Drawing the Bag: Black Artists Elude American Museums
By Donitra Clemons
Less than 3% of museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of African American art
Only 4% museum curators are African American
African American artist create some of the most compelling visual pieces of our generation, yet the fundamental shift in the way its valued is alarming. American museums continue to give these artist the short end of the stick, since less than three percent of their acquisitions over the past decade have been of works by black artists.
Why This Matters: Last spring, one of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings sold for $110.5 million, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction.This didn’t greatly move the needle in getting more museums to pick up other works by black artists. Since 2008, only 7.6% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent American museums have showcased art by African American artists, according to a joint investigation by In Other Wordsand artnet News.
The problem clearly lies with management at these museums. Without institutional buy in, progress can be slow. Today, only 16% of leadership positions in art museums are held by people of color and only four percent of museum curators are African American, according to a 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
When we think about progress in the sector, the perception is buoyed by a handful of important exhibitions, a small number of increasing acquisitions and popular headline auction prices. Don’t be fooled by these gimmicks because the extent to which entrenched systems of power and influence contribute to impeding necessary structural changes at museums.
Situational Awareness: There have been 439 total pieces of art by African American artists acquired by museums this year, this number is on track to become a 10-year record. In addition to this growth, last year the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation pledged to spend $6 million over three years to diversify management at U.S. museums, which should help black artists have a more prominent place in these collections.
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