We Need More Artistic Diversity in Museums

Art and history are intrinsically intertwined, as history, whether it be that of ancient societies or the modern day, is exhibited within artworks left behind. One of the most important jobs art has, then, is the preservation and exportation of history. It is by no surprise then that museums have become the cornerstones of art and history, as they act as a preserver and teacher for their guests. So why, when given this grand opportunity to exhibit the history of the world and its various cultures, do museums choose to continue promoting the same Eurocentric history of the world we have been fed our whole lives? Art museums, despite claims that they are trying to do better, have not done enough to expand diversity in their galleries, as most still revolve around the works of white European men. Meaning, museums are perpetuating a one-sided, Eurocentric history that has dominated the art historical field since its inception as they continue the cycle of spreading and teaching an incorrect, colonialist, and Eurocentric version of history.

Recently, art historians have begun to look deeper into both the study and exhibition of artworks and how their study and exhibition connects to the way in which colonialist and Eurocentric ideals are maintained within society. The community has begun to reshape who has the loudest voice in the room when discussing art history, providing opportunities for women and artists of color to be listened to for the first time. As a result of this new acceptance, new fields of art historical study are beginning to take shape, such as anticolonial art history and Latin American art history. In these fields, art historians have begun to look into the various ways in which art is used as a socially engaged form. Meaning, art historians are beginning to inspect the ways in which art can be used by colonized people to break free from their colonizer’s control. To many of these art historians, it is through the acceptance and legitimation of indigenous and traditional artworks that this “decolonization of the past” can happen. However, the true obstacle these new groups face is legitimization, as this can only occur once museums accept and display the art, as having your art displayed in a museum brings it into the art history canon alongside artworks that have already been globally accepted.

Legitimization, however, is a double-edged sword. It is here in which the concept of the modern exhibitionary complex becomes necessary to explain. The modern exhibitionary complex, which began in the mid-nineteenth century in French salons, refers to the modern understanding people have of museums and the exhibition of art. Like art museums today, salons presented the general public with artworks from artists trained by the national French art school. They would commonly be places in which the masses gathered to talk and criticize the artworks being shown. Because they provided the general public with the ability to view artworks, salons created the foundation for the concept of “art for the many,” as they allowed for artistic consumption to be experienced by more than just the wealthy few.

Salons took much of their inspiration and organization from the German wunderkammer and kunstkammern, or “cabinets of curiosity.” Often simply a room in a wealthy patron’s home, these rooms would display the patron’s most desirable goods from their travels abroad. They would typically display artifacts from their country’s colonies without any regard for their cultural and traditional meanings. Expanding on this idea, colonialist powers such as France and England used this concept in their International Expositions, exhibitions that were held open to the general public as attempts to show the host country’s colonialist supremacy. Alongside artworks from the host countries, these exhibits would display stolen artifacts from the host country’s colonies in an attempt to showcase their colonial supremacy to Europe and the world, as the colonialist powers believed that the capital worth of the colony’s artifacts would prove their economic and political dominance. A precursor for the way in which non-Western art would be displayed in museums today, these exhibitions would center an overwhelming amount of European art while hiding colonial art and artifacts in the shadows, treating them as afterthoughts only used to promote a political ideal. Art from the colonies would not be given the same amount of recognition or praise as “traditional” European art, deemed “primitive” in comparison to the latter. The exhibitions would also go so far as to separate them, making sure that non-Western art was placed in the shadows of European art.

This idea, of diminishing non-Western art, became the norm for many museums. It is for this reason that many museums today follow the same template created in these international exhibitions. In the words of Professor Charlene Villaseñor Black, Professor of Chicano Art at UCLA, museums have become the physical embodiments of colonial power and colonialism. A leading scholar in Chicano Art, she describes both the benefits and drawbacks of the modern exhibitionary complex, as she underlines the double-edged sword that is legitimization through museums. The ratio of non-Western to Western art supports the insinuation that non-Western art holds a smaller degree of importance as many museums fail to include equal amounts of art from both sources. Museums continue to perpetuate the idea of Western supremacy in a post-colonial world through the way in which they exhibit their art.

In an investigation done by the Data4Justice Curriculum in collaboration with the National Math Festival and the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (QSIDE), a total of 18 major U.S. art museums were investigated in regard to the diversity in their art galleries. The group researched the public online catalogs of these museums, looking into a 10,000- artist record sample, and asking over 9,000 individual artists questions pertaining to the investigation. In the end, they came out with about 45,000 responses. Out of this, they found that out of all the artists that were being represented in the museums, and more specifically those artists that were being surveyed, 85% of them were white and 87% were male. Clearly, a disproportionate amount of art being shown in major American art museums is created to appeal to a specific demographic: white people.

An overwhelming number of artists in major American museums are white, with Asian artists in a distant second. It is even more interesting when you take into consideration the fact that within the minority groups, another lack of equality and representation emerges. In most of the museums, Hispanic artists hold the smallest percentage of exhibitionary space. When taking into account art history as a field, the blatant lack of Hispanic art in museums makes sense, as Latin American art history, as a field of study in art history, is relatively new. By being new, it has not had the opportunity to experience legitimization and scholarly research, something which is necessary if artworks are to be displayed in a museum. However, this is not a valid excuse for museums, as the reason why it is a relatively new field is because of the data shown in the chart. By constantly showing their visitors art by white, European men, the only art historical fields that were given the opportunity to form and take root were those pertaining to European art. 

