In recent years, museums in the United States have been moving toward diversifying their permanent collections to remediate the historical underrepresentation of non-male and non-white artists.
However, a recent study shows that American museums still have a long way to go in diversifying their collections, as they remain overwhelmingly white and male. The study was conducted by a group of mathematicians and statisticians at Williams College (Chad M. Topaz, Bernhard Klingenberg, Daniel Turek, Brianna Heggeseth, Pamela E. Harris, Julie C. Blackwood, C. Ondine Chavoya), together with Kevin M. Murphy, senior curator of American and European Art at Williams College Museum of Art, and Steven Nelson, professor of African and African American Art at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The researchers surveyed the collections of 18 major US museums to quantify the gender, ethnic, and racial composition of the artists represented in their collections. Its findings came from a rigorous dive into the public online catalogues of these museums, deploying a sample of 10,000 artist records comprising over 9,000 unique artists to crowdsourcing, and analyzing 45,000 responses, to infer artist genders, ethnicities, geographic origins, and birth decades.
The study’s results — with all statistical caveats considered — paint a somber picture of the lack of parity in museum collections. The study found that 85.4% of the works in the collections of all major US museums belong to white artists, and 87.4% are by men. African American artists have the lowest share with just 1.2% of the works; Asian artists total at 9%; and Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists.
This examination follows recent studies meant to encourage diversity in the cultural sector, including the Andrew W. Mellon’s landmark Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey in 2015. However, this study affirms, “While previous work has investigated the demographic diversity of museum staffs and visitors, the diversity of artists in their collections has remained unreported.”
Some museum collections are more diverse than others, the study shows. The researchers found the institutions among this grouping with the highest percentage of white artists are the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (97.4%) and Detroit Institute of Arts (94.7%). The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles had the lowest (78.2%).
Museums with the highest percentage of women artists include MOCA (24.9%), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (18.1%), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (22.1%). The lowest collections of art by women are at the Detroit Institute of Arts (7.4%), Metropolitan Museum of Art (7.3%), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (8.2%).
The High Museum of Arts in Atlanta has the highest representation of Black and African-American artists (10.6% of the artists in its collection), but all other museums had 2.7% or less. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the National Gallery of Art come close to zero (considering a margin error of up to 3.7%). Asian artists are most represented at LACMA (17.7%), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (16.1%). Hispanic and Latinx artists are best represented at MOCA (6.4%) and the Denver Art Museum (5.4%).
The four largest groups represented across all 18 museums in terms of gender and ethnicity are white men (75.7%), white women (10.8%), Asian men (7.5%), and Hispanic/Latinx men (2.6%), the study says. All other groups are represented in proportions of less than 1%. The researchers also found that 44% of artists represented in these collections are from Europe, while 44.6% are from North America.
These results expose a “very weak association between collection mission and diversity,” the study says. “We interpret gender and ethnicity as demographics reflective of artist diversity, and we interpret regional origin and birth decade as reflective of a museum’s collection mission and priorities,” the researchers write, thus concluding that a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection should be able to do so “without changing the geographic and/or temporal emphases of its mission.”
“Our study finds museums that have roughly similar profiles in terms of the art they collect (time periods, geographic regions) and yet have quite different levels of representation of women and/or people of color,” Chad Topaz, a professor of mathematics at Williams College and the lead researcher in the study, told Hyperallergic in an email. “I can’t say what the more diverse museums are doing to achieve this, but I take our measurements as evidence that it can happen.”
Comprehensive and illuminating as it is, there are important caveats to the study that must be taken into consideration, Topaz emphasized. “All statements about artist demographics are limited to individual, identifiable artists,” said Topaz, further clarifying that race and ethnicity depend on how artists define themselves. Furthermore, some works have no identifiable artist. “MFAB boasts 85,000 works of art from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Italy, and other areas. These generally have no identifiable artist,” Topaz added.
What Would a Truly Representative Museum Collection Look Like?
Mona Chalabi, a New York-based artist and data journalist, took notice of the study and offered her own interpretation of its results to further elucidate the lack of diversity in museum collections.
Chalabi, who also works as the data editor at large at the Guardian US, translates complex academic spreadsheets into written pieces, illustrations, audio, and film. She has earned special renown for her ability to highlight social issues through eye-catching and often humorous illustrations based on statistical data that would otherwise be impenetrable and alienating to the layperson.
Who Are You Here to See? is a series of illustrations she showed recently at Zari Gallery in London. The work draws from the study’s findings to tell us who we see when we visit museums, but it also stretches and extends the study’s results to demonstrate what the numbers should be in a more egalitarian museum sphere.
The series of illustrations begins with a vacant museum hall, which is gradually populated with human figures indexed by gender and racial background. At the foreground of the piece, Chalabi shows a cluster of 100 figures representing the current make up of artists in an average US museum collection: 75 white men; eight Asian men; three Latinx men; one black man; 11 white women; one Asian woman; and one man of another race/ethnicity (in the study, described as American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern or North African).
“The worst represented group in the US art world are women of color. We make up just 1% of all of the artists in major collections despite the fact that we account for 20% of the US population,” Chalabi told Hyperallergic in a phone interview.
Following this conclusion, Chalabi added 189 characters in the painting’s background to represent all the people missing from US museums. She arrived at this number after arduous calculations wherein she matched census data on the overall composition of the US population with the breakdown provided by Williams College’s study. The final number represents what it would take for a museum collection to be representative of the population as a whole.
The “missing 189 people” are 79 white women, 26 Latinx women, 18 black women, seven Asian women, five women of another race/ethnicity, 22 Latinx men, 16 black men, 12 white men, and four men of another race/ethnicity.
A necessary focus on museum collections, Chalabi says, is what drew her to the study. In measuring representation in museums, permanent collections serve as a stronger indicator compared with exhibitions, she says.
“People keep on telling me that Black and brown artists are being so fetishized now in museum exhibitions. They are being really sought after,” Chalabi said, “But the permanent collections matter too. That’s where the artists are going to get a lot of their money from. So, if you’re not in the permanent collections, and just exhibited, it [becomes] so tokenistic — we have you up on our walls, but you’re not actually worth buying.”
Things don’t look a lot better in Chalabi’s home country, the United Kingdom. In a recent work that she presented at Tate in London, she examined the percentage of women artists at the museum’s permanent collection (using Tate’s online “collection data“) and found that it stands at just 15%. Tate has since made efforts to mend this imbalance, but it remains a fact that there are 5.5 male artists for every woman in its permanent collection. Chalabi shows a slow rise of women participation in the museum’s collection over time in a drip painting based on statistics she drew from Tate’s collection data, which was made public in 2014. The painting, symbolically proportioned 5:5:1 in size, shows that the trend has started changing only in recent years.
The rapid acceleration of efforts to represent marginalized communities in galleries and museums should be praised, said Chalabi, but they should also be put in perspective.
“I think galleries are trying really hard to fix that, but just because they had recent wins, it doesn’t mean that all of this history is suddenly erased,” she said. “It’s going to take a long long time to reach true parity, true representation, and to undo the tide.”
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