the Core Project’s expansive galleries of American art to 1850, to be unveiled in the spring, will go way beyond William Rush meets William Penn in a Quakerly embrace.

Portraits of two Lenape chiefs, iron stove backs made by enslaved Africans, and paintings from Latin America will be presented as contributing to the artistic tradition and identity of the United States, as will the wampum belt given to William Penn by the Lenape in 1682, on loan from the city.

The very first of the American galleries will contain an acknowledgment of “the first custodians of this land that the museum is on and the city of Philadelphia is on,” Foster said, referring to the Lenape. “That’s a huge change.” The first gallery will also feature a wall of Latin American paintings and work by enslaved Africans.

“We’ve never tried to bring the story of these kinds of competing empires in the Western Hemisphere into American galleries,” said Foster.

Curating the work of 17th- and 18th-century enslaved artisan craft makers is a challenge, she said, “because the material culture of the enslaved is almost invisible.”

One way to give the invisible body is to tell a clearer and deeper story of objects in the collection. The iron stove backs, for instance, cast in area foundries in the 18th century, were made by enslaved Africans for English and German proprietors.

“It is just a story that’s never been told,” she said.

On view for the first time will be a small mid-17th-century painting of a Black adolescent dressed in silk, holding a bow and arrow and a parrot. Foster believes it may have been painted in Holland, or perhaps Brazil, which had a Dutch colony.

“He’s probably an enslaved person who was the page, or the servant to some grandee,” she said. “In this one painting we have Holland, Africa, and South America represented. He’s holding a bow.”

The bow resembles ones used in North America. “How did that happen? … The point is, we’ve got four different continents represented in this little painting.”

» READ MORE: The $4.1 billion question: What’s to become of Philadelphia’s world-class arts and culture, post-coronavirus?

‘Much to be done internally’

The far more difficult challenge comes in bringing diversity to the people at the museum — staff and visitors. The financial devastation wrought by the pandemic has compounded the challenge.

The year saw two waves of layoffs and furloughs, plus job loss via attrition and buyouts, slashing the staff size from 481, with 8% of the workforce African American, to 333, as the year draws to a close, with Black employees accounting for 9.6% of the total.

Of the 51 elected members of the current board of trustees, a museum spokesperson identified seven as “diverse/people of color.”

The overwhelming majority of decision-makers and staff people driving the museum are white — in a city that is nearly half African American.

The museum simply does not reflect its demographic circumstances.

“No, it does not,” said board chair Miller.

“One of the things that we as an institution took great pride in being able to say is that the audiences that we were attracting as a result of our programs and our community outreach were mirroring the demographics of the Philadelphia region,” she said. “We were moving in the right direction externally, but clearly as the year has shown us, there was much to be done internally.”

Following revelations in January and February that former museum managers had taken advantage of female staffers or abused employees, the museum instituted a “cultural assessment” performed by outside consultants. The resulting report was described by museum staffers as painting a “bleak picture” of life inside the museum.

One concrete step

Could the museum change its way of doing business? One concrete step the board called for was the establishment of an office of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, or DEIA. That office has since been established, with Nicole Allen White, the museum’s director of governmental and external affairs. who is now also serving as interim deputy director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.

White assumed new duties in September and has established diversity training for staff across the museum, including the board of directors.

“It’s really about having multilayered sessions and conversations and dialogue with staff about what it means to put DEIA at the center of what we do,” White said. That means diversity and related issues apply to gender issues, hiring practices, management-employee relations.

White is also establishing a DEIA plan that describes “what we want to look like as an institution, from top to bottom.” Once it is accepted across the museum, “we will have something to be held accountable to.”

Where the newly organized employee union fits into this has yet to be determined. Prior to ratification of worker affiliation with AFSCME DC47, which represents the city’s white-collar employees, organizers said that trust in management was at a low ebb; they agreed that there was a need for more equity and accountability in employee relations.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Museum of Art workers have voted decisively to unionize

Union leaders declined comment for this story. The union has, however, backed a petition decrying museum layoffs and furloughs, arguing that museum management values “buildings over people” and “exhibitions over education.”

The union has not yet reached a contract agreement with the museum.

“We’re still in early days,” said Rub.

“We’ll get there.”