It has been 30 years since the guerrilla girls, a feminist collective dedicated to diversifying the art world, asked, “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” With this provocative question, the group castigated the lack of female representation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – not to mention, of course, the overwhelming number of women seen in nude paintings adorning the walls of the New York institution.
A landmark study published in the journal PLoS One suggests that little progress has been made in the decades since the bold declaration of the Guerrilla Girls. An analysis of more than 40,000 artworks detailed in the online catalogs of 18 major US museums found that 85% of featured artists are white and 87% are male.
According to the main author Topaz from Chad from Williams College, the new survey marks the first large-scale survey of the artistic diversity of cultural institutions. Previously, Topaz and his colleagues write in the study, researchers 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 found museums were making “uneven” progress toward equal employment, with curatorial and education departments hiring more people of color even as curatorial and leadership remained largely dominated by non-Hispanic white people.)
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 through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform and asked them to identify the gender and ethnicity of various performers. Each set of names went through at least five rounds of classification, and responses were cross-checked to reach consensus.
Overall, the researchers report that white males dominated the sample, making up 75.7% of the final data pool. Behind, white women (10.8%), Asian men (7.5%) and Hispanic men (2.6%). All other groups represented in terms of gender and ethnicity were recorded in proportions of less than one percent.
Some museums fared relatively better than others: Guardian notes that African-American artists constitute 10.6% of the artists in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, compared to only 1.2% in all the museums studied. Meanwhile, Pacific Standard‘As Tom Jacobs points out, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles displays a percentage of works by Hispanic artists about three times higher than the national average. Leaders in the percentage of works by women included LA MOCA at 24.9% and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York at 22%, as reported by Eileen Kinsella for artnet News.
Yet the MIT Technology Review points out, the disparities in representation were particularly stark at the National Gallery of Art, where more than 97% of the artists included in the collection are white, while 90% are men. And, despite focusing on a period in art history that fostered more diversity than ever before, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has just 11% female artists among those in its collection.
Although the numbers largely speak for themselves, it should be noted that there are several limitations to the study. The authors only included artists whose identity could be determined with almost absolute certainty. As a result, many anonymous creations from past centuries, including those likely to have been people of color, have been omitted.
Interestingly, the team writes in the study, their findings showed little correlation between a museum’s stated collecting goals and its level of overall diversity.
“We find that museums with similar collecting missions can have quite different diversity profiles,” Topaz says in a Press release“suggesting that a museum wishing to increase the diversity of its collection could do so without changing its [emphasis] over specific time periods and geographic regions.”