Throughout the month, I’ve been sharing Black artists on the Museum Drip Instagram to celebrate Black abundance and talent. This led to consider how many incredible Black artists there were to spotlight, and how many of the contemporary artists and art accounts I follow were doing the same thing, sharing tons of names, some familiar, some new. How could the Black art world be booming, yet still so underrepresented in museums? How can there be such a glaring difference between galleries and museums? One of my goals as an art museum educator/interpreter is to help the public realize that the art on the walls of a museum isn’t a) the only art the museum owns and b) the best art the museum owns and c) is not necessarily the best or only art worth seeing in the world. So today, I coin: “the Venn diagram of art worthiness.” This can help us to understand how it is that Black artists are “too expensive” for museums to collect right now yet somehow have had so little representation in museums over the past 150 years of the modern museum era.
Museum collections, galleries/the art market, and scholarship/academia all have a role to play in what art is seen as worthy and eventually ends up displayed on museum walls. We’ve touched on some of this in C.R.E.A.M.: Museums, Money and Accessibility and Museums Got Expensive Habits. The fact that there is a market for art and artifacts makes art museums and encyclopedic (museums that show everything from swords to chairs to minimalist sculpture, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art) inherently tied to monetary considerations and problems. (Broadly, because we rely on philanthropy and trickle-down economics in American, even history, science and children’s museums are also inherently tied to money. We’ll never run out of things to write about!) But in addition to monetary considerations, what ends up on museum walls has to do with clout from scholarship and exposure.
There are essentially two things that lend credibility to art: scholarship and cost. Sometimes these chase each other in a loop – scholar writes a book about an artist, museum mounts an exhibition of artist, this increases artists’ perceived legitimacy and clout, this drives their price up at auction houses or galleries. Other times, the gambling that the uber-rich do with artists drives the price up so much that they are perceived as important, and the scholarship follows. Sometimes, these things happen independent of each other. Plenty of fascinating research goes unnoticed and barely boosts an artists’ sales; other times artists are highly valued in the gallery scene, but that doesn’t translate to scholarship. (If I had a better understanding of how the stock market works I could probably make some jokes here but I don’t, cause that’s just white men’s astrology and I will not be convinced otherwise.)
The scholarship -> gallery/market -> museum loop is really like a snake eating itself; chronologically, it’s hard to separate out which came first and we could make arguments for each. Scholarship dates back to ancient civilizations writing about aesthetics, the market dates back to ancient religious patronage, museums date back to ancient civilizations dragging each other busted up temples into their town squares. This Venn diagram is a tale as old as time! Together, these elements make up the system of the art world (you remember how we’re trying to dismantle systems and systemic problems). Let’s break these elements apart.
The personal aspect of scholarship is something we touched on in the Academia to Museum Pipeline. So, lets start with the scholarship & academia part of the diagram. Things are becoming more equitable as people from more diverse walks of life gain access to higher education, but we’re still facing down centuries of cis straight white male exclusivity in scholarship. I would argue that the field has been opened up for at least 50 years and we should have more progress, but if we did then maybe we wouldn’t have Museum Drip and so that would be sad. (I’m kidding, there are a lot of things I would rather do with my time than point out the same tired inequities every two weeks.) How does this exclusivity affect who is seen as worthy? A couple of months ago I saw a post on the World Wide Web that challenged men to name a woman they admire that they aren’t related to or romantically involved with. If this question needs to be asked – do you think many men throughout history took it upon themselves to tell the stories of women? How many powerful white men actively worked to elevate the stories of artists of color? It’s the most basic of advice – write about what you know. For centuries, men did just that.
One of the ways academia holds back equity progress is the unrealistic obsession with contributing something completely new to the field. This perpetuates the obsession with firsts & bests. Being obsessed with firsts and bests perpetuates the myth of exceptionalism. This is evident when every Black painter in the 19th century is categorized as the “first to gain recognition…” Scholars feel pressure to discover something else exceptional, rather than following the threads to build on someone else’s work and uncover more about that “first” artist or who was in their circle. Similarly, in an effort to say something new, scholars might develop a narrative that focuses on aspects of an artists’ biography without giving proper credit to the lineage their artwork exists within.
Museums carry this torch of the best & first. One of the biggest differences between art museums and history/science/train museums is the percentage of spaces that are permanently installed versus rotating exhibitions. Art museums are looking for multiple exciting, marketable exhibitions per year, and team up with scholars to create exhibitions to showcase research and contributions to the field. This is a generally productive way to get new research and ideas to new audiences and the general public (although sometimes the scholar/curator crowd misses the mark on that whole “general public” and needs someone to explain it better.) Because of limited and restricted budgets, collecting is a slow process in museums, and exhibitions are often the way to be flexible and demonstrate relevancy.
