Artwork by Mona Chalabi, Who are You Here to See? (2019), illustrating the disparity between the demographics of artists exhibited in permanent collections, and the actual demographics of contemporary America. (photo by the artist).

The key word here, that might give someone reason to pause, is permanent. But, let me outline the argument, first.

The underlying premise is that non-white men, and women of color in particular, are systematically being excluded from the permanent collections of art museums in America due to racism and sexism. In such a case, the solution is to systematically include them until parity is achieved.

A group of researchers [including mathematicians, statisticians, a curator, and a professor of African and African American art] sought to determine the race, gender, and ethnicity of artists represented in 18 major American museums. They discovered, to everyone’s horror, that white men accounted for around 85% of the museums’ permanent collections. There’s sooooo much work left to do.

Admittedly, the researches only considered individual artists whose names were known, in which case entire collections of art from other countries were excluded (ex., 85,000 works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including pieces from Egypt, the Near East, Italy, and Greece…). I gather our esteemed statisticians are not including the Art of Africa and Oceania from the MFAB either, because a) the names of individual creators are not emphasized, and/or b) It would skew the desired result. It might be more accurate to say that the 18 museums’ collections from America and Europe conspicuously lacked non-Americans and Europeans, but I digress.

The worst museum was the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, with fully 94.7% of its artists (who can be named individually) being white and male! I thought I’d check out their permanent collection, because, well, I was a little suspicious about something.

Here’s some highlights that might explain why it’s so WHITE and MALE. The collection notably includes:

  • Nearly 70,000 prints by European and American artists, dating from the 11th century
  • Nearly 4,000 European and American paintings dating from the Renaissance
  • Nearly 3,000 European and American sculptures dating from the Renaissance

Why does their collection include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Jan van Eyck, Titian, Rubens, El Greco, and not more women of color?

My math and statistics are terrible, but even I can see a wee bit of a problem here. We are looking at the historical collection of museums, and faulting them for not reflecting the demographics of America today. Why oh why were there so few female Asian artists in the Northern Renaissance? And whatever they were doing in Asia, we exclude because they weren’t named as individual artists. Of course the demographics of artists comprising the entire history of Western art does not reflect the census data for America in the last decade. Nobody can show the art of artists who didn’t exist.

The researchers discovered that modern art and contemporary art museums had many more women than ones that cover all of art history, which might have a little something to do with there being many more practicing female artists in recent times. It’s not that their curators are more woke, it’s just much harder to find women of color from the Baroque period to give a retrospective to.

How do we solve the problem of historic American and European collections not reflecting the demographics of America today? Enter artist and data journalist (someone who writes about stats) Mona Chalabi. In a phone call to the online art magazine, Hyperallergic, she stated the problem:

“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… In measuring representation in museums, permanent collections serve as a stronger indicator compared with exhibitions.”.

Well, logically, no. Most the people in the permanent collections are long dead, and the demographics she is talking about are for living people. What percentage of the art is made by white men born after 1960? I was born a white male and I am severely underrepresented by the same museums. What percentage of white males born in Los Angeles are in the Renaissance art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Zero!

Last I was in Hongkong, I went to the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It was all Chinese art. I looked at a lot of pottery and ceramics. There was no white male art! None of my ancestors were represented in the art of the Yuan, or Ming, or Ching dynasties. [Incidentally, I lived in China for about 4.5 years, in untouristed areas, where I was one of only a handful of non-Chinese.]

C’mon Mona Chalabi and Hyperallergic, we’d have to look at the statistics only for living people, or at least people born since, say, 1900. Obviously we can’t expect historical collections to reflect racial demographics of today’s America, especially when we eliminate virtually anything in museum collections not from America or Europe. Perhaps in those other cultures, at the time, they didn’t place as much significance on the individual artist, or the names weren’t recorded, or they were lost. You can’t just cut out all the non-white art from museum collections, and then fault them for not representing art from non-white people.

Chalabi elaborated:

“People keep on telling me that Black and brown artists are being so fetishized now in museum exhibitions. They are being really sought after.. 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.”

Here she seems to be arguing that POC are getting a lot of attention in museums, just not in the permanent collections. Or perhaps she’s just being rhetorical. If I go ot the the website of the MET, I can see what their current exhibitions are:

  1. The Tale of Genji: A Japanese classic illuminated.
  2. The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East.
  3. Ragnar Kjartansson: Death is Everywhere.
  4. Camp: Notes on Fashion.
  5. Play it Loud: instruments of Rock & Roll (artists included in the exhibit: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Louis Jordan, Bo Didley…).
  6. Art of Native America.
  7. Alicja Kwade: Parapivot.
  8. Home is a Foreign Place ( art from Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia…).
  9. In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces.

That’s definitely not 85% white male art. Huh.

Let’s see what’s showing at the reviled National Gallery in DC:

  1. The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.
  2. Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice.
  3. Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings [He’s not a white man].
  4. The Roles and Representations of Animals in Japanese Art and Culture.
  5. Reinventing Realism: New Cinema from Romania.

Tintoretto is the only definitive white male artist. Maybe she’s right that non-whites are featured prominently in current exhibits. But we should not be satisfied until parity is achieved!

