Articles

The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

by Jillian Steinhauer on November 15, 2013

A work by the Guerrilla Girls addressing this very issue (© Guerrilla Girls) (via guerrillagirls.com)

A work by the Guerrilla Girls addressing this very issue (© Guerrilla Girls) (via guerrillagirls.com)

Lists have been very much on our mind lately, and last night the art blogosphere was abuzz with the announcement of the latest big one: the artists to be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Much as people like to gripe about the biennial itself, the list seemed to be met with general enthusiasm and positivity. People are especially happy about the inclusion of lots of great women artists and a handful of queer artists.

But lest we get too excited about what the museum is billing on its website as “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years,” let’s look at some numbers. The Whitney is officially tallying the participants at 103, which includes collectives and conglomerations of multiple persons. I haven’t broken down all the groups listed under one name (e.g. Triple Canopy), but if you simply add up all the names released, you get 118 participants.

Of those, by my preliminary count, 38 are women. That’s about 32% — which is actually worse than the 2012 percentage.

And then there are artists of African descent. Kim Drew, founder of the Black Contemporary Art blog (and a former employee on the business side of Hyperallergic), did that count:

WhiBi-race-tweet

That’s ~7.6% of the total. That’s miserable — worse than the figures in the famous Guerrilla Girls “Whitey Museum” piece from 1995 (see above). And if you’re wondering who the fictional character is, it’s Donelle Woolford. She’s actually the black female creation of a white man (and I included her in the female count).

The issue of diversity came up recently in the discussion surrounding another post I wrote about art world lists, so let me reiterate here: the goal is not tokenism or quotas. It is inclusion, imagination, creativity, and some legwork. If curators aren’t familiar with the work of many black artists they deem worth including, then they should go out and find some. As Drew wrote in an email to Hyperallergic, “Black artists have been in vogue this year, and this list just seems out of touch. Not that I expect a ‘black biennial,’ but I do expect a bit more than 9 out of 103 artists.”

I had a Twitter conversation not long ago with someone who said they didn’t find traditional labels useful — identity, they said, is much more complicated than “white man,” “black woman,” etc. It’s true, and of course the categories I’ve discussed in this post are in no way the only indicators of diversity; the 2014 Whitney Biennial may be varied in many other ways. But pretending we’re post-diversity now doesn’t make the diversity problem go away. For that, we need to try a little harder.

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  • Monsoonking

    It’s hard to say what the “right” numbers should be.

    African Americans make up ~13% of the US population which suggests they are underrepresented by over 40%, but only 0.8% of artists are black (http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsrace2009.pdf), which suggests they are overrepresented by a factor of almost 10. Are minority voices more important from a cultural perspective? Does a minority experience (especially a disenfranchised minority experience) naturally lead to the production of more compelling art? Should minorities (racial, sexual, cultural) be overrepresented by all measures?

    I think it’s safe to say that women are underrepresented almost any way you slice it.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      The one problem with the BLS stat you cite is that it isn’t for contemporary artists. It is for their category of “artists” which includes florists, graphic designers, makeup artist, architects, etc. And it only counts people who list “artist” on their tax return, not people who have other jobs to support their art. I think it’s safe to say the numbers for contemporary artists is higher than .8%.

      • Monsoonking

        You’re probably right. Looking at art school grad stats might yield a better estimate.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I agree that it’s really hard to say what the “right” numbers are—I don’t know. But I think Hrag’s right that the BLS stat is not necessarily one to go by.

  • thanielionlee

    no one ever counts disabled artists

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Only because it’s hard to know who is or who isn’t.

      • thanielionlee

        good point, but as an artists in a wheelchair ive noticed that most galleries/art institutions are neither physically or mentally open to disabled artists.

        • thanielionlee

          secondly were are all the midwestern artists

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            The curators this year hail from Chicago, so there seems to be many from that town, but I’m not sure what the distribution is. Part of that, again, is do you count where people were born, raised, or working?

          • thanielionlee

            i feel that where an artists was born and raised is very important and the geographic location of an artist informs both the artists work and and the viewers perception of the work. for example NY abstract expressionism could not have happened the way it happend if the artists were from LA or Louisville, ky, and if a form of AB EX did happen somewhere else, the support system may or maynot have been there.

          • Kim Matthews

            Chris Larson is from Minneapolis, for one.

          • thanielionlee

            cool

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Yeah, I mean, one of the problems with the diversity counting thing, and one of the reasons it only gets us so far, is that there are tons of categories and labels and identities that aren’t immediately knowable. But you’re right to call attention to this. Thanks for sharing.

      • thanielionlee

        thankyou.