The most surprising outcome of the chart is that regarding the National Gallery of Art, located in Washington D.C.. Centered in the nation’s capital, this museum should strive to encapsulate the spirit of the whole nation, rather than solely their white demographic. Interestingly enough, out of their whole collection, which contains 2,307 artworks on display, only about 309 artworks, or 13.394%, are from American artists, or 13.394%. The National Gallery of Art’s collection’s white artists take up about 95% of the collection as a whole. American or not,the National Gallery of Art very clearly chooses to display art that panders to a majority white audience, promoting American ties with Europe rather than with the world as a whole. The museum furthers this Eurocentric connection by only displaying one non-Western country: China. Museums such as the National Gallery of Art should make it their mission to display the story of all their citizens, rather than the story of a select few. As a population, we have heard and understood the story of European expansion and domination, meaning it is now time for museums to begin describing the history of those left in the shadows. 

The lack of diversity runs deeper when one also takes into consideration gender diversity and representation. This division is most easily seen in the above graph. Compiling data from the original 10,000 artist sample, Data4Justice designed the above tree graph to depict the ways in which the problem of diversity runs deeper when one accounts for artistic gender identity. Clearly, men from North America and Europe take up more than half of the total artist pool, making up about 75%. Women from North America make up about 10%, with men from Asia and the Pacific making up a little less than 10% as well. The rest is made up of women from Europe, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, and Africa, as well as men from Latin America and Africa. Clearly, major museums in America contain a bias, as they continue to only represent and push a male Eurocentric view of history, one that, by extension, promotes a continued acceptance of colonialist doctrine. History is written by the victor, and very clearly the victor throughout history has been white men, as they have colonized and taken the world for themselves, disregarding colonized cultures and colonized people. As also shown in the graph, women from Africa are the most underrepresented in museums, and by extension the most underrepresented in history and culture. In comparison to women, male artists are seen to dominate and overshadow women, as many museums hold more than a 2:1 ratio of male to female artists. 

This inequality in representation is also found in the way in which museums are laid out. As shown in the above figure, out of the four main sections of the museum only half of one is dedicated to non-Western art. More specifically, the half that is dedicated to non-Western art only focuses on art from Asia, more specifically China, Japan, India, and Korea. It is interesting to note that while the section before this contains Christian iconography art from Europe, this half section is expected to depict the entire history of Asian art. In other words, an eighth of the museum is dedicated to one of the most densely populated and ancient regions of the world. The inequalities are clear especially when you consider the way in which the gallery before the Asian Art gallery, Medieval to Early Renaissance, only spans about 400 years and one continent. A continent that is important to underline experienced fairly uniform artistic trends and cultures. However, the Asian Art galleries, which span from Ancient Asian Art to contemporary and modern Asian Art, as well as multiple countries with vastly different cultures, are expected to portray drastically more information and history within the same space. Asian Art galleries are not created with the intent to display the various cultures and traditions of Asia, rather they are hidden behind Medieval and Early Renaissance European art as it is pushed into the shadows. It is these subtleties in museum layouts where artistic inequalities are truly grounded in. 

Here the way in which museums were designed to resemble Greco-Roman temples also must be considered. Museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art bring to mind ancient temples such as the Parthenon or Temple of Olympian Zeus through their roof and column structure. Most times, one must walk up a set of stairs when entering a museum, a process symbolic of entering into a higher realm, which in most ancient societies was symbolic of entering into the world of the gods. However, rather than holding sculptures of deities, museums hold artworks. When considering all this, one can conclude that museums are created in such a way that viewers are made to worship the art, much like one would worship a temple’s deity. This way in which art is created to be seen must be taken into consideration when considering diversity in art museums. By only having a select few regions of the world on display to be “worshiped,” people are taught and conditioned to believe in those cultures’ supremacy. Recent art historical research has begun to try and fight against this, as it has tried to learn art history through the lens of the colonized nations rather than the colonizer nations. However the process is slow, and definite progress has yet to truly be uncovered. 

Because art, in of itself, represents the most intimate way in which someone may view history and their life, art exhibits the most intimate and personal collection of history. It preserves someone’s most inner thoughts and emotions, while also preserving and exhibiting their culture and life. By exhibiting it in museums, people are given the opportunity to witness and interact with cultures of the past better than we could if people would only learn of them from textbooks. As the cornerstones of art and history, museums have the responsibility to make sure to provide their audiences with the most unbiased and global view of history  possible. By gatekeeping and hiding non-Western art, whether it be because the museum simply lacks the art—such as the National Gallery of Art—or because the museum hides the art behind Western art—such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art—museums place a higher level of importance on Western culture and history. Non-West cultures and histories, then, become almost like a mere feature or supporting act in museums, as they are made to have a lower level of importance.However, there can be, and are, solutions to this. The change of layout in museums is one of the main ways in which change is beginning to be enacted. Museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have created layouts in which art is classified by time period and “-isms” (Realism, Futurism, Impressionism, etc.) rather than geography. Not only does this new layout allow people to experience art from various parts of the world, but it also allows visitors to see the ways in which different cultures and artistic practices worked alongside and influenced one another on a global scale. Most importantly, this new classification does not designate specific areas of the museum to a certain geographical location, meaning that museums have the liberty to grow and incorporate as much art as they may wish from varying locations without worrying about potentially running out of gallery space. Thus, museums have the ability to do better, and they have more than enough money to fund these expansions and changes. It is not hard for museums to adapt to the changing times and expand their reach in terms of artistic diversity. We are simply asking museums to do what they should have done since the beginning.

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