Walters Art Museum Confronts Its History, Shares New Strategic Planning DEAI Goals
Baltimore, MD——The Walters Art Museum announced today a series of initiatives that examine the institution’s origins and map steps to embed diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) in the organization and address many of the inequalities of the past. The first initiative is a newly written history of the Walters that includes sections on William Walters, his son Henry Walters, their support for the Confederacy, and the ways in which they profited from racist labor policies and practices before and after the Civil War. It further examines the ways in which the founders’ own worldview influenced their collecting practices and the creation of the museum that bears their name. The second component is a series of near- and longer-term DEAI goals, as a complement to the museum’s existing strategic plan, developed by a Joint Staff & Board Working Group and adopted by the Board of Trustees.
“At the Walters, we must unravel the challenging facts about our founders, our history as a public institution, and our collection. We have a responsibility to share and engage with this history to help us understand together how individuals and cultural institutions can contribute to the perpetuation of racism and systems of inequity,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director of the Walters Art Museum. “In order to engage effectively with and serve a city where the majority of the population is Black, we must openly acknowledge our past and speak directly about the work we need to do to change. Our new strategic DEAI goals are an important step in the larger process of institutional transformation and part of our active embracing of anti-racism work. Combined with our recent announcement to raise the minimum wage for our full-time hourly workers to $15 per hour, we are confident about the steps forward we are making as we kick off 2021.”
About The Walters Art Museum: Past, Present, and Future
In the past, the Walters Art Museum focused principally on explaining the creation of the museum as an outgrowth of William and Henry Walters’ philanthropy and collecting, their connections to Baltimore, and the depth and breadth of the collection. This history has been present in many places, from text on the website, to wall panels within the galleries, to special installations focused on the founders.
The Walters’ newly expanded history, available on the museum’s website and written by a cross-section of the Walters’ staff, now addresses three essential elements that have been missing from past presentations of the institution’s origins. First and foremost, the text now examines William Walters and his support for the Confederacy in the era leading up to the Civil War—and how both William and his son Henry commemorated the Confederacy over several decades after the War ended. This support manifested publicly in many ways, for example with William’s commissioning in 1887 of a public monument to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Taney authored the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Black Americans, free or enslaved, could not be citizens.
The newly written history also directly links the Walters’ business enterprises—and personal financial success—and their dependence on the Southern economies based in slavery and its legacies, part of a nationwide structure of racism and oppression. The next phase of research will include further investigation on the founders, their businesses, their collecting, and their role as philanthropists in Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere.
Lastly, the museum’s history now tackles the nature of the “encyclopedic” museum that drove collecting and connoisseurship in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The new text, called “About the Walters,” identifies the “biased and Eurocentric view of what does, and does not, represent human artistic achievement” that necessarily informed the Walters’ collecting—as well as subsequent generations of museum professionals and collectors. These changes have also been brought into the museum: the fourth-floor installation, previously known as From Rye to Raphael, has been renamed Building the Collection: 19th-century European and American Art to reflect a widened lens through which the Walters collections and history are presented. The installation includes updated information about William and Henry Walters and new labels about how the historic collection reflects beliefs about what was considered to be culturally valuable and meaningful art. Also, the installation highlights works of art that reflect current strategies to augment the collection through acquisitions, expanding our understanding of the existing collections and adding new artistic voices to the collection, most especially those of artists of color.
“As historians, the process we have embarked on is to research and share the facts we have about our founders and our institution accurately and openly,” said Marciari-Alexander. “This museum was given to the city of Baltimore in 1931, and this is fundamentally a story of Baltimore’s history—and one we hope can lead to more inclusive dialogue going forward.”
The Walters’ newly expanded history is available on the museum’s website.
Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Goals
Last year, the Walters created a Joint Staff & Board DEAI Working Group (Summer 2020) and a standing Board DEAI Committee (September 2020). The work of those two groups culminated in the museum’s Board of Trustees adopting a set of multiyear diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) goals in December 2020. These new DEAI goals are also in alignment with the museum’s 2015 strategic plan, which stated that the Walters should “situate itself more firmly in Baltimore—a diverse city that is majority African American—and the region by investing in its citizens.”
The new DEAI plan addresses five separate areas of the museum’s activities, mirroring the categories of the 2015 strategic plan: Activate the Collections; Engage through Personal Experiences; Create Innovative Partnerships; Strengthen Accountability and Sustainability; and Build a Dynamic Team. Each section includes both a concise summary of key steps that the museum has already taken, followed by a list of priority action items, some of which may be completed quickly while others will require further research and development. Among the items included are:
- Establishing a new vision for the Walters’ school and teacher programs, to deepen the museum’s impact in Baltimore City and develop a scalable statewide strategy to reach all of Maryland.
- Developing new models with strategic partners to promote workforce development in Baltimore and Maryland and to support ladders of opportunity to museum careers.
- Developing and sharing internally and externally a new compensation strategy that promotes pay equity.
- Underpinning all of the museum’s efforts with ongoing review of data, metrics, and results in order to promote understanding and accountability.
“I am very pleased with the work of our Joint Staff & Board DEAI Working Group, supported by the input of Walters staff drawn from several group conversations,” said James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr., Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Walters Art Museum and Chair of the Joint Staff & Board Working Group and Board DEAI Committee. “Through the many abhorrent events of 2020, and even more recently at the beginning of this year, the structural racism that undergirds so much of our country was revealed so clearly. That has brought a greater level of urgency and priority to our work in these areas, beginning with our honest reckoning with our past and moving to this strong set of DEAI goals for our future. We have much to accomplish, and with the support of our staff, our Trustees, and our partners across the City, I know we will achieve our goals.”
The DEAI plan is available on the museum’s website.
One of the DEAI components included is to promote pay equity and to create a clearer compensation strategy. In early January, the Walters announced that it will take the first step in this process by raising the wage floor to $15 per hour for full-time employees and bringing part time workers to $13 per hour beginning with its reopening on March 17. Then, as part of the DEAI goals articulated above, the museum will continue to evaluate its hourly and salaried pay structures, to work towards better pay equity across the institution.
“I commend the Walters for taking the initiative to ensure that their workers are paid a living wage,” said Mayor Brandon Scott. “This initiative aligns with my city-wide effort to encourage employers to raise wages for workers across Baltimore, which in turn supports the overall health and welfare of our residents.”
About The Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum is a cultural hub in the heart of Baltimore, located in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. The museum’s collection spans more than seven millennia, from 5000 BCE to the 21st century, and encompasses 36,000 objects from around the world. Moving through the museum’s galleries, visitors encounter a stunning array of objects, from 19th-century paintings of French country and city life to Ethiopian icons, richly illuminated Qur’ans and Gospel books, ancient Roman sarcophagi, and images of the Buddha. Since its founding, the Walters’ mission has been to bring art and people together and to create a place where people of every background can be moved by art. As part of this commitment, admission to the museum and special exhibitions is always free.