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Survey Finds White Men Dominate Collections of Major Art Museums

A comprehensive study reveals that 85 percent of artists featured in permanent collections are white, while 87 percent are men

Researchers found that white individuals represented 97 percent of artists featured in the National Gallery of Art's permanent collection (Soomness via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)
smithsonian.com

It’s been 30 years since the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective dedicated to diversifying the art world, famously asked: “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” With this provocative question, the group lambasted the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s lack of female representation—discounting, of course, the overwhelming number of women seen in nude paintings adorning the New York institution’s walls.

A landmark study published in the journal PLoS One suggests little progress has been made in the decades since the Guerrilla Girls' bold statement. An analysis of more than 40,000 works of art detailed in 18 major U.S. museums' online catalogues found that 85 percent of artists featured are white, and 87 percent are men.

According to lead author Chad Topaz of Williams College, the new survey marks the first large-scale investigation of cultural institutions’ artistic diversity. Previously, Topaz and his colleagues write in the study, researchers have focused more on demographic diversity—or lack thereof—among museum staff and visitors. (As Brigit Katz reported for Smithsonian.com earlier this year, a 2018 report revealed museums were making “uneven” strides toward equal employment, with curatorial and education departments hiring more people of color even as conservation and leadership roles remained largely dominated by white non-Hispanic individuals.)

For this latest analysis, a group of mathematicians and art historians created lists of some 10,000 artists represented in the permanent collections of museums including the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Next, the team recruited workers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform and asked them to identify various artists’ gender and ethnicity. Each set of names went through at least five rounds of classification, and responses were cross-checked in order to reach a consensus.

Overall, the researchers report that white men dominated the sample, making up a staggering 75.7 percent of the final data pool. Trailing behind were white women (10.8 percent), Asian men (7.5 percent) and Hispanic men (2.6 percent). All other groups represented in terms of both gender and ethnicity were recorded in proportions of less than one percent.

Some museums fared relatively better than others: The Guardian notes that African-American artists constitute 10.6 percent of artists in the Atlanta High Museum of Art’s collection, as opposed to just 1.2 percent across all museums studied. Meanwhile, Pacific Standards Tom Jacobs points out, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art boasts a percentage of works by Hispanic artists roughly three times the national average. Leaders in the percentage of works by women included LA MOCA at 24.9 percent and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art at 22 percent, as Eileen Kinsella reports for artnet News.

Still, the MIT Technology Review points out, disparities in representation were especially stark at the National Gallery of Art, where more than 97 percent of artists included in the collection are white, while some 90 percent are male. And, despite focusing on a period in art history that fostered more diversity than ever before, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art counts only 11 percent of female artists among those in its collection.

Although the numbers largely speak for themselves, it's worth noting that there are several limitations to the study. The authors only included artists whose identities could be determined with nearly absolute certainty. As a result, many anonymous creatives from centuries past, including those likely to have been people of color, were omitted.

Interestingly, the team writes in the study, their results showed little correlation between a museum’s stated collection goals and its level of overall diversity.

“We find that museums with similar collection missions can have quite different diversity profiles,” Topaz says in a press release, “suggesting that a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection might do so without changing its [emphasis] on specific time periods and geographic regions."

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