But in museums, there’s a lot to consider. The museum must either fit exhibitions to be relevant to their narrow focus – say, if they are a museum dedicated to 19th century British illustration; or, they are telling a broad story and have to tell multiple stories in precious little exhibition space. An American art museum might have 6 rotating exhibitions per year, but be trying to tell local stories, focus on environmental art and boost their exhibitions of sculpture and fit in a wealthy donor’s collection all in the same year. Plus, budgets, schedules of traveling exhibitions, considerations of what will attract visitors, and the personal interests of the board, director and curator are all in play when it comes to planning the exhibition schedule for the year. Accessioning an artist into a permanent museum collection – meaning they own it forever – does a lot more for an artist’s reputation and the worth of their art over time. Much of the criticism museums have received in the past 10 years is that they are wiling to mount exhibitions of BIPOC artists, but don’t purchase their work. Many of us feisty museum workers are addressing this nowadays by figuring out ways to “address absence.” In the absence of unlimited, unrestricted budgets to buy more diverse artwork, how can we create interpretive aids in the galleries that explain who has been left out and why? It’s an imperfect solution, but it helps to point out the constructs that led certain types of artists to be on the walls.
Galleries and the art market are this beast that exists outside of the orderliness of scholarship and conventions. In simplified terms, galleries, art criticism and auction houses are “the art world” while scholarship and museums are more “art history.” The art world is more fluid and flexible and able to spotlight emerging artists in ways that slow-moving museums and academics can’t. Consider the story of the Impressionists. They didn’t want to show at the state-controlled Salon, which was housed in the Louvre. Like so many artists that came after them, the Impressionists ditched the establishment of the sluggish museum and exhibited their work in a space they claimed. As the Guerilla Girls say, artists rule, the art world sucks. Artists have always taken matters into their own hands and created dope spaces where they can continue to innovate, from the 1874 exhibition of the Impressionists to Just Above Midtown 100 years later.
Here is where the gallery thing splinters, though. The artist-run collective spaces are one type of gallery – but there are also commercial galleries that “typically curate selective shows based on what’s likely to sell (by extension boosting their reputation in the art world). Some commercial galleries are public, meaning anyone can walk in off the street and purchase an artwork if they have the funds. Others are private, meaning collectors must be members to gain access to the art for purchase.” (coverhound.com)
Commercial galleries curate shows based on what’s likely to sell! Those super-creative artist-run spaces that encourage innovation and creativity? Those don’t necessarily produce anything that can be turned into a profit. Here’s where museums come back into the picture, as well – most museums are also not that great at telling the story of art that falls outside of the mainstream. And by mainstream, we mean the traditional market. If you remember from Museums Got Expensive Habits, museums began as repositories for objects. So if you want to consider artists who don’t make objects, or make huge objects that don’t fit inside, or incorporate human and community engagement into their artwork, you have a hard time telling that story in a space obsessed with objects. And again, if you’re a commercial gallery, you don’t have anything to sell. And if you don’t have anything to sell, you’re immediately counting out one out of two elements that bolster an artist’s clout (increased price for their work). This is how a lot of stories get left out of the Venn diagram of worthiness and thus, the history of art.
So – how can we move the needle on what’s seen as worthy? If you’re art lover, museum-goer, or general champion for diversity and representation, you can comment on museum social media posts and fill out visitor surveys and comment cards. If you’re a student in art history or anthropology or a related field, you can push back a little on your advisors when they tell you that your scholarship needs to introduce something as a never-before-studied topic by explaining that you have no desire to breed further support for exceptionalism and you would prefer to go deeper instead of broader. If you’re an art museum employee, you can push back on descriptive language for exhibitions or new collections such as “first,” “finest,” “only,” and “best,” again by pointing out that it can be damaging to enforce hierarchies, and it can be empowering to build a network of comparison to previous and existing museums and artists that have explored the same themes in the past. And all of the above, support the scholars who are creating books about artists that Black, queer, Middle Easter, women, Asian, Latino/a, Indigenous, – especially not only contemporary artists, but artists who have been part of the story all along, but fell out of the Venn diagram along the way. Let’s make noise about these stories so that museums, galleries and scholars are forced to go looking for them. Until we have a more complete picture of the history of art that includes women and people of color and immigrants, we can’t have a complete picture of the history of our country and civilization.