By: Kate Griffith ‘21 (she/her)

Courtesy guerrillagirls.com

In the late eighties, the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists founded to expose discrimination in the art world, published a poster that reads, “Only 4 commercial art galleries in N.Y. show black women. Only 1 shows more than 1.” As recent host to some of the most prolific players of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties and seventies, the New York art scene’s culpability in this kind of racist trend was uniquely iniquitous. But perhaps it’s surprising, too, for a second reason.

Art museums, then and now, have a habit of touting or, more accurately, marketing a special commitment to political consciousness and representation. Scrambling to associate themselves with the radicalism that incepted the avant-garde movement, and therefore attract its trailing liberal-elite fan base, many art museums adopted a familiar political identity whose motto might read, Progressive, but don’t look into it. (In fact, in 2019, when a research team at Williams College did, eventually, look into it, they reported “no particular relationship” between a collection’s mission and its diversity.) Presently, rigorous research on racial equity in the art world is both rare and rudimentary. But new studies are taking on big-name museums to remind us that the exclusion of Black artists is a viciously enduring practice. 

Art museums and commercial galleries buy art for one of two functions: to own in their permanent collection, which they can curate and show as they’d like, or to show temporarily in an exhibition. The relevant distinction is that collecting work is a bigger investment. It requires, first of all, a lot more money. It also requires a public endorsement of the art as not just valuable, but historic. Collections dictate which art deserves to be remembered. So when that same Williams College study reported that, in 18 major U.S. art museums, only 1.2 percent of pieces were made by Black artists, it’s crucial that the researchers only examined collected work. This information clarifies that while art museums can use short-term exhibition and branding to position themselves as champions of political movements like Black Lives Matter, their investment histories tell a whiter tale. 

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

One problem is white money. Dr. Brittany Murray, Assistant Professor in Davidson’s Educational Studies and Political Science Departments, explained a concept prevalent 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’re privilege-dependent.” 

Art museums, which receive the majority of their funding from private donors, are forced to commercialize in order to solicit donations from individuals who can afford it. While not inherently harmful, privilege dependence requires institutions to cater to the interest of privileged groups like white art rather than those of the larger community. And, as 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, this is not a matter of private money funding private discrimination. (In fact, a 1988 Guerilla Girls poster 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 inequity in the art world are many and far-reaching. When art museums ignore Black art while simultaneously 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 public consciousness as reputable and enlightened institutions is a powerful tool. And, naturally, the flagrant purchasing inequity also disincentivizes Black artists from pursuing their work professionally. According to the work of two researchers at the University of Southern Denmark, being Black in America decreases the likelihood of uptake of an artistic occupation by about 55 percent.

It’s also worth noting that most museums identify as community educational institutions, and receive government funding in part for that reason. This particular strain of revisionist history props up the aging, but pervasive, conception that Black art has existed only in specific geographies and periods, only among an anomalous few, and only in response to oppression. It reduces Black art to secondary, separate, ornamental work that exists to decorate a more legitimate body of art, all at the expense of historic artists and young learners. 

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

The solutions, too, are many. Better support for Black curators 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 be thinking through right now is that, beyond just hiring us, how can you support us?” Christovale identified mentorship as one critical initiative. Mentorship, she explained, offers “… a lived experience that you can understand, relate to, learn from. Those nuances and dynamics are crucial to us in terms of understanding 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 focus in particular: representation in senior leadership. A 2018 study revealed that, in American art museums, only 4 percent of curators were Black and only 12 percent of executive leadership positions were filled by people of color. It’s those positions that decide the future of a collection and the artists who will be part of it. Ms. Ringle also shared how museums like the BMA can provide equitous support to working artists by establishing long-term museum-artist relationships and offering resources like grant-writing and application work.

When the Black Lives Matter movement reached a fever-pitch in July of 2020, averaging 140 demonstrations per day, a representative from the nearby Mint Museum told The Charlotte Observer that “the museum’s board of trustees has 25 members with 20% BIPOC.” When I reached out specifically about senior leadership, the representative collected the information and found only one member on the team identifies as BIPOC. Dr. Murray, underscoring the seemingly obvious problem with mostly white leadership in multi-racial communities, said simply, “They don’t know what the community wants. They don’t know what they need.”

If art museums don’t commit themselves to rectifying art history, they risk becoming artifacts themselves, defunct relics of their own limitations. If they don’t commit themselves to Black futures, it will be those institutions who are pushed out of history, for how much of it they missed. 

Kate is a English major from Summit, New Jersey. She can be reached for comment at kagriffith@davidson.edu