Nicole Allen White, Interim Deputy Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access, and Director of Government and External Affairs
Nicole Allen White, Interim Deputy Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access, and Director of Government and External Affairs

Can Museums Change?

Nisa Qazi, Director of Content

In this Q&A, Nicole Allen White, Interim Deputy Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA), shares her hopes for the future of the museum.

NQ: Tell us about your current role and the broad goals you set for the year.

NW: When it comes to DEIA, we’re building the plane while we’re flying it. And we have been busy. The first thing we needed to do was to get a staff education program up and running around diversity and equity. It needed to be an institution-wide process, involving not just staff but also trustees and volunteers. It’s important that we all start in the same place and move in the same direction. We had to open ourselves up to having conversations about issues that we and our society are trained to feel uncomfortable talking about.

It’s going to take a very long time to make real, systemic change. But we’re building the foundation. That’s what this interim year is about for me—starting to open people’s eyes. It can’t just be one person’s job—it has to be everybody’s job. I’ve seen some really great progress, with staff who are trying to figure out how to be intentional, to change the way they think. But DEIA is a muscle that needs to be flexed consistently, and that’s what the office can help with.

NQ: What are some of the gains of your office so far?

NW: One of the first things we did was to draft and adopt an institutional statement of principles on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This was an important step forward in our efforts to make change. It commits our institution to creating a DEIA action plan that will define the meaningful, measurable, and actionable steps we must take to fulfill the promise of this document.

We have also launched employee resource groups for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ employees. These are safe spaces where staff can have conversations about issues that we face or simply to build shared community. You don’t leave yourself at the door when you come to work. If you feel marginalized in the world, you can feel marginalized in the workplace.

And we created a speaker series with the museum’s African American Art Working Group. We’ve brought in outside voices, Black voices, who work in the cultural sector, who can talk about the issues that we face from a different perspective than the largely white museum one.

NQ: The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 precipitated or intensified DEIA work in museums across the country. Many of them arguably had a lot of catching up to do. Why do you think museums were so far behind in making progress on this front?

NW: The Western art museum is built on white supremacy. You can’t not see it when you look around. I love the work of the Impressionists. They’re beautiful paintings. But why are we so focused on white European artists rather than artists from the African continent or diaspora, or Indigenous artists, or Latinx artists? Art museums are built on the Western canon. But if you’re going to be truly equitable, you kind of have to unhang the whole museum, in a sense. That is hard to accept. So there are these very large overarching issues that have prevented this work from moving forward in the past. And people don’t want to address the really hard questions until they’re confronted with them. But the Black Lives Matter protests made sure that everyone was confronted with those questions.

A museum should reflect its population. For us specifically, as a major municipal museum, we have an even greater civic duty to do that. In a city where the majority of the population are people of color, we need to have a more diverse staff and then ensure that people from marginalized backgrounds feel they have equal footing within the organization. People of color need to be represented throughout the institution and have the power to make change and be effective. And it’s not just about race—it’s also about gender and socioeconomic status and language. It’s about reflecting society as a whole.

NQ: What do you see in your work at the museum that gives you hope?

NW: I’ve seen staff members who are questioning. They’re speaking up and taking this work on as their own. And yes, many of these people were probably already approaching that point, but establishing the Office of DEIA has demonstrated that this is an institutional priority. There are also BIPOC staff I’ve spoken to who feel they can come to the office with an issue and they don’t have to carry that weight by themselves.

I’m not new to this work. My position is new, but I’ve been here five-and-a-half years, and we’ve been having these conversations all along. Now, however, we feel empowered to do something and bring about change. That makes me optimistic.

NQ: If you imagine the museum a few years from now, what do true diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility look like?

NW: When you enter, you see the diversity of society and the city reflected back at you. Artists of all backgrounds are sharing the space and being featured. The visitors look like Philadelphia. People feel comfortable and welcomed when they come into the space. There are more opportunities for people to be who they are. There’s more collaboration between the museum and our surrounding communities and residents who don’t work here. We regularly give over our own channels. People of all ages feel deeply connected to the museum—like they own the place. Because they do.

Nicole Allen White has served as the museum’s Director of Government and External Affairs since 2016. In September 2020, she was appointed to the role of Interim Deputy Director of DEIA.

On June 28, 2021, Alphonso Atkins was appointed the museum’s Miller Worley Deputy Director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access following a nationwide search. He takes on this role August 16, 2021. In this newly established position, Atkins will be responsible for developing and overseeing a comprehensive strategy to achieve the institution’s goals of becoming more inclusive and creating a more equitable workplace culture that better reflects the diversity of Philadelphia and the global communities that the museum serves. Learn more here.

Nisa Qazi is the Director of Content and serves as Managing Editor of PMA Stories.