The walls of art galleries in the US are hung, almost to the exclusion of all else, with the works of white men.
That’s the conclusion of a team of statisticians and art historians, published in the journal PLOS One.
The researchers, led by Chad Topaz from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Williams College in Massachusetts, US, examined the public online catalogues of 18 major US museums and extracted records for 9000 named artists.
These were then given over to a crowdsourcing platform, and with the help of the many people thereon the majority of the artists were successfully identified and biographies built.
“Overall,” the authors report, “we find that 85% of artists are white and 87% are men.”
Topaz and colleagues position their work in the context of previous studies that have examined diversity in museum and gallery staff, as well as visitor profiles.
One study, for instance, found that 72% of members of the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) identified as white. The same study found that while 60% of museum staff are female, women occupy only 43% of senior positions.
Other studies have looked at visitors, and identified communities to target through outreach programs in attempts to increase diversity.
The present work, though, is the first to study diversity among the artists represented.
“If museums find knowledge of staff and visitor demographics important for programming decisions,” the authors write, “one might ask if demographics of the artists are important for collection decisions.”
They cite “anecdotal evidence” that in the field of contemporary American art some collections are being actively augmented to rectify diversity imbalance, with the welcome effect that “it is now not unusual for these museums to compete with each other for major works of African American art”.
However, the big picture – no pun intended – remains overwhelmingly coloured by men who are white.
“With respect to gender, our overall pool of individual, identifiable artists across all museums consists of 12.6% women,” the authors report.
“With respect to ethnicity, the pool is 85.4% white, 9.0% Asian, 2.8% Hispanic/Latinx, 1.2% Black/African American, and 1.5% other ethnicities.”
Introducing greater diversity, however, is perhaps not as difficult as some might imagine.
“We find that the relationship between museum collection mission and artist diversity is weak, suggesting that a museum wishing to increase diversity might do so without changing its emphases on specific time periods and regions,” the researchers conclude.
They also admit that their analysis is constrained by a couple of limitations. First, a small proportion of artists identified could not be satisfactorily identified by gender or ethnicity. Second, artworks made by more than one artist were not included, and, third, many works of art – those from the Graeco-Roman period, for instance – are not assigned to identifiable individuals.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.