Racial inequality in museums

The problem of social and racial inequality and museums is about first and foremost museums acknowledging a history of racial inequality that until now show its effects:

who they see as their audience
Who goes to museums
Who buys and owns the artworks
Who works in museums
How art is connected to gentrification
Who is funding and what requisites and power they have for doing this
Its about representation in the artists they display
Who decides what gets exhibited?
What is the role of patronage?
How works end up on museum walls?

The vast majority of decisions are still being made by white gatekeepers, despite claims of diversity and inclusion (84% museum curators are white, 93% museum directors and board chairs are white).

Even if museums allow for people with non-traditional backgrounds to diversify curatorial positions, they will have to address one of the most well-kept secrets in exhibition making: deciding which artists get wall space is rarely solely left to curators. Instead, it often hinges on the patronage of white art collectors, gallerists, and board members.

One art professional of color called museums colonial projects where rich, mostly white people have historically stored their art trophies. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, is one of the largest museums in the world, but it is largely made up of galleries paid for by wealthy white families. And these endowments come with conditions: The Met’s Robert Lehman Collection is on view forever according to a 1969 agreement bestowing the collector’s 2,600 pieces of art to the museum. Museums around the country have struck similar deals. The newly created Edlis/Neeson Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago includes 42 works by artists like Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Jeff Koons—with the stipulation that the works must stay on view for 50 years.

I grew up as a black kid in Chicago and made frequent trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw contemporary art made mostly by white artists. Their works told me what beauty was, how power looked, and that the world good enough to be displayed on museum walls did not reflect me.

It created a viewing experience that was at odds with the world I knew to be true. I knew black beauty. I knew black power. I knew black love. I encountered them in my mother’s eyes, in music videos, at church on any given Sunday, and on the street corner where my grandfather and his friends hung out. Why didn’t the people I know deserve space in that museum? Not as an occasional four-month exhibition, but permanently?

Looking at works by white male artists tells us that they define what is high art and culture— they are the ones worthy of being on display. We are not told, on museum tours with curators—whose jobs are often endowed by the families the galleries are named after—how the works ended up on the walls. It’s a slick affirmation of white supremacy, a kind of gaslighting of the public for a museum to claim that it is impartial but is quietly allowing rich white collectors to define what we see.

The museum system’s history of racism weighs on individual institutional efforts to address their roles in excluding black curators and black artists from their walls. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently announced it would sell seven works by white artists including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to increase its holdings of works by people of color and women. The sale and the mounting of solo exhibitions by black abstractionists, including Mark Bradford and the late Jack Whitten, is part of a broader strategy “to reflect the fact that the city is more than 60 percent black,” the museum’s director Christopher Bedford told VICE last year. The plan is a controversial effort, reflecting a rare radicality that speaks to the mixed reactions museums have received for their efforts to correct their favoring of white male artists over other groups.

Carrie Mae Weems held a performative lecture at the National Gallery of Art. She spoke of her three-decades-long career before turning her attention to the “skin of a building.” “We really have to understand the role of museums,” she said. “How they play contemporarily, who’s in them contemporarily, who’s not in them. Right? Right? That becomes more and more important, certainly as the country becomes more brown.” Visibly exasperated at the thought, she continued, “Major institutions are going to have to redirect the ways in which they are dealing with us.”