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St. Louis Art Museum Leader Says It Needs To Do More To Boost Diversity

The 1904 Beaux Arts Main Building with the new East Building in the foreground
Jacob Sharp
St. Louis Art Museum and Architectural Wall Systems
The St. Louis Art Museum has expanded significantly under the leadership of Brent Benjamin. But a recent report details the lack of improvement around diversity.

Leaders of the St. Louis Art Museum are reviewing a report compiled by a study group within its board of commissioners about how well the museum’s staff and programming reflect the diverse population of St. Louis.

It includes 140 potential action items. They include hiring an executive-level diversity officer and identifying more job candidates of color.

Brent R. Benjamin will step away after being at the helm of St. Louis Art Museum since 1999.
St. Louis Art Museum
Brent Benjamin said the St. Louis Art Museum has a "clustering" of employees of color in lower-level positions.

The museum reported to the Zoo Museum District’s board of directors this summer that 78.3% of its total paid staff members are white, and 85.7% of its 56 supervisory jobs are filled by white employees.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with the museum's director, Brent R. Benjamin, about his plans to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion at the institution before he retires next summer.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: The report states a goal of making the institution a national leader on diversity. How are you going to do that?

Brent Benjamin: It really is about institutionalizing the museum’s diversity and inclusion lens so we’re looking at what we’re doing in a much more consistent way across the things that the museum undertakes.

Goodwin: Where have you fallen short on this in the past?

Benjamin: Well I don’t know that we’ve fallen short. I think we’ve been pretty successful with what we’ve tried to do, but I think that there are things that we haven’t worked as hard at as others.

Let’s really think about how we would create as diverse a pool as possible when we have a position that we’re hiring for.

Goodwin: One of the suggestions was, as you say, to “establish a goal for a diverse workforce proportionate to the racial and ethnic makeup of the St. Louis community.” Would you say that your staff looks like St. Louis right now?

Benjamin: The staff looks pretty good in terms of St. Louis’ demographics. And the audience looks really good, the audience is actually more diverse than in the metro area. There’s more diversity in the audience than in the metro, which is, a lot of people would be surprised by that. But we’ve been doing some polling and some data gathering, so that’s good.

So we’re not in a terrible position. But I do think that there is a clustering of minority staff members at lower levels in the organization, and there is a relative thinness at the upper levels of the organization that is typical of many kinds of organizations and certainly art museums.

Goodwin: Right now do you have Black managers or department heads?

Benjamin: We do. Yes.

Goodwin: And I want to acknowledge, we’re two white men talking about this right now. But when you have metrics with respect to audience or workforce, there's objective ways to measure progress.

Benjamin: That’s right. And we’ll be reporting on that. And that’s part of the accountability, to say: Here’s where we were, and it's been 12 months and here’s where we are, and it’s been another 12 and here’s where we are. So that’s important as well, because if you’re not measuring it, it’s kind of hard to manage it.

Museum director Brent Benjamin and Ronald Ollie, whose gift of 81 pieces by African American artists stands as a highlight of Benjamin's tenure.
File photo/Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Brent Benjamin looks on in 2019 as Ronald Ollie announces his gift to museum of 81 works by African American artists.

Goodwin: Well you’re looking to depart sometime mid-year 2021. What improvements would you like to be seeing a year from now? What are the priority areas you’ve identified as where you'd like to see a lot of time being spent?

Benjamin: Obviously we want to be prioritizing those things that can be done relatively quickly, that are relatively inexpensive and that have high impact. And there are quite a few of those kinds of things on the list. So that’s where we'll be starting. And it’s 140 items, so it’s not going to be implemented overnight. Some of this is going to happen before the end of 2020.

Goodwin: Can you name any of those items that you see has high impact and achievable?

Benjamin: Well I would say that one of the most important things to do is to implement an internal infrastructure that supports it.

Goodwin: An infrastructure — what does that mean?

Benjamin: That means to put some staff in place to actually operationalize it, and make sure that it’s actually happening in a consistent way across all the functions of the museum.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.