A Message from Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay
Stepping Back in Order to Move Forward
Out of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many other Black and Brown people in the United States, there has been a resurgence of a clarion call for racial justice. The visibility of these inhumane acts, too often at the very hands of those meant to protect and serve our communities, has catalyzed a long-overdue national reckoning in how we value and treat Black lives.
The Phillips Collection’s vision is to give voice to the powerful artistic expressions of diverse people, with empathy and inclusion, and to connect with the relevant and urgent ideas of our time. When Duncan Phillips first imagined The Phillips Collection, he wanted it to be “a memorial…a beneficent force in the community where I live—a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.” He perceived the tradition of art to be revolutionary, much like the times we live in now, and a way to connect the past with the present; believing strongly in the continuum that connects generations of artists. Art should be an avenue for constructive discourse, for growth and understanding, linking human to human, building empathy and creating community.
Millions of people, of all races, all over the world, are currently taking to the streets and demanding change. The gravity and circumstances surrounding recent events have presented an opportunity, an important pause-and-reflect moment for us as an institution. Are we living up to our stated vision and values? Do our financial and community commitments align with what we say we are about?
In some areas, our commitment shines through. My own role as Chief Diversity Officer is among the first in the art museum world and a visible step toward institutional Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) commitment. In the past few years, we have launched a paid internship and fellowship program expressly designed to diversify the museum talent pipeline while offering meaningful professional development opportunities to underrepresented communities. In 2017 we established a space at DC’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) to better serve our community in Wards 7 and 8. Our efforts in DC Public Schools go back decades, and our many robust relationships with community partners are the hallmark of the museum.
Internally, several staff members, majority of whom are white, organically launched an Anti-Racist Working Group at the museum. Last year, the board formed a Diversity Advisory Council to examine the composition, function, and culture of our board; this group has since outlined an action plan to advance our goals toward creating greater representation and inclusion in governance. Ongoing training efforts for staff and trustees will continue to address microaggressions in the workplace, anti-racism focused learning and development, as well as uncovering implicit bias and building cultural competency workshops. The Phillips already has plans to double down on our community engagement, continue efforts to diversify our staff, launch an artist-in-residence program to feature Black artists, offer our space as a resource and venue to diverse culturally presenting groups in our community, and wrap up an organizational assessment to evaluate our DEAI work to date.
We’ve done some, but our work must continue. We know these are the first steps in our DEAI journey. This current moment in our history has compelled us to look more deeply inward. One of our roles as a museum is to serve as a catalyst for inquiry and critical reflection. As an institution that upholds thoughtful stillness at our very core, the Phillips intends to use this moment to pause, step back, and listen to our community and those most impacted by systemic inequities, and only then determine the appropriate path forward.
The first step is to admit you have a problem. Our board is overwhelmingly white. We hired our first Black curator in the museum’s 99-year history, Dr. Adrienne Childs, only in 2017, and even then only for a single exhibition. A recent town hall revealed stark differences at the Phillips between staff of color and white staff. Microaggressions are far too regular a reality for staff of color. Recent efforts to diversify our acquisitions and exhibitions have made only a minimal impact on the fact that our permanent collection, exhibition schedule, and social media remains heavily dominated by white artists. The work of fostering diversity and inclusion requires more than words, it is necessary to have strong political will in order to be a true champion. I am heartened by the response and commitment of our trustees and colleagues across our institution, which captures that will to advance our goals of DEAI. More than using our platform to “amplify” Black voices and messages, we are committed to investing in our colleagues and communities of color, in their stories, in their art, and in their creative labor.
We must hold ourselves accountable. We need to focus on being actively anti-racist—not passively non-racist—to foster and empower a community of upstanders, and anything less perpetuates the harmful system of injustice that has plagued our nation for centuries. We further pledge to approach this process with openness, vulnerability, and humility, and invite and encourage voices from across our community: our audiences, our members, our trustees, and our employees. We are starting with improving ourselves and internal staff culture, so that our work can substantively translate into our collection, exhibitions, programs, and beyond. Only then will we lead with integrity.
We are taking time to listen and develop informed solutions in areas where we fall short. In the coming weeks, as we take a step back and gather perspective, we invite and welcome you to share your thoughts on ways we can increase diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. Our goal is not one-and-done performative acts of solidarity, but a thorough change agenda. 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. We may mess up; and we expect you to call us out on it. We may make missteps and have do-overs, but we will not back down from this commitment to ourselves and our community. We are standing together with you.
It is time for us to stretch and elevate our standards so we can be more together, to self-reflect not just in this moment, but as a way in which we exist and thrive in the community in which we serve. We have a long way to go, but I am confident we are heading in the right direction.
Chief Diversity Officer
- Racial Equity Tools
- Talking about Race from the National Museum of African American History and Culture
From the museum field and cultural institutions
A Message from Director Dorothy Kosinski
We are living in a time of tremendous upheaval. Like you, my heart is heavy with grief watching the continuing violence towards the Black community in our country.
At the Phillips we speak often of our role as creating and supporting conversations around urgent contemporary issues. We are collectively facing multiple urgent issues, but I want to take this opportunity to offer my thoughts in particular regarding the events surrounding mounting racial tensions in the last few weeks; with the continued acts of violence against Black people in this country, resulting in the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and so many others before.
First, I want to acknowledge that many people are mourning and hurting. The pain is deep, and the anger is real. I want to recognize that whether it is the racial terror against people of color that is plaguing our nation, or the plague of COVID-19, we are facing intense and traumatic times.
Many in our community are feeling this pain, and I recognize that our colleagues and community members of color, and especially those who identify as Black, are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the racial violence. I want to let you know that you are seen, and heard, and that I personally, and the museum institutionally, stand with you.
These incidents are reminders of the long road towards an inclusive and just society. At the Phillips, we have a strong statement that we are “fostering an inclusive environment that encourages and values diversity … to embrace our ever-changing world,” and we are committed to upholding those values in all our actions.
I know that for many of us, it is difficult to find words to address and express, and indeed feel worthy of the magnitude of this moment—it is normal, and indeed appropriate, to feel angry and sad. For many, it is a priority to show-up, support, and be an ally. I am including here some resources from our Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, on what you can do for education, advocacy, action, and more. In the immediate moment, we have also listed a few organizations you may consider supporting financially as they work to engage and combat the scourge of structural racism.
Finally, although we remain separated, it is more important than ever that we continue to reach out and support one another because #BlackLivesMatter. We all need to do the hard work of confronting institutional inequalities, and committing courageously to anti-racism. I welcome and encourage you to share your thoughts.
Wishing everyone peace,
Vradenburg Director & CEO