Patricia A. Banks is a scholar who thinks deeply about what motivates people to participate in cultural life. Her most recent book, Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums: Black Renaissance, weaves together interviews, participant observation, and archival research to ask what drives individuals to support the more than three hundred different African American museums around the United States. When analyzing museum patronage, most scholars limit their scope to class; Banks is well aware of this. Here, we talk about everything that is missed in such an approach, zooming in on how race, profession, lifestyle, and generation shape how people relate to museums.
Emma Chubb (EC): What made you want to write this book at this particular moment in both museum studies and sociology?
Patricia A. Banks (PB): I became interested in looking at philanthropy at African American museums during the period when they were just starting to fundraise for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in Washington, DC. I thought: This is a really good time to try to understand why people are supporting African American museums.
A lot of people don’t recognize that there are African American museums in almost every major city in the United States. So I set off across the country, visiting museums and talking with patrons to try to answer the question, “Why are these institutions meaningful to you?” And what I found really challenges some of our common understandings of museum patronage. When we typically think about museum patronage, the most important aspect of a patron’s identity is their class. What I found is that we also need to be attentive to race and ethnicity, to profession, to lifestyle, and to generation. So all of those factors matter in terms of shaping why people give to museums.
EC: Why hasn’t scholarship previously paid attention to the nuances in people’s reasons for supporting African American museums?
PB: The fact of the matter is, the way that cultural institutions are organized, class is what provides access. One of the subtexts of this story is the issue of wealth inequality. We know that racially, wealth is concentrated among whites. So when we’re looking at the African American upper and upper-middle class, their financial resources aren’t the same as their white counterparts.
EC: The story of the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem is really fascinating in this respect, especially in the role that artists played in defining and refining its mission.
PB: An important part of the story of diversity and philanthropy in African American museums is that when people think about African American museums, they often think about museums that are outside of the mainstream. The Studio Museum is one in the group of black museums founded in the 1960s that emerged out of a context of protest. Majority institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art had collections and exhibitions that were not particularly inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities. In response, there were efforts to try to get those institutions to diversify. But there were also efforts to form these culturally specific institutions like the Studio Museum, which was partly founded to help canonize works by black artists.
EC: In the early formation of the Studio Museum, they weren’t planning to have a collection. They wanted to be really flexible and responsive. But almost immediately, artists started donating works, because they saw the importance of building a permanent collection in one place. This brings me back to your research into the different motivations that lead people to support institutions. What did you find when you moved past class and economic factors?
PB: You know, there can be tension around African American museums as black museums versus “all-American” Museums. African American supporters are oftentimes more focused on the significance of African American museums for the black community. And white patrons are often a little bit more focused on African American museums as interracial spaces.
One of the ways that this dynamic plays out is with respect to gentrification. Many of the communities where African American museums are located are undergoing gentrification.
EC: There’s this great set of stories in the book where some of the white patrons describe the misperceptions their white peers have about the neighborhoods where African American museums are located. The idea that, for example, moving a museum five blocks in one direction might put it in a space that felt more available to those individuals. Which, of course, misses all the bigger questions surrounding access and gentrification, and the larger histories of redlining and how cities in the United States have been built.
PB: Absolutely. And with African American patrons you have to remember that some of them actually grew up in these communities, or went to church there, and they’ve experienced them as very positive spaces. So there’s a need to think about what it means when the space around the museum is shifting.
EC: Given the larger conversation about how to make “mainstream” museums more equitable and inclusive places, what can we learn from African American museums about bringing in more diverse board members, staff, and collections?
PB: A recent study looking at trusteeship at mainstream museums found that almost half of these institutions have all-white boards. And people’s race and ethnicity really does shape their cultural values. If you have a board that’s comprised of people from only one racial group, the perspectives that are being brought to that institution are going to look a certain way.
At the same time, it’s going to affect the degree to which those institutions are able to attract money and other resources from wealthy people who are racial and ethnic minorities. My findings suggest that some racial and ethnic minorities are going to be more interested in giving to majority institutions when they see that these institutions have a commitment to inclusivity.
EC: There’s a big conversation in the contemporary art world right now about where museum trustees’ money is coming from. The resultant inquiries have predominately been directed at white male trustees and places like the Whitney or MoMA. And artists have used their power within institutions to withdraw from exhibitions or, like at the last Whitney Biennial, to use the platform of the exhibition as a way to criticize the forms of wealth that paid for the building and for the exhibition. I’m curious if those questions have come up in your research.
PB: In the past year, we’ve seen all of these questions about where the money comes from. One of the key issues is art washing, or the practice of patrons using cultural philanthropy to purify their image. My next book project looks at how support of black culture by corporations is a means to cultivate an inclusive image. I call this “diversity capital.” Supporting black culture allows corporations to gain benefits, including fostering an image of valuing diversity, or connecting with consumers who are racial and ethnic minorities.
This is related to the ethos of corporate social responsibility, or the idea that corporations should not only pursue economic interests but should also give back to their communities. Among the people I talked to who work in corporate America, there was an expectation that they do something to give back. So supporting African American museums was understood in reference to their careers. The ties between corporations and African American museums partly emerge because this field of museums is growing and becoming more institutionalized. Right now, the Studio Museum in Harlem, for example, is undergoing a $175 million capital campaign. The National Museum of African American History and Culture was charged with raising $270 million and ended up raising over $320 million. So some of these institutions are now becoming very “mainstream” themselves.
EC: An interesting thread in the book traces the anxieties around the beginning of the NMAAHC’s fundraising. Supporters and, I imagine, staff and leaders of African American museums across the country worried that they would lose out on a lot of support if all the funds got redirected to this national institution. Were those anxieties borne out?
PB: It’s a very real concern. If you ask the average person, “Do you know of an African American museum?” most would probably say, “the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” That museum was opened to the public in 2016. But we have all these others that were founded decades before.
At the same time, I found that locality matters. If you live far away from the NMAAHC, and you want to engage with black art and culture, you can’t easily go there. So, local institutions are very important for people. And also, in terms of collecting, local collections reflect the history of particular communities. There’s a story in the book about an individual from Chicago who visited the museum in DC. That visit to DC really reaffirmed his commitment to African American museums in Chicago, and to wanting to build those resources. I thought that was a really powerful narrative about how sometimes, the big national institution can be something that reaffirms the value of the local museums that have been doing this work for so long.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.