On the Frontlines of Fighting for Diversity and Inclusion: An Interview with Sandra Jackson-Dumont

Sandra Jackson-Dumont is the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the largest museum in the western hemisphere.  Jackson-Dumont is responsible for the vision and management of education, public programs, the live arts/performance, audience development and academic programs. Her work encompasses a wide range of experiences designed for a diverse cross-section of audiences. 

 She was formerly the Deputy Director for Education + Public Programs and Adjunct Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).  She had strategic oversight of programming at SAM’s three sites—Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park.  Prior to her appointment at SAM, Jackson-Dumont worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among other cultural organizations.

 Known for her ability to blur the lines between academia, popular culture and non-traditional art-going communities, Jackson-Dumont is invested in curating experiences that foster dynamic exchanges between art/artists, past/present, public/private and people/places. She has organized numerous exhibitions, lectures, performances, symposia and education initiatives. In addition, Jackson-Dumont has contributed essays to a host of publications and has worked with numerous artists. She received her B.A. in art history from Sonoma State University in California and her M.A. in art history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work focusing on Diversity and Inclusion?

 Sandra Jackson-Dumont: Growing up in San Francisco, I was surrounded by adults who were creative and involved in social justice and civil rights issues. These adults were focused on making things equitable for all, but specifically for those who were under-resourced or vulnerable. When I attended undergrad at Sonoma State University, I participated in diversity and bias awareness workshops where I learned the critical skills necessary to lean into discomfort, as well as think critically about work that is at once interrogative and inclusive.

Over the course of my career, including my work at the Seattle Art MuseumThe Whitney and Studio Museum (SM), I had the opportunity to work alongside dynamic people from diverse backgrounds. This encouraged the presence of diverse perspectives in the fabric of the work not as an ancillary effort. That work allowed me to connect people to creativity, knowledge, ideas and action. At all of these institutions, whether it was in my capacity as an educator, curator or administrator, I worked for and with a broad cross-section of constituencies and stakeholders, ranging from artists, youth and communities to scholars, collectors and teachers.

DW-K:  How would you describe your mission for diversity and inclusion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

SJ-D: The MET creates points of entry for people to see their most complicated selves through the lenses of art and history. The MET has a long track record with race, class and inclusion through exhibitions, programs, etc. Under the leadership of The MET’s former Chief Audience Development Officer Donna Williams, the museum built on that early foundation and created bridges to leaders in a range of communities and established the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative. The initial goal was membership. But it quickly shifted to exposure, interaction, getting to know untapped audiences and their interests.

Some people are baffled by the process of audience development—they think it’s either really simple and requires zero resources, research and training, or they confuse it with marketing. Audience development is relationship-building supported by marketing, etc.  It’s much more than getting people to attend exhibitions.  It’s about making meaningful connections to what matters to individuals. One byproduct of audience development is attendance.

At The MET, this engagement helps us better shape inclusive experiences based on concrete input, rather than making assumptions about what people want or need.  Everyone wants to feel welcome when they cross the threshold of what may have been perceived to be an “exclusive” institution. Our mission is to go beyond the welcome. We want to meet people where they are, and when I say, “where they are,” I mean that in the broadest sense of the phrase. We want to move beyond opening the doors; we want folks to know they have the keys.

There is no end date for diversity, bias-awareness and inclusion work. If an organization is to ensure equitable access and opportunities for everyone, the work should be a part of the DNA of the entire organization. The pairing of access with opportunity is key to this. It’s one thing to have access to education and it’s another thing to have opportunities to put the knowledge and skills you’ve gained into action. Access with no opportunity is frustrating and problematic at best.

DW-K: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

 SJ-D: There are many challenges involved with executing diversity and inclusion initiatives in museums. Our vision is to create the most dynamic art museum in the world.  Our mission says we will present “significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge and ideas.” Think about it – “across all times and cultures in order to connect people”—that’s a lot of work and it requires that we be more than just a treasure trove of great art. The MET is not just a custodian of objects or things; it also has become the arbiter of why these things matter. Without the ever-present lens of diversity and inclusion, think about how this would play out.

I am proud to have great colleagues and a great team interested in fulfilling this mission.  I am also proud of our history, of which many people aren’t aware.  In the 1970s, Lowry Stokes Sims joined The MET’s staff. She went on to become a curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.  Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, was a high school intern at The MET.

My dream is that every program has diversity and inclusion embedded within it.  The responsibility belongs to everyone—not just the person with the job title. It’s actually not even in my job title. I always say that the President, Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer is the real Chief Diversity Officer.  Of course you need dedicated staff to ensure that everyone assumes responsibility for this important work at all levels, from programming and partnerships to the staff and the board.

The MET is extending the work it has done with diversity and inclusion programs to overall ways of being and working. Our work is not centered on a service model.  It is centered on a practice.

 DW-K: What is needed in the field to advance multiculturalism in the arts and what are your hopes going forward?

SJ-D: The landscape in which museums operate has evolved significantly over the past fifteen years. Demographic, social, technological, and economic shifts have transformed the world into an interconnected and democratized information exchange. These shifts are compelling museums to solve unfamiliar problems and offer new answers to old challenges.

In 2020, the MET will celebrate its 150th anniversary. With shifting demographics, constantly evolving and ground-breaking technology, we will have to be nimble, accessible and relevant. If not, there will be a problem. This is the same challenge that all cultural institutions are facing.

Technology-savvy millennials will become one-third of the adult population by 2020 and non-white births are now the majority in America. Clearly, huge demographic shifts are upon us. The impact of these shifts on the future of museums must be taken into account as we plan for tomorrow. Museums must continue to articulate how they add value and meaning to people’s lives in a wired, now-centric, culturally pluralistic, and commercially-driven environment.

I think it’s also important to remember that diversity and inclusion are more than attributes to be celebrated. To be effective, we must remain aware of and sensitive to why these programs need to be established in the first place.

This may require that we change the way we conduct our business—how we behave, how we communicate with others, assessing the look and feel of our institutions—which is both an opportunity and challenge. To be effective in the work of diversity and inclusion, I believe it’s important that we engage in the process as if we’re studying to get a degree. In other words, this requires that the staff be equipped, educated, prepared and experienced in diversity, bias awareness and inclusion work.  It should be clear that unconscious bias is real and microaggressions can manifest in various forms and take on a range of appearances.

Research shows that people are seeking a different kind of experience from museums. They want educational, transporting experiences with which they can engage and respond. They also are attracted to more social and community-creating activities. In response, museums need to analyze how they do business and how our facilities can embody unique experiences, on-site and online. In addition, museums must adapt to an increasingly competitive philanthropic environment by developing compelling demonstrations of value and impact for potential and existing donors.

If The MET‘s 145-year history has had a recurring theme, it is that we have always sought to be more than just a treasury of great art. Our mission is not simply to exhibit the visual achievement of all cultures, but to demonstrate to a wide and diverse audience why these objects are relevant to our lives. We now live in a time of shifting demographics, changing social behaviors, and groundbreaking technology, all of which present significant opportunities for museums, as well as the communities they serve. We have a responsibility to evolve to meet this moment; to be a museum that is not only of the world, but in the world—and where anyone can find their place.