As a child growing up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, Jack Whitten was not permitted inside his segregated local museum in Birmingham. Last year the late artist was the subject of a major exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York. Its title, aptly, was Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963–2017.
As recently as 1992, a proposed tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective was cancelled when no other museums came forward to take it. In spring 2017, one of Basquiat’s paintings sold for $110.5m at Sotheby’s, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction.
Such landmark moments make it easy to assume that there has been a fundamental shift in the way the work of African-American artists is valued. But since 2008, just 2.3% of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.7% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent US museums have been of work by African-American artists, according to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News, published in September 2018. Our data, coupled with conversations with more than 30 prominent curators, collectors, dealers, museum directors, academics and philanthropists, reveals that progress is much more recent – and benefits far fewer artists – than popularly perceived. “When they look at the totality, people will realise they have a lot of work to do,” says Naima Keith, the deputy director and chief curator of the California African American Museum.
These figures are particularly sobering at a time when African Americans comprise more than 12% of the US population and are creating some the most visible and compelling art of our time: from Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s wildly popular portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, to the towering public sculptures by Martin Puryear (who is set to become the second consecutive African-American artist to represent the US at this year’s Venice Biennale).
This spring, several critically acclaimed travelling exhibitions focus on the work of an older generation of African-American artists, including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Brooklyn Museum, New York (until 3 February), while the next generation was the subject of recent shows like Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at Seattle Art Museum in spring 2018.
“If you deal with contemporary art, it is self-evident that many of the most interesting artists are African American,” says Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry. “And you realise that there were always important African-American artists, even if they were not as visible to museums as they should have been. So then you need to address that as well.”
Museums have only recently begun to consider the fact that their collections should better reflect the demographics of their communities.
There are signs of change. In 2017, the number of solo and thematic exhibitions focusing on the work of African-American artists jumped almost 66% (to 63 shows, from 38 in 2016). As of September 2018, the combined number of works by African-American artists acquired by museums (439 total, so far) was on track to become a 10-year record.
Nonetheless, this shift is extraordinarily recent. Over the past decade, purchases and gifts of work by African-American artists accounted for a mere 2.3% of all acquisitions by the 30 museums we surveyed. Even starker is the fact that at four of these museums, this work accounted for less than 1% of all acquisitions.
Meanwhile, the museums we examined have dedicated only 7.6% of all their exhibitions to the work of African-American artists. (Notably, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York accounts for 2.7% of that figure.) “Historically, what curators have been asked to do is follow a particular storyline – and then when things fall outside that, they are rendered invisible,” says Naomi Beckwith, a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. But the stories of African-American artists “don’t just belong to the bodies that hold the narrative. These stories belong to culture. It is a way of seeing the world.”
Make no mistake: African-American artists, critics, and historians have long been doing important and influential work out of sight of the mainstream. Trailblazing curatorial giants such as Okwui Enwezor, the former artistic director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, have been making steadfast claim to the excellence of work created by artists of the African diaspora for decades.
The country’s largest museums, however, have only recently begun to seriously consider the fact that their collections should better reflect the demographics of their communities. This has become increasingly challenging, however, as access to sought-after works is tightly controlled – and far too expensive for most institutions to afford. “We couldn’t consider buying work by Barkley L Hendricks or Njideka Akunyili Crosby now, but we have wonderful examples of both because we invested early in those artists’ careers,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, deputy director of curatorial affairs and chief curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina. New auction records were set this past May at Sotheby’s for work by both Hendricks ($2.2m for the 1974 painting Brenda P) and Crosby ($3.4m for the 2017 work Bush Babies).
Meanwhile, many of the country’s oldest museums are playing catch-up – and being honest about it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, posted a wall text to accompany its autumn exhibition of African-American portrait photographs from the 1940s and 1950s. “The museum has until recently acquired few likenesses of African Americans” the label reads. Acquisitions made between 2015 and 2017 “are part of an initiative, long overdue, to build such a collection”.
To date, larger museums have mainly chosen to lavish resources on a small number of agreed-upon artists, limiting the amount of new scholarship that could reshape the canon. Of the 216 solo exhibitions of work by African-American artists staged during the past decade at the 30 museums we examined, almost a quarter focused on the same 10 names.
“There is no reward system for museums to take chances,” says Maxwell Anderson, the president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “Curators have to sell the exhibition or the acquisition to the board or director. The default is to go to people who are much in the news, much discussed.”
As in any field, some are reluctant to see the status quo change. One museum director, speaking anonymously, tells us that a board member recently took him aside to sound a note of caution: “Just don’t forget about the white guys.”
Yet to make a lasting difference, change needs to come from the top. According to a 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, only 16% of leadership positions in art museums are held by people of colour and only 4% of museum curators are African American. “People can’t just appear; they need to be given power,” says Beckwith.
Several initiatives have formed to try to tip the scales. In 2015, a grant from the Mellon Foundation helped establish a curatorial studies program at Spelman College in Atlanta. Last year, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation pledged to spend $6m over three years to diversify management at US museums. And this year, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors both announced plans to sponsor paid museum internships for undergraduate art history students of colour.
Issues of equity in the art world can never be entirely extricated from the broader social context, says Jeff Chang, the author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America (Picador). Museum acquisitions of work by African-American artists jumped 63% in 2015, the year after Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept the country. And the number of exhibitions, which often take two to three years to complete, increased 70% between 2014 and 2017.
Nevertheless, a feeling of unease remains among many of the people we spoke to, who fear that the pendulum could swing back, just as it has in the past. “What happens when there is a backlash? That is the story of the 1990s,” Chang says.
Museums are trying different methods to safeguard against this, including radical new approaches. The Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford last year oversaw the controversial sale of seven works by white male artists from the museum’s collection to create an acquisitions fund dedicated to contemporary work by women and artists of colour. He now plans to “put in place provisions”, as donors have done historically, by placing conditions on gifts “to make it impossible for those inroads to be undone”.
At the same time, new paths are also being forged through scholarship: the Getty Research Institute in LA has announced its plans to launch an African-American art history initiative. Collector Pamela Joyner, who commissions academics and curators to write about her 400-work collection of pieces primarily by African-American artists, notes that scholarship is key to making sure that “what we are experiencing isn’t some kind of cyclical blip”.
The hope, of course, is that these efforts will ensure that future generations study a much broader, more inclusive and richer art history than their predecessors. As the Tate curator Zoe Whitley noted in an In Other Words podcast: “Romare Bearden was asked in a 1972 interview how he would define black art, and he said that black art is the art that black artists do. If someone were to say: ‘What is white art?’ you might say the Italian Renaissance, but you could equally say the German Renaissance, Rembrandt or English painting. Black art is as varied as that.”
Charlotte Burns is the executive editor of In Other Words. Julia Halperin is the executive editor of artnet News. This article was adapted from a special edition of In Other Words.