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Danielle Linzer never intended to work in museums. And that’s a good thing, as it was her boots-on-the-ground experience in social services and community organizing that led her to become an agent of change in the slow-to-change field. Now the director of learning and public engagement at The Andy Warhol Museum is also one of 10 senior fellows for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion chosen by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in an unprecedented effort to diversify museum boards and leadership.
Q: How did you end up in museum education?
A: I had been working in documentary filmmaking on projects about immigration policy post-9/11 and the democratic process, when a position opened up at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an immigration museum that has a social justice-oriented mission. I initially worked on digital heritage and community outreach for them and, over time, I fell very much in love with museum education. It seemed the combination of real objects, real stories, and the power of place could change people’s hearts and minds, and impact them in a way that other places of recreation and formal learning couldn’t.
Q: At The Warhol—and, before that, at the Whitney Museum of American Art—you’ve prioritized the voices of the underrepresented: immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ teens. Why?
A: Some people feel very comfortable in museums. They’ve been taught their entire lives how to be in that space, how to use it, how to engage with objects. And they feel a sense of ownership. It’s been more interesting for me to open the doors a little wider and see what happens when new people can come into the space and start to make meaning from our collections and bring their voices and perspectives to bear on these objects. It’s complicated and challenging work. It requires us to question some of our practices that may be putting up barriers. But it’s been the most rewarding thing to find the way that these objects we hold, in a kind of public trust, are brought to life in new ways through new people being empowered to experience and connect with them.
Q: Do these new voices extend beyond the visitor?
A: We’ve gone from thinking about the audiences we serve to thinking about staff representation and how do we create better pathways and pipelines so that more kinds of people can get in the door. How do we break down the structural inequities of these institutions? And now, we know it’s got to be about the board as well. It’s got to be about the finances, the leadership, the strategy—from soup to nuts. Museums include overwhelmingly white faces, and we live in a white minority world. It just can’t continue to be that way if we think museums have a real purpose in our future.
Q: Has change found its way to the top at The Warhol?
A: In sharing with our advisory board members some of the efforts we’ve been making, they started to examine themselves and say, “we want greater diversity among our ranks; we want to be reflective of the city and its talent, its youth, and its diversity.” So we recently adopted a program intended to engage younger, more diverse representatives who are emerging leaders. We’ve invited four really incredible new advisory board members. And that’s the kind of action that the Facing Change initiative that AAM is now undertaking is intended to catalyze all over the U.S.
Q: What is your role as an AAM fellow?
A: The 10 of us are going to be working in five cities around the U.S., coaching and partnering with museum boards as they learn about these issues and adopt their own inclusion plans. We’ll be collaborating with these museums; I’ll be sharing some of what we’ve learned at The Warhol and throughout my career in this work. At the same time, I’ll be continuing my own professional development in this arena and bringing new resources and best practices back to Pittsburgh.
I think it’s incredibly important to remember that this work is never done. It’s not like checking a box. It’s about a set of values, and a commitment to a process, and to learning and being humble, and to being wrong sometimes, and to being right sometimes. What I’ve found doing this work for the last 10 or 15 years is, at each step, when it’s a step in the right direction, it just reveals to you that there are five more steps to take.
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