        -thaniel ion lee

  • Notorious B.E.N.

    While I agree that the these figures are depressing and frankly unacceptable in 2014, I, for one, would love to see a breakdown of the personal/professional relationships between these curators and the artists–beyond traditional labels of diversity. For example, Anthony Elms used to be at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Gallery 400–in the exact same building as where Doug Ischar and Tony Tasset teach–the same space where their MFA students exhibit their theses. While i think both of these artists are exceptional, and present on the contemporary scene, where is the line between personal favors/relationships and curatorial integrity? For an exhibition format that seems to aim to be representative of a cultural moment, and larger creative conversation, whose cultural moment is that? Merely the social circle of the curators involved? Possibly one might discover that these circles are predominantly white, in large cultural cities and decidedly male. Perhaps we should ask more of our curators, to be searching for new selections, not merely selecting from their status quo…

    • http://c-monster.net/ Carolina A. Miranda

      This sounds like the sort of thing an artist should diagram. Would be fascinating to see.

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        This sounds like a job for…William Powhida!

  • Jeffrey

    I think some people will never be happy until the show is a complete balance of everything, everything except good art. Which is what it should ONLY be about. Doesn’t matter what or whom you are. It’s about ART people.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think there’s a clear pattern, Jeffrey. It never seems to change.

      • punktoad

        Yes, and personally I feel like white guys from NY have said just about all they have to say.

    • DMTX

      I completely agree, but the biennial has always been political, in one way or many!

  • Jon Timmble

    Maybe you should start your own Biennial?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Do we really need ANOTHER biennial? It feels like they’ve metastasized enough.

      • http://c-monster.net/ Carolina A. Miranda

        The Hyperallergic Biennial. I’ll help curate. It’ll be matchbox sized works covering a wall of your office salon-style. And there will be performance. Oh, yes. There will be performance.

      • Brian Fernandes-Halloran

        Oh come on, we can squeeze in one more ;)

  • Дьяконов

    B-b-b-but contemporary art is a lily white world, invented by white people to question white people’s values. To ask a contemporary art biennale for diversity in this respect is a bit like lamenting the lack of black Radiohead-inspired guitar bands.

  • fleetfootphil

    Who cares? And why? I reckon everyone wants some reason to be included and promoted as special other than for the simple reason that they and what they do is special.

  • Stewart_Sanabria

    One of the things even less discussed about the Whitney Biennial is the
    total lack of diversity it has ALWAYS had in regional
    representation.Believe it or not, there are artists of considerable
    interest living and working in places that are NOT NY, LA, or Chicago. Except for one artist from TX, another from HI,
    there is nothing but the trio of geographic predictability there. LA +
    North. Sure-the artists working in those places come from other areas
    originally, but they will inevitably be changed by the relocation.
    Plenty of artists never intend to relocate to these so-called “hubs’
    because where they live impacts their work. Doesn’t anyone connected to
    this exhibit ever get out there?

  • alexis

    I’d like to represent my hometown of Pittsburgh and point out the considerable diversity of the selected artists in the current 2013 Carnegie International. 14 out of 35 artist/artist groups are women (about 40%) with many identifying as queer. Additionally, the Carnegie manages to include a wide racial and regional diversity that surely qualifies the exhibition as “international.” Although not perfectly balanced, the show is definitely worth some Hyperallergic love- the work is great too!

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I would love to see the Carnegie International!

  • owen

    Artist from Austin 0 artist from somewhere else 97 artist from I don’t nowhere 6
    http://austinfront.blogspot.com/2013/11/greetings-from-austin-mural-new-message.html

  • G. Peter Jemison

    Following up on the comment regarding the lack of inclusion the more things change the more they remain the same if there are 9 black artists, a handful of women it is reasonable to assume either 0 Native American artists or 1 at most since there can never be more than 1 at any given time in any general survey. Is it Jimmie he has qualified in the past?

  • Traditionalist

    The premise of equal representation in art exhibitions according to demographic statistics is absurd. Where does one draw the line? Should we start tallying the proportion of represented brunettes/blonds/redheads, Catholics/Hindus/Jews, New Yorkers/Minnesotans/Ohioans, city raised/farm family–what about net worth, public- or private- or home-schooled, high school or college graduate, freckled or evenly tanned…blah, blah, blah–how boring it all is when we reduce the perspective of art criticism to a bureaucrat’s mindset. So predictable and banal. Ugh.

    • fleetfootphil

      If art exhibitions need to be racially reflective of society, maybe whites should force professional sports teams to hire white players in proportion to the general population too. We could abandon the idea of teams recruiting the best players. Mediocrