Are American Museums Too White?

A new survey shows that American museums still have work to do when it comes to minority representation.

In 1987, mixed-media artist and curator Howardena Pindell released an in-depth survey that analyzed the racial demographics of exhibits across museums in New York. Her findings revealed a lack of diversity and inclusivity and a need for change. 

Now, 32 years later, inspired by Pindell’s research, ARTNews revisited the concept  – only this survey reports on solo exhibitions across 30 of the most financially-sound institutions in America, including the Detroit Institute of Art. Though conducted years apart, the results haven’t shifted much.

The new report shows that white artists and Euro-centric art still dominate wall space in curated exhibitions and many get solo shows over other races. 

“The real challenge is educating people and changing the culture of the museum.” – Valerie Mercer, curator of African American art at the DIA

According to ARTNews senior editor and author of the survey, Alex Greenberger, the reason why is complex.

“There’s so many different reasons as to why,” Greenberger said in an interview with CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper. “From the board of the museums and the composition of that identity-wise; and the curators who are doing these exhibitions and the funders of that.” 

Greenberger’s research showed that the DIA had a significant number of diverse collaborative exhibitions, but solo exhibitions lacked in representation. 

Valerie Mercer, who joined the DIA as curator and head of the African American Art Department in 2001, acknowledged that the process is slow, but there has been a gradual progression at the DIA. 

It has a lot to do with the DIA having five galleries dedicated to African American Art,” Mercer says. “I love acquiring works of art for the museum and it’s been quite steady in my department. But you know, my department doesn’t exist in most fine art museums in America. My situation is quite unique. [So] the real challenge is educating people and changing the culture of the museum.” 

Greenberger added, “It really comes down to how much do the people leading these museums really want to diversify what’s on view and to show artists who have historically been written out of the narrative? It’s also important to note that there’s a lot of progress to be made, and it’s probably going to be slow; but it’s probably going to come as well.” 

Click the player above for the full conversation with CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper, Valerie Mercer and Alex Greenberger.