From Shock to No Surprise, Feelings of Frustration — and Even Optimism
When we presented people with the findings of our latest survey on representation in the art world, most were shocked. But artists were less surprised by than most; many of them live this reality every day. We asked a variety of creators and critics to respond to our survey, which found that just 11 percent of acquisitions at 30 U.S. museums were of work by female-identifying artists and only 2.2 percent were by Black American artists between 2008 and 2020.
Here’s what they said.
“There were no surprises for me reading through the thorough and infuriating Burns Halperin report; I doubt for any female artist who has been aware of the art market in any way.
When asked to respond I had way too much to say on minority rule and white male supremacy and its manifestations in inequities in the art market and museum acquisitions. So I thought of this piece of mine from 2010 [lead image].
The exact Louise Bourgeois quote I elaborated on is “A woman has no place as an artist unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated.” I thought this could be interpreted as unfair to women artists. So, I sharpened the quote to bring LB, a woman of her time, into ours.
I did this because the problem is not women. It is the world we live in.”
“The Burns Halperin report shocked me. I read proof that Black women have been egregiously excluded from museum collections and exhibitions.
I could say that these numbers are discouraging but that isn’t quite true. While it is abysmal I tend to be an optimistic person and believe that while these numbers represent the major museums. There is an underground art market where Black people buy art from Black galleries and institutions and they may not have been included in the study sample. Yet still I am aware that this study is a strong tool to expose the whitewashing in American Art.
Unfortunately Black women women have been traditionally shut out of gaining financial wealth in the United States, and the art market is no different. Fortunately I grew up with parents who taught me about strong women who succeeded despite hardships that were exponentially larger than mine. I grew up reading about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisholm and Madam CJ Walker.
I am aware that these women do not represent the majority of Black women who are negatively affected by our racially imbalanced financial system but I am also aware that determination, mass actions and demonstrations can enact change. The artists, writers and thinkers of today can face this discrimination in the art world and actively work to change it if they choose to.
We cannot pretend discrimination and racism don’t exist, we must face them.
Studies like the Burns Halperin report speak truth to power and pave the way for change and I hope that I can be a part of the long line of women activists who fought for justice and all forms of equality.”
RECOGNIZE – AND PAY – ALL THE WOMEN OF MANY COLORS WHO HAVE THE MAGIC. CELEBRATE THE WOMEN WHO HAVE MADE IT DESPITE AND BECAUSE.
Paul Anthony Smith
“There is so much to be said. The data being complied is important and gives an objective measurement to what is seen and felt. Change in the demographics of who is acquired by museums or sold at auction is happening and I do believe it is trending in a positive direction. The complexion of the art market is often dictated by who is collecting what and it trickles down to which artists get major representation. Time and time again we see museums that organize exhibitions based on popularity but it does not always align with the interests of the community that exists in it in highlighting diverse voices. Auction inclusions are also often dictated by who’s making the next big leap to a blue chip gallery or who will have the next great museum show. It’s a system I’ve watched for almost 15 years and I’m never surprised by the annual results but I do think change takes time.”
“I find these numbers useful in the sense that there’s something tangible to refer to. I’m often asked if the art world is a better place for women artists now than when I started out in the late 70’s. I got used to being the buzzkill who answered, ‘no, not really.’
Lately I hear it as more of a declarative sentence, as in, “The current art world is a better place for women artists and Black and brown artists and LGBTQ artists etc than it ever has been.”
I get it. It’s comforting for people to think there has been progress, but the numbers tell a different story or at least one other, less hopeful story. What is true is that there’s much wing-flapping and a kind of institutional hysteria around catching up, particularly around moments of cultural upheaval Like BLM and the uprising around the murder of George Floyd. But institutions competing to shift demographics of representation is not the same thing as a real reorganization of access, resources, and power. This particular souffle’ rises and then sadly collapses as soon as it gets out of the oven. It seems that these attempts at reckoning are generally followed by a dulling amnesia, insofar as substantive material change is concerned.
What I do find different about this particular moment is the questioning of institutions, histories, heirarchies and gatekeepers in a way I don’t recall happening when I was starting out, at least in my particular bubble of the art world. We (or some of us) tended to believe that the basic structures of the institutions and industry were decent. We believed that just the basic stats — representation, price points, etc — needed to change to make things right. That was not true. The systemic dysfunction of the structures weren’t called out to the degree, and with the magnitude, they are today, and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s art who cares. I’m more worried about the lack of diversity in say medicine not among those who see themselves as overly self important.”
“I commend Burns and Halperin for their urgently necessary research, which demonstrates the dismal lack of progress toward equity for Black and female-identified artists in the art market and in U.S. art institutions. Particularly surprising for me is the extreme inequity that persists in the field of exhibitions. The numbers cut through my sense of progress toward equity in exhibitions and programs in the institutions I follow, exposing a gap in perception a that only research like theirs can reveal.
It is heartening, at least, to read that the rates for acquisitions by contemporary art museum are closer to reflecting U.S. demographics than the terrible numbers for U.S. museums as a whole. That art museums are exhibiting Black artists at almost three times the rate of acquisitions (6.3% versus 2.2%), reveal the superficiality and duplicity of institutional representation and the urgent need for structural change and not just the diversification of programs.
