The blinding whiteness of American art museums


By: Kate Griffith ’21 (she/her)

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In the late 1980s, the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists founded to challenge discrimination in the art world, released a poster that read: “Only 4 commercial art galleries in New York show black women. Only 1 shows more than 1. As recent host to some of the most prolific actors in the black arts movement of the 60s and 70s, the New York art scene’s culpability in this kind of racist trend was particularly invidious. But it is perhaps surprising, too, for a second reason.

Art museums, yesterday and today, are in the habit of boasting or, more accurately, marketing a particular commitment to political awareness and representation. Striving to associate itself with the radicalism that gave birth to the avant-garde movement, and thus attract its liberal elite fanbase, many art museums adopted a familiar political identity whose motto could be: Progressive, but don’t think about it. (In fact, in 2019, when a research team from Williams College finally looked into the matter, they report “no particular relationship” between the mission of a collection and its diversity.) Currently, rigorous research on racial equity in the art world is both scarce and rudimentary. But new studies are attacking major museums to remind us that the exclusion of black artists is a viciously enduring practice.

Art museums and commercial galleries buy works of art for one of two functions: to have them in their permanent collection, which they can keep and show as they wish, or to show temporarily in an exhibition. . The relevant distinction is that collection work is a bigger investment. It requires, first of all, a lot more money. It also requires public approval of art not just as valuable, but as historic. Collections dictate what art is worth remembering. So when that same Williams College study reported that, in 18 major American art museums, only 1.2% of the pieces were made by black artists, it is crucial that researchers review only collected works. This information clarifies that while art museums can use short-term exhibitions and branding to position themselves as champions of political movements like Black Lives Matter, their investment histories tell a whiter story.

He also clarifies that very little progress has been made since the Guerilla Girls made the same case in 1986. As a white person, specifically one who pays admission to the same art museums exposed by new research, I am certainly complicit in the damage caused. . So I believe it is my responsibility, and that of anyone who engages in art, to hold wandering art museums accountable for their de facto segregation.

One problem is white money. Dr. Brittany Murray, an assistant professor in the departments of educational studies and political science at Davidson, explained a common concept in her research on marginalized communities in our public education system.

“We have these public institutions that are so underfunded that they have to rely on private partnerships,” she said. “They depend on privileges.”

Art museums, which receive the majority of their funding from private donors, are forced to market in order to solicit donations from individuals who can afford them. Although not inherently harmful, privilege addiction requires that institutions cater to the interests of privileged groups like white art rather than those in the wider community. And like the average art museum in America receives about a quarter of its funding from government programs like the Office of Museum Services and the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s not about private money funding private discrimination. (In fact, a Guerilla Girls poster from 1988 reminds audiences that Under the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, an institution that discriminates in any of its operations will be denied federal funds.)

The consequences of racial inequality in the art world are many and profound. When art museums ignore black art while asserting their political consciousness, they send a dangerous message: We’re not racist, so if it’s not here, it’s just not good enough. Their status in the public consciousness as reputable and enlightened institutions is a powerful tool. And, naturally, the gross inequity of the purchases also discourages black artists from pursuing their work professionally. According to the work of two researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, being black in America decreases the likelihood of adopting an artistic profession by about 55%.

It should also be noted that most museums identify themselves as community-based educational institutions and receive government funding in part for this reason. This particular strain of revisionist history supports the aging but pervasive conception that black art only existed in specific geographies and time periods, only among an abnormal few, and only in response to oppression. . It reduces black art to a secondary, separate, ornamental work that exists to adorn a more legitimate body of art, all at the expense of historical artists and young learners.

The same year, the Guerilla Girls released their first opus, sociologist Orlando Patterson has published a comparative study on watersheds entitled Slavery and social death. In it, Patterson identifies a process by which the black community is alienated from the legitimate social order. The mechanisms of social death persist in many forms in post-slavery America. This is relevant because it defines the more subtle racisms at play. By quietly reserving their platforms of human expression for white people, complicit art museums subvert the humanity of everyone else. Dependent on consciousness, imagination and emotional breadth, art indicates humanity. The emptiness of black art creates a false impression of underdevelopment and inhumanity, and contributes to social death.

The solutions are also numerous. Better support for black conservatives is a start. For example, when the Los Angeles Times spoke with Erin Christovale, associate curator at the Hammer Museum, she offered her position: “I think what museums really need to think about right now is that beyond just hiring us, how can you support us?” Christovale identified mentorship as an essential initiative. Mentoring, she explained, provides “…a lived experience that you can relate to, identify with, and learn from. These nuances and dynamics are crucial for us to understand how we can operate in these spaces.

When I spoke with Hallie Ringle, curator of contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, she emphasized one point in particular: representation in senior management. A 2018 study found that in American art museums, only 4% of conservatives were black and only 12% of leadership positions were held by people of color. It is these positions that decide the future of a collection and the artists who will be part of it. Ms. Ringle also explained how museums like the BMA can provide equitable support to working artists by building long-term museum-artist relationships and offering resources such as grant writing and application work.

When the Black Lives Matter movement peaked in July 2020, with an average of 140 protests per day, a representative from the nearby Mint Museum told The Charlotte Observer that “the museum’s board has 25 members with 20% BIPOC”. When I contacted senior management specifically, the rep gathered the information and found only one team member identified as BIPOC. Dr Murray, pointing to the seemingly obvious problem with predominantly white leadership in multiracial communities, said simply: “They don’t know what the community wants. They don’t know what they need.

If art museums do not engage in rectifying art history, they risk becoming artifacts themselves, defunct relics of their own limitations. If they do not commit to the future of black people, it will be these institutions that will be expelled from history, for all that they have missed.

Kate is an English student at Summit, New Jersey. She can be reached for comment at


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