La Voz Femenina Se Levanta

During International Women's Month, we do well to focus on the museum field and its practice of diversity and inclusion relative to women and, in particular, Latinas. An assessment of the current situation should begin with a quick reality check.
03/25/2016 05:27 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2017

Back in the day, museums were run by and largely catered to middle aged and middle income and upper class White folks. And the collections, exhibitions, and educational programs reflected what one of my colleagues at Spelman College calls the three W's: they were largely focused on Western places and ideas, the overwhelming majority of the staff and visitors were White folks and the exhibitions were largely Womanless.

—Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director
   Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art
   (From her address at the 2015 meeting of the American Alliance of Museums)

During International Women's Month, we do well to focus on the museum field and its practice of diversity and inclusion relative to women and, in particular, Latinas. An assessment of the current situation should begin with a quick reality check. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that only 9% of museum visitors are people of color, despite the fact that we make up more than 30% of the population. From the National Museum of Women in the Arts we learn that 51% of visual artists are women; only 28% of museum solo exhibitions spotlighted women in eight select museums throughout the 2000s; only 27 women are represented in the current edition of H.W. Janson's survey, History of Art, up from zero in the 1980s; and less than 3% of the artists in the modern section of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are women (83% of the nudes there are women, but that's another story). The number of women directing museums lags behind and female directors earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

The assessment, however, needs to go beyond statistics. We should examine the nature and scope of research, exhibitions, collections, public and educational programs, online content and publications conceived and executed by women content experts not only on women-oriented topics, but on those initiatives to which they bring a woman's perspective. I am proud to say that on the Latina front, the Smithsonian is making notable progress. In 2010, the Smithsonian established the Latino Curatorial Initiative, which by the end of 2016 will have placed 10 new curators in eight Smithsonian museums and one art archive. Of the eight new curators currently on board since 2010, six are Latinas.

What impact has this already had? Margaret Salazar-Porzio, one of our curators at the National Museum of American History, is organizing Latinos and Baseball: From the Barrios to the Big Leagues, exploring the role of baseball in Latino community development. This is not a project focused singularly on major league sluggers, but one that also examines the role of women as support system and athlete. Among the new acquisitions at the National Portrait Gallery you will see author Sandra Cisneros, actress Eva Longoria, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, author Nicholasa Mohr, and actress-singer-dancer Rita Moreno. Taína Caragol assumed her duties as Curator of Latino Art and History at the Gallery a little over two years ago. At that time, less than one percent of the National Portrait Gallery's collection—which is supposed to showcase the men and women who have made distinctive contributions to U.S. society—included Latinas and Latinos. Taína has played a key role in adding around 90 new portraits to the collection, a remarkable achievement. Latina curators and project managers at the Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service are busy with a diverse array of impactful projects. And, this May we will add a new Latino Political History curator to serve at American History.

On March 12th, Smithsonian museums joined hundreds of cultural institutions across the country for Museum Day Live! This program took place purposely within International Women's Month to encourage women and girls of color to discover the arts and sciences. The Smithsonian featured "Ladies Lightening Leadership Talks," involving several Latina leaders at the Institution so that the young women visitors, and their families, could learn about promising museum careers.

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned Johnnetta Cole played an instrumental role in this special program, stating, "By presenting inclusive stories, museums enable young people of all backgrounds to see themselves portrayed in our exhibitions and programs. Our goal is to encourage reflection, dialogue and inclusion." Of the seven principal art museums and art archive at the Smithsonian, women lead six. As the Nation's museum, the Smithsonian has properly assumed the mantle of leadership in expanding opportunities for women, not only in employment, but also in content development. My fervent hope is that for next year's International Women's Month the needle will have moved even further in the right direction.