Monochrome: Diversity in the Art Industry

Courtesy of Here and Now

Courtesy of Here and Now

By Jaylin Paschal

Challenge: Name five black visual artists. (Contemporary or found in textbooks.)

Can't? Okay, fine. To make it easier, we can expand it to five visual artists of color.

Still no?

Okay, then just flip through the nearest Juxtapoz and list all the artists of color featured. If that doesn't get you to five, try an issue of Art Forum.

If you're list is at five now, but you want to see if you can get to ten, go the museum. One that's not culturally or ethnically exclusive. Add all of the featured artists of color to your list. That might get you to your goal. It might.  You may have to just let the "African and Asian" arts section make up for the scarcity.

Ironically enough, the "art world" is isn't so global, but rather heavily eurocentric. Art magazines, galleries, history, and museums all prove this to be true. Artists of color rarely receive the same recognition or exposure white artists may receive. Despite the vastness of the industry, and the saturation of people of color within it, minority artists simply don't have the same platform.

To put this into context, we'll examine the Whitney's 2014 Biennial. The exhibition featured 103 artists. Only nine of these artists were black. If you include art collectives and a fictional artist (Yes, a fictional artist.), 8.2% of the the artists were black. Unsurprisingly, 77% of these artists were white. Only 7.4% of artists were of Asian descent, while 3.7% were Latino, and 1.8% were Middle Eastern (Huffington Post).

Museums and magazines should be reflective of their audiences, as every source of media should be. Representation matters. But they're not. Artists of color are extremely underrepresented on a regular basis. The curation of art in galleries and in print somehow glosses over their work, leaving them with little acknowledgment, less opportunity, and smaller paychecks. Now, don't get me wrong--a Basquiat or Kahlo piece would be showcased in any gallery, and auctioned at nearly any price. But they're more of the exception than the rule, and often their work is not just appreciated for what it is, but exploited through tokenism.

You know that "black friend" that your racist coworker claims? Yeah. That's Basquiat. He's the go-to cop out; the "Listen, our museum is inclusive. Our best collection is Basquiat."

Similarly, the art industry is male-oriented. I'd argue it'd be difficult for the average person to name any five women artists as well. Or find them in magazines. Or see their work in museums. Remember that Whitney exhibition? Only 32% of the artists represented there were women.

However it's not simply the curation of artwork that lacks diversity, it's the group of curators themselves. Here's a breakdown of the composition of museum boards, courtesy of the Association of Art Museum Directors:

"Board Source reports that despite a widespread acknowledgement of the importance of board diversity, many nonprofit boards are struggling to achieve board composition that reflects their values in terms of diversity and inclusivity and boards remain majority:

  • White:  80% of all board members are white (25% of boards are 100% White)
  • Male:  52% of all board members are male
  • Older:  57% of all board members are 50 years of age or older

Among museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders, only 4 percent are African American and 3 percent Hispanic."

Granted, these museums are scrambling to fix this problem by actively working to add minorities to their leadership positions and into their galleries.

Now of course, percentages and quotas are not what matters to artists and art enthusiasts. And furthermore, that's not what diversity is about. Artists of color should not be embraced for tokenism, but because of all that they add to the art community: imagination, creativity, and perspective. The industry will improve through genuine inclusion, not once some magic number is reached.