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Women, People of Color, and the Exclusionary Museum

Art museums have positioned themselves as the keepers of artistic culture, and are generally thought to reflect the history and values of the people they represent. Unfortunately, because American museums exist in a kyriarchal society they are often governed by kyriarchal values. Societal prejudices imbue the museums with the power to determine “good” or “bad” artwork in line with the goals of the privileged. While the process of selecting artists for museum exhibition may seem impartial, it is as flawed as the society the museum represents. For artists who do not identify as cisgender, straight, white men, discrimination hinders career advancement and contributes to their exclusion from the canon. Ultimately, museums are influenced and reinforced by kyriarchal standards in a way that negatively affects the careers of artists outside of the mainstream.

Museums and galleries are driven by the desires of the wealthy and privileged, a group primarily dominated by white men. According to a 2012 study of High Net Worth Philanthropy by the Bank of America, “of the nearly $300 billion donated last year more than 70% was given by individuals, of which roughly half was given by the wealthiest 3% of American households”.[1]  To put that into context, approximately half—$150 billion—of all American charitable donations by individuals were given by just 3% of the wealthiest households. Because of these findings, organizations like the American Alliance of Museums recommend pursuing few wealthy donors as opposed to large numbers of poor or middle-class donors. In their annual report, TrendsWatch 2013, the organization recommends that museums “Consider a strategy of pursuing bigger gifts from fewer people”.[2]

While focusing on obtaining gifts from wealthier donors is one of the most effective ways for museums to quickly raise funds, it forces them to value the opinions of the wealthy over the lower and middle-classes. Furthermore, because of the extreme racial inequality present in the American upper class, the interests of white people are drastically overrepresented. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, “While all major racial/ethnic groups are represented in the wealthiest 1%, the group is more likely to be white and less likely to be black than the bottom 99%”.[3] More specifically, of the wealthiest 1% of Gallup’s poll, 78% of responders identified as Non-Hispanic white, only 2% as Non-Hispanic black, and 19% as Other nonwhite.[4] Other reports show the wealthiest 1% of the United States as being even whiter, with a 2012 New York Times article reporting the group as 82% white.[5]

Some museums are trendsetters, but most of the established fine art museums merely reaffirm existing narratives. These museums go with the “safe” choice of artists who have already been approved by mainstream critics, galleries, and collectors. Galleries themselves are biased toward artists who are white, identify as men, and have other characteristics valued by kyriarchal society. For example, although MFA programs include women artists at 65% to 75%, men somehow dominate the gallery system with approximately 70% representation.[6] It is not a matter of women deciding against pursuing an art career; this gender gap appears post-graduation. Women want to be artists but galleries do not want to represent them. This is at least partially a result of living in a society that values the contributions of men and white people over women and people of color.

One of the contributing factors to the erasure of women and people of color in the art world is the incorrect assumption that there are no artists from these groups creating work that is “good enough”, and that if there were, they would be known. Multiracial black artist Adrian Piper recorded a an example of this in a statement by 20th century art critic Rosalind Krauss, in which Krauss “doubts that there is any unrecognized African-American art of quality, because if it doesn’t bring itself to her attention, it probably doesn’t exist”.[7] Possibly the biggest issue with this belief is the idea that “good” art would make itself evident, and that black artists would receive recognition if only their work were “good enough”.

Adrian Piper, Race Card

Adrian Piper, Race Card

The question then raised is, who is in charge of determining what art is worthwhile? Museum workers are overwhelmingly white, with the upper-level, curatorial positions even more overwhelmingly so.[8] Eric Siegel, director of the New York Hall of Science, commented on an early version of the American Association of Museums’ (Now the American Alliance of Museums) 2010 trends paper, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, saying, “too many middle aged hypereducated white people are going to limit the degree to which museums incorporate other points of view”.[9]  As of 2010, 80% of museum studies majors were white, and the numbers do not appear to be improving quickly enough to match United States demographics.[10]

In another article, Piper compares the treatment she received when critics viewed her as a white artist or as a black artist. In one anecdote, a potential employer—who viewed Piper as white—offered her a tenure-track job in the university’s graduate department. Piper declined the position only to receive from him another offer two years later, for a less appealing, temporary visiting position teaching undergraduates. The difference was, this time the employer knew she was black. In fact, he condescendingly related to one of Piper’s current colleagues that the employer’s administration was pressuring him to integrate the department, implying this was the primary reason for the offer.[11]

Black artists are discouraged in many ways from promoting their work and from exhibiting in major galleries. Many people of color learn from an early age to be wary of opportunities for fear of being taken advantage of. Performance artist Coco Fusco wrote of an incident in which a prominent ethnographic filmmaker lured her under false pretenses to his home, where he stripped to his underwear, voiced wishes to see her naked, handed Fusco a basket while instructing her to gather berries and nuts, and then ripped her shirt when she was finally able to leave.[12] Fusco had pursued this opportunity to work in film with a prominent filmmaker, and was punished with the white filmmaker’s racist colonial fantasies. This incident may be an extreme example, but the same discouraging effect can be achieved by small, repetitive actions of racism or sexism. Women and people of color learn to be wary, and in this way miss out on opportunities. Of course, even when minority artists promote their work they face discriminatory selection processes from people who have been raised to believe in kyriarchal ideals.

Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Madrid, 1992

Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gomez-Pena, performance of Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Madrid, 1992

Artists who are not represented in museums are less likely to be included in art historical canon. Lacking museum support, artists are excluded from art history texts or have their work recast as “links” between more critically acclaimed white, male artists. By failing to fairly represent women and people of color in museum and gallery spaces we are not only hindering their careers at present, but also preventing them from taking their spot in history.

Art museums are the keepers of culture, but American culture is sexist, racist, and discriminatory in many ways. Artists are selected for museum exhibition because of kyriarchal factors that promote pandering to wealthy white men. The same factors affect how museums determine what work is “good” art and imbue these institutions with the power to make those decisions. Without correcting these inequalities, artists outside the mainstream of kyriarchal society will continue to suffer from lack of representation and from unfair treatment by the art world.

 Bibliography 

“Demographic Transformation and…What Next? A Call to Action.” Center for the Future of Museums. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2010/06/demographic-transformation-andwhat-next.html (accessed May 18, 2014).

Dewan, Shaila, and Robert Gebeloff. “One Percent, Many Variations.” The New York Times. N.p., 14 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/the-1-percent-paint-a-more-nuanced-portrait-of-the-rich.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

Fusco, Coco. “The Other History of Intercultural Performance.” In English is Broken

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “2012 Bank of America Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy Finds Donors Firmly Committed to and Highly Engaged With Nonprofits.” Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/news/article/2012-bank-of-america-study-of-high-net-worth-philanthropy-finds-donors-firmly-committed-to-and-highly-engaged-with-nonprofits (accessed May 18, 2014).

Merritt, Elizabeth E., Philip M. Katz., TrendsWatch 2013, Vol #2. Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2013. 11.

Piper, Adrian. “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. Vol 2. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Piper, Adrian. “Passing for White, Passing for Black.”

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. “1%” Is More Republican, but Not More Conservative.” Gallup Politics. http://www.gallup.com/poll/151310/u.s.-republican-not-conservative.aspx (accessed May 18, 2014).

Steinhauer, Jillian. “Tallying Art World Inequality, One Gallery at a Time.” Hyperallergic. http://hyperallergic.com/117065/tallying-art-world-inequality-one-gallery-at-a-time/ (accessed May 18, 2014).

“The Museum Workforce in the United States (2009) A Data Snapshot from the American Association of Museums.” American Association of Museums. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/center-for-the-future-of-museums/museum-workforce.pdf?sfvrsn=0 (accessed May 18, 2014)


[1] Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “2012 Bank of America Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy Finds Donors Firmly Committed to and Highly Engaged With Nonprofits.” Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/news/article/2012-bank-of-america-study-of-high-net-worth-philanthropy-finds-donors-firmly-committed-to-and-highly-engaged-with-nonprofits (accessed May 18, 2014).

[2] Merritt, Elizabeth E., Philip M. Katz., TrendsWatch 2013, Vol #2. Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2013. 11.

[3] Saad, Lydia. “U.S. “1%” Is More Republican, but Not More Conservative.” Gallup Politics. http://www.gallup.com/poll/151310/u.s.-republican-not-conservative.aspx (accessed May 18, 2014).

[4] Saad, Lydia. “U.S. “1%” Is More Republican, but Not More Conservative.” Gallup Politics.

[5] Dewan, Shaila, and Robert Gebeloff. “One Percent, Many Variations.” The New York Times. N.p., 14 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/the-1-percent-paint-a-more-nuanced-portrait-of-the-rich.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

[6] Steinhauer, Jillian. “Tallying Art World Inequality, One Gallery at a Time.” Hyperallergic. http://hyperallergic.com/117065/tallying-art-world-inequality-one-gallery-at-a-time/ (accessed May 18, 2014).

[7] Piper, Adrian. “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. Vol 2. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. 1.

[8] “The Museum Workforce in the United States (2009) A Data Snapshot from the American Association of Museums.” American Association of Museums. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/center-for-the-future-of-museums/museum-workforce.pdf?sfvrsn=0 (accessed May 18, 2014).

[9] “Demographic Transformation and…What Next? A Call to Action.” Center for the Future of Museums. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2010/06/demographic-transformation-andwhat-next.html (accessed May 18, 2014).

[10] Demographic Transformation and…What Next? A Call to Action.” Center for the Future of Museums. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2010/06/demographic-transformation-andwhat-next.html (accessed May 18, 2014).

[11]Piper, Adrian. “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” 28.

[12] Fusco, Coco. “The Other History of Intercultural Performance.” In English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. New York City: New Press, 1995. 12-13.

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