By Kimberly Hermo
A recent study has discovered that 85% of artists represented in U.S. art institutions are white. Yet, the population of the United States is only 60.7% white. Is this discrepancy indicative of racism in the art world, both in the U.S. and closer to home?
The reasons for racial imbalance in art collections are, of course, complicated – so much so that they often go unquestioned. A popular defence of the lack of representation is that art by people of colour was never favoured in its time. Yet art being unappreciated ‘in its day’ hasn’t stopped white artists like Van Gogh from being shown in galleries – so why is this excuse used for artists of colour? This view also biases European history as the supreme influencer in art history – what about Native and Latin American art, Asian art, African art? Shockingly, the survey also discovered that 88% of art institutes’ collections are about European and North American art. The root of this problem does not seem to be historical accuracy, but a collective disinterest in recognising the contributions of other cultures.
As long as white people get to tell the story, people of colour will be misrepresented. The preference for white art under any pretext inevitably leads to a normalisation of the ‘white gaze’. Art by people of colour is necessary for a wider progressive movement that challenges the assumption of beauty and good art. Prioritising white artists for the sake of ‘history’ is, whether unintentional or not, a political statement that is being hijacked as an acceptance of white supremacy, which should be reason enough for us to challenge the control of the white perspective over art institutions.
Some galleries have taken measures to confront the destructive colonial attitudes evidenced in so much white art. For example, the Met Museum is currently showing “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America” where Native American artist Wendy Red Star questions and reveals racist stereotypes fuelling these depictions, alongside the colonialists’ artwork. This is a good start, but it still cannot justify the discrepancy of artists shown. A new narrative must be put forth in order to reflect, and rebalance, the ethnic diversity of artists throughout history.
I believe one solution lies in employing more people of colour in influential roles. According to a comprehensive survey of U.S. art institutions, despite a 4% increase since 2015, people of colour are consistently underrepresented as museum staff. Curator and art historian LaTanya S. Autry noted that for years, she has been the only person of colour at curator meetings. In consequence, when she “proposed programming centred on issues of racial inequality, white co-workers told [her] that the museum had to maintain a neutral stance”.
We all must be active in demanding a diverse collection to support artists of colour and the perspective they represent. One way we can do this is through making art institutions conscious of their unconscious bias towards white people. The artist Elizabeth Meggs noticed that The Morgan, a large museum hosting multiple exhibitions, has scheduled exclusively white male artists in their upcoming 2019 exhibitions. Her consequent change.org petition gained traction and resulted in response and change by the museum. Small acts like these show it’s worth putting pressure on museums to diversify their collection. This is something we can all do, through tweets and petitions alike.
So, are art institutions racist? Yes, but not in a Hollywood way where white folk parade around abhorred at the celebration of a black artist. Racism, as in many creative areas, is more subliminal, weaving its way into our consciousness through appreciation of art that is imbued with a white European perspective, leading us to think that this is a cultural norm. Research like this is vital in revealing subconscious white power even in ‘progressive’ fields like art. If we want to celebrate diversity in our societies, we can start here: the place where tourists visit to learn about our values, the place that kids may go on school trips and holidays, the place where history is expressed and creativity is championed. I hope one day any person of colour can feel as welcomed there as I, a white person, do.
Illustration by Kaitoise