White Cubes: Do Exhibitions at U.S. Museums Reflect Calls for Diversity?

In 1987, for a conference at Hunter College in New York, artist Howardena Pindell surveyed the racial demographics of artists receiving exhibitions at museums across the city. Her findings were bleak—the exhibition programs, according to her survey, were almost entirely white. “Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American artists are, therefore, with a few, very few, exceptions, systematically excluded,” she wrote in her introduction. In tribute to Pindell’s 1987 survey, ARTnews surveyed every solo exhibition held at 30 museums across America over the past decade and broke them down by race. ARTnews’s findings are similar to Pindell’s. Still today, amid increasing calls for diversity in the art world, the exhibition programming at U.S. institutions is, on average, overwhelmingly white.

Spotlight: Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has for years been criticized for the whiteness of its programming. Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, has promised that, when MoMA reopens in October, following a $450 million expansion and an overhaul of its galleries, the museum will place a greater emphasis on diversity. But how has MoMA, along with its sister museum, MoMA PS1, fared over the years?

  • Between 2010 and 2019, MoMA still trended white. About 61 percent of all solo exhibitions were devoted to white artists.
  • But the museum has improved somewhat over the past few years. Between 2010 and 2014, 69 percent of solo exhibitions were devoted to white artists, whereas between 2015 and 2019, only 53 percent of solo shows were for white artists.
  • The greater diversity in programming has coincided with more nonwhite curators being brought on staff. These additions include Michelle Kuo, Ruba Katrib, and Thomas J. Lax.

For this survey, ARTnews selected the 30 institutional members of the Association of Art Museum Directors with the largest operating budgets. These museums were: Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, High Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art Boston, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art. Of their programming, only solo exhibitions were surveyed. In total, data from 2,242 shows was counted. Duos and collectives were not broken down to determine artists’ races.

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