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American Museum Collections Are Overwhelmingly White and Male

An analysis of the artists represented in the permanent collections of America's major art museums finds that three-quarters of them are white men.
Caravaggio's David With the Head of Goliath, ca. 1607.

Caravaggio's David With the Head of Goliath, ca. 1607.

Traditionalists who yearn to return to a time when white males enjoyed unquestioned dominance can sometimes feel uncomfortable in diverse big cities. But in most metropolitan areas, there is at least one prominent place where the outdated dominance of men is still on display: the museum of art.

A first-of-its-kind study analyzes the race and gender of the artists represented in the permanent collections of 18 major American art museums, and finds that three-quarters of them are white men. Women represent only 12.6 percent of this elite group, and African-Americans of any gender only 1.2 percent.

It's hard to frame those figures as something rosy.

"Museums with similar collection missions can have quite different diversity profiles," lead author Chad Topaz of Williams College noted in announcing the findings. This observation suggests that "a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection might do so without changing its emphases on specific time periods and geographic regions."

For the study, published in the online journal PLoS One, the researchers visited the websites of 18 of the nation's most prominent art museums, and recorded the names of each artist represented in their permanent collections. The institutions included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery.

They then used a crowdsourcing tool to establish the gender and race/ethnicity of each artist, hiring workers via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website to find this information using publicly available sources. Each museum's list was analyzed by at least five people, and their answers were cross-checked to find consensus.

"Our overall pool of individual, identifiable artists across all museums consists of 12.6 percent women," the researchers report. "With respect to ethnicity, the pool is 85.4 percent white, 9.0 percent Asian, 2.8 percent Hispanic, 1.2 percent African American, and 1.5 percent other ethnicities. The four largest groups represented across all 18 museums in terms of gender and ethnicity are white men (75.7 percent), white women (10.8 percent), Asian men (7.5 percent), and Hispanic men (2.6 percent). All other groups are represented in proportions less than 1 percent."

The team found significant differences from one museum to another. Work by African Americans makes up 10.6 percent of the collection of Atlanta's High Museum of Art—a figure 10 times that of most other, similar institutions. Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art has a collection featuring 6.4 percent Hispanic artists, about three times the national average.

Ironically, the two museums with the highest percentages of white artists in the collection are in predominantly black cities: the Detroit Institute of Arts (94.7 percent), and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (97.4 percent). Talk about a disconnect between a public institution and its community.

Of course, these disparities partially reflect the sociopolitical realities of the eras when most of the works were created. In most societies, for many centuries, women seldom had the freedom to pursue artistic endeavors.

Given that reality, you'd expect that women would be better represented in museums dedicated to modern art, and the researchers found that this is true to an extent: Nearly 25 percent of artists with work in the permanent collection of the L.A. Museum of Modern Art are female, as are 18 percent of those at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But that figure is only 11 percent for the most prestigious institution of them all: New York's Museum of Modern Art—a percentage below that of several museums whose works span centuries, including those of Denver and Dallas.

Topaz and his colleagues include a couple of caveats to their research. They note that definitively identifying a long-dead artist as female can be tricky, and, as a result, "the proportion of women artists in our study may be slightly larger" than they estimate.

Also, their list is restricted to artists whose identities can be discerned with near-certainty. That means a whole lot of anonymous artists from past centuries are not included.

"The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston boasts 85,000 works of art from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Italy, and other areas. These generally have no identifiable artist," the researchers note. Many of those artists were presumably people of color, whose inclusion would shift the percentages somewhat.

But even with those caveats, the findings suggest that our tendency to associate "creative genius" with "male" remains stubbornly entrenched. America's orchestras are finally performing works by female composers on a regular basis; perhaps it's time for its art museums to consider whether their paintings are propping up the patriarchy.