Akaash Tumuluri: White art on white walls

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 10:13am

The Met, MoMA, the DIA, even our very own UMMA: There’s one thing these so-called “high art” institutions have in common — the art is usually displayed on white walls. This is done intentionally to avoid distraction, to create a void-like space in which you can experience the art while expelling your prior biases, so you may receive each piece of art with a more open mind. Those in charge of the walls can't seem to be influenced by their own design, however, as the problem with these white walls is that most of the art that adorns them is, in fact, white — and male. And there, again, we see the same story played on repeat, even in a world that supposedly prides itself on progressive open-mindedness and being ahead of the curve.

recent study done by a group of professors looked at 18 major American art institutions — including the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and the DIA — and found 85 percent of the artists represented at these institutions were white. 87 percent were male. Compared to the U.S. Census data — which shows only 60.7 percent of the American population self-identify as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino” and 49.2 percent identify as male — those raw numbers are appalling. This same study found 60 percent of museum staff are women, though they only compose 43 percent of those in leadership or directorial roles. 72 percent of museum staff are white.

The argument to this is that many of these museums include, and in some cases, prioritize historical collections, and American museums are inclined toward procuring European historical art, which was generally made by white, male artists. And this was a time when women and people of color were marginalized from the art community. Let’s set aside the idea that prioritizing said European art encourages a limited view of history that legitimizes outdated Western ideals of race and gender power dynamics. Let’s instead take a look at the galleries that feature work from contemporary artists — post-enlightenment era work that one would expect to be more open and representative — and we find that it isn’t. A study looking at the top 45 galleries in New York City found 78.4 percent of the artists represented by these galleries were white, 85.4 percent of the American artists were white and 70 percent of all artists were male. This is a problem that persists.

The confusing bit is that most art schools are, in fact, more diverse and female-dominated than this. Of the 125 students studying at the Yale School of Art, 70 are women — that’s 56 percent. Our own School of Art and Design claims the “majority of our undergraduate students self-identify as women, a trend observed nationally and globally in schools of art & design.” Stamps also reported that 27.7 percent of its students identified as part of a minority group, which, while still notably white, is not over 80 percent white, and is continuing to trend up.

Both the study on U.S. Museums and NYC galleries were done through crowdsourcing — taking starting points of data, such as gallery rosters or exhibition artist lists, and asking members of the community to fill out the demographic information to the best of their knowledge. Now, this may seem like an unreliable method for procuring data, but that is not a reason to dismiss these studies. First, the numbers of both studies have been updated upon both of their releases, after having been scrutinized by the public and corrected for errors. Second, this represents at least a glimmer of data in an arena in which little to no demographic data is available. You can’t fix a problem you don’t know exists.

So how do we fix this? It starts at the top. Gallery owners and exhibition curators need to make a point of procuring work from people of color and women. While many art students are a part of these minority groups, they — rightfully so — may not feel they are able to “make it” in the gallery art world and therefore decide to pursue different avenues with their degrees. Buying art from more marginalized communities emboldens those, with or without a degree, to realize their art can be on those white walls too. Art needs to be prioritized as a part of early education, which is, sadly, negatively trending with more and more art programs being cut in underprivileged communities — areas that are generally the most diverse.

Galleries and museums are slowly beginning to shake this antiquated representation, but it’s not happening anywhere near quickly enough. White walls are starting to feel constricting, archaic, monotonous. So, hell, let’s paint the walls black, brown, pink or whatever color you’d like. It’s not quite the subtlety you think of in “high art,” but I’m over subtle. Those white walls could use a splash of color.

Akaash Tumuluri can be reached at tumula@umich.edu.