But if we are going to argue that there needs to be more non-white men in permanent collections, the data we’d need to look at would be for living artists in permanent collections. What percentage of living artists are in permanent collections to begin with? That’s going to be a tiny fraction of 1%. If she wants 20% of all permanent collections to be women of color, we’re going to need to make that tiny fraction of 1% of living artists in permanent collections about 100% women of color. That won’t even cut it. We’ll have to get rid of some old master stuff to make room for a Chalabi retrospective, just for starters.

Things are just as bad in London, apparently, because Chalabi discovered through her own research of online catalogues that only 15% of artists represented by the Tate are women. A quick visit to their website reveals that the Tate includes “the national collection of British art from 1500”. Here we go, here we go again. What else would anyone expect? You’ve got 500 years of almost exclusively white male artists, and you are disgusted that merely 15% of the entire collection is female. What’s the percent of female artists for the last 100 years, or 20 years? To achieve 15% historically, it’s gotta’ be a lot higher for the modern and contemporary era. What if it’s more than 50% for contemporary shows?

This is the second paragraph of Tate London’s homepage:

British art is represented by artists chosen for their contribution to its history and development, rather than their nationality alone. The collection has recently expanded its holdings of modern and contemporary artworks from Africa, Asia Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia.

Seems they, like the MET and the National Gallery, are putting in a very serious effort to expanding the non-white-male portion of their collection.

Chalabi concludes:

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… It’s going to take a long long time to reach true parity, true representation, and to undo the tide.

I’m pissed, too. I do NOT see myself represented in Italian Opera, the Terracotta Army, or Japanese woodblock prints! Seriously, how can we fix this without going back in time and changing history? For there to be parity, American art museums should, she argues, have 20% women artists of color in their permanent collections, going back a thousand years. Basically, art history should be re-written so that a quarter of today’s American population can represent a fifth of all American and European art throughout history.

What is actually desirable is that living artists are NOT discriminated against because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. That’s what we can do without magic, or help from super-advanced alien technology. And when we want to say that artists have been discriminated against, than we would like to see their art. There may be a major, undiscovered talent. I’m also all for giving people much more opportunities to make art, and to bring it back into public education, as opposed to the soul-crushing rigors of lowest-common-denominator, standardized testing. If curators are discriminating against women of color, well, they suck at their jobs, miss the point of art, and should be sacked. I’m all for women of color having the same opportunities as anyone else to make art, have it seen, and be able to make a living off of it.

We can look at stats and conclude that outstanding artists have been excluded, and rail against that. Why not find those artists and promote them to venues that aren’t prejudiced? Is the goal to reward the best artists and for the public to be able to see their art, or is the goal a stat?

Do we want more women of color in museums in order to achieve “parity”, or do we want great artists who are women of color to get the recognition their work deserves? I’m all for the latter, and not shooting down creative people out of narrow-minded prejudices rooted in biological determinism. I’d like to see the best art in the museums completely irrespective of the DNA of the artists who produced it. Whatever is getting in the way of that is the more dangerous problem to art.

There are some peculiar underlying assumptions to all of this, which are generally accepted without reflection. They are far too much to address here, but the main idea is that if museums don’t reflect the diversity of the American population, it is because of racism, sexism, and bigotry in general. But we don’t know that, for one, just because @20% of the American public is women of color, 20% of contemporary artists are also women of color. Curators can only choose from artists who have produced a significant body of work. We can’t assume that every identity group has equally produced an equal amount of work, and of equal quality. That’s really trying to make reality fit an absolutist idea. We have to look at the actual art that’s been produced.

Of course I agree with Chalabi, Hyperallergic, and the authors of the study to the degree they argue that artists should not be excluded because of how they are categorized according to their biology, sexual orientation, etc! I disagree when the argument becomes that artists should or must be included because of how they are classified by race, gender, and so on. The goal is to eliminate prejudice against artists, not to instill it in the name of the good.

Judge the artist by the art, and not the art by the artist.

I’m afraid, however, because art is so subjective, or has become so through insistence, that there is no way to estimate any objective worth of art. Art is what the rich buyers buy, what the critics peddle, and what the activists can muscle into museums. Some of that is going to be good, but some is just going to be props and trophies awarded on the basis of politics, investment, and ideological warfare.

On an individual basis, the lowly artist can only hope to make works that appeal to and engage an audience, somewhere, and against the odds of other art being propped up for all the wrong reasons.

~ Ends

4 replies on “Shocking lack of Women and Artists of Color in American Museums’ Permanent Collections

    1. Well, there’s going to need to be a moratorium on white artists being included in galleries or museums until parity is achieved, so, assuming parity is our goal, you won’t be able to show your work anywhere else. That said, you only represent roughly 30% of the US population, so, you should confine your art to the bathrooms or garage.


  1. “Why oh why were there so few female Asian artists in the Northern Renaissance?” – pretty much sums it up.

    As a female person of color, I’m embarrassed by what appears to be desperate and nasty attempts to become rich and famous by any and all means necessary. I thought we were sick of racism, sexism, and attempts to stifle people who wanted a fair chance? I thought we were for inclusion and progressive ideas and movements? Instead there seems to be a shocking lack of good sense and knowledge of history that pervades arguments, and justifications to pressure and supplant anyone that is seen as a ‘threat’ and ‘stands in the way’.

    If only we could go back in time and history and warn the people that Western civilization would be more diverse!

    Something that you might find interesting:

    The New Yorker put out a piece on the decline of history majors in universities and colleges across America. I see this as related to the current trend of ignoring history or conveniently picking out the damning bits.

    Liked by 1 person

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