The close correspondence between the rates at which U.S. museums are acquiring works by Black and female-identified artists and rates of auction sales indicates the continued influence of the art market on U.S. museums. I have a hard time considering the art market, an economic sector built on inequity, as a benchmark for equity of any kind. Even the Art Basel UBS Global Art Market Report now tracks increasing wealth concentration as an indicator of positive art market prospects. As an extreme example of a plutonomy within extractive patriarchal, colonial, and racial capitalism, any progress toward equity in the art market could never be more than superficial without significant structural economic change.
This is why it is all the more essential for public and non-profit museums to free themselves from its influence.”
“I have always believed that the battle is in the economy and the sale price..There is SOOOO MUCH STILL to do.
I am not bought by many museum and my auction prices are horrible and my prices are SUPER LOW compared to my peer artists.
It is depressing and frustrating.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson
“I think change will not happen until institutions, collectors and grantmakers are held accountable. There need to be coordinated actions that will, in a substantial agenda, not only call attention to the discrimination but actually limit access to the museums or galleries that are not equitable until they shift their policies and mentality. Perhaps have all galleries and museums even list percentages at the entrance?”
“While reading the Burns Halperin Report, I was hoping to be surprised at one point or another, but sadly this is mostly old news. If you frequent museums you know that there’s a history of coordinated exclusion – none of this is an accident. We can’t talk about fixing a system that’s working exactly as designed.
Controlling the narrative by controlling whose creativity, voice and presence is valued, whose objects are put on display, and whose ideas are published, has always been a key to those in power in order to maintain the status quo.
The Burns Halperin Report is incomplete. Looking at just this information without looking at who controls and makes choices in the system is critical to a holistic approach to fully addressing the coordinated exclusion. Where’s the data showing the gender, racial, and socioeconomic breakdown of the people who work in the administrative offices and are the decision makers? The directors, administrators, staff, collectors, curators, and boards of museums, art markets, galleries, auction houses? It’s important that we do not allow these institutions to include janitorial and security staff to inflate their diversity numbers. The other critical roles in this ecosystem must also be analyzed. This is the only way we can see the correlations if we actually intend to address the current system.
We are in a dangerous place right now in regards to performative actions that give the illusion of progress. Whenever an issue is inadequately addressed, the unresolved issue gets stronger and more resilient and in most cases, the harm gains momentum. This is where we are right now.”
“O que obviamente não presta sempre me interessou muito. Gosto de um modo carinhoso do inacabado, do malfeito, daquilo que desajeitadamente tenta um pequeno vôo e cai sem graça no chão.”
“What obviously sucks has always interested me a lot. I love affectionately the unfinished, the poorly done, what clumsily tries a little flight and falls awkwardly to the ground.”
“Once a year, for about 20 years, I used to go to MoMA to count the number of works made by women-identifying artists that were on exhibit in the vaunted permanent collection before 1970. Then I wrote about what I saw – or as was the case, didn’t see.
When MOMA reopened its horrendous 2004 building, that after spending three-quarters of a billion dollars, failed to add more space for the permanent collection, and then had to then be essentially rebuilt again to fix Glenn Lowry’s sad mistake – just 3% of the works on display on this shiny new building were by women.
How could that have happened? It did and that’s after the art world making all its noise about how progressive and open it was. I recall that Georgia O’Keeffe was either not on view or was by the escalators and bathrooms. Over the next seven or eight years the numbers went up. But not by much. I understand one part of this. You can’t go back and change the percent of the modernists who were women or who MoMA collected.
All collecting institutions work within very set perimeters. As an Estonian immigrant I can’t expect the Whitney to collect more great Estonian first generation Abstract Expressionists, because there probably weren’t many. But this kind of history can be corrected in places. But not by taking huge polls of multiple institutions that serve different purposes, periods, places, mediums, and much more. I view all the numbers in very large polls of what museums collect, buy, and exhibit not that telling. You can easily cook the books to make these things tell you anything you want.
Rather than polls, I pay very close attention to museum wall labels and their accession numbers. My wife, Roberta Smith, taught me that’s where the real story of a museum is told. She’s right. This number tells you exactly when the work was acquired. If the number is 2019.10.3 it might mean the work was bought in 2019, in October and was the 3rd work bought that month. You can see how and when and how much art, by whom, is entering a collection. It’s thrilling, really, this peak behind the museum curtains.
Pay attention these days and you’ll instantly see how many how many of these works are by women or under represented artists. Judging these you see how really hard – or not hard, in some cases – museums are trying to right decades or more of wrong.
Obviously, we haven’t reached anything like co-equality. It took decades to make some institutions so unrepresentative. For a time, the roadmap of Modernism was almost all in French: Take Gericault, past Delacroix, till you get to Corot, turn left at Courbet until you get to Manet; then go straight through Degas, Monet, Renoir till you get to Seurat and Van Gogh. Make a right until you get to Cezanne. It’s laughable in retrospect that anyone would fashion art in linear and nationalistic terms. But white men will be white men.
The art was great; the ideology was idiotic.
It’s going to take some time to put this world in some kind of balance.
When it comes to art by women-identifying artists, I’m thrilled that I’m finally seeing getting to see more than half the story that was missing.”