How To Bring Diversity To Cultural Organizations' Boardrooms

Museum Trustee Association CEO Anne Lampe and diversity consultant Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley discuss a panel presentation
Museum Trustee Association CEO Anne Lampe and diversity consultant Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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Cleveland Heights native Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley knows discrimination from a couple of different angles. The African-American woman was the first female U.S. diplomat to Saudi Arabia, and both racial bias at home and gender discrimination in the culture of her consular post inform her work promoting diversity.

The Museum Trustee Association (MTA) out of Maryland recently held a conference in Cleveland, and Abercrombie-Winstanley was part of a panel discussion on increasing inclusion on museum boards. 

“We have known for a long while in the United States that boards are not diverse, whether it's gender or racially or what we might call visible minorities,” she said. “And we've had a number of boards in the United States that have not performed well, that have not made good decisions with regard to the institutions, whether it's allowing bad behavior from executive directors or CEOs or other members because they're rainmakers or whatever a nomenclature you want to use. And some of those decisions probably wouldn't have been made if the board had been more diverse.”

Abercrombie-Winstanley points to a 2018 study by McKinsey & Company that indicates diverse organizations perform better financially. But, she adds that this is more than a dollars and sense issue.

“The fact is that we can't admire the issue anymore,” she said. “So many times we're talking about the need for diversity and very little happens. At this point, if it's not happening, it means they don't want it to happen.”

A 2017 report commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums suggested that the reasons for a lack of diversity in the boardroom may be a networking problem. 

According to the report, 91% of white Americans’ social networks are other white Americans. Additionally, older and wealthier populations tend to be white. 

As CEO of the MTA, Anne Lampe has seen a growth of interest in promoting diversity on cultural boards.

“It's really become very much the hot topic in the last three to five years,” Lampe said, adding that foundations are partially behind the push. “I've learned that just in the last year there are several very large funders that are beginning to ask those questions in your applications for funding: ‘What's the diversity of your board? How is your board diverse?’”

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley said some institutions pay lip service to diversity through tokenism.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, if you are of a stature and you are a minority, people get to know that you sit on one board and you get asked to join others,” she said. “A circle of magical Negroes is how I put it.”

Abercrombie-Winstanley adds that boards need to do more than just stock their boards with wealthy trustees.

“It is important to have a diverse board, and that does mean sometimes having people without as much money,” she said. “Someone who doesn't have the big check writing ability, might be the one that keeps you connected to the community at large, helps you find artists that you might not have seen otherwise.”

She sees diversity extending from custodial workers to the board of trustees.

“Anytime someone doesn't feel welcome coming into a museum, it's a failure on all of our parts. And part of that is ensuring the credibility of the institution,” she said. “And when people see people like them, they know there is a place for them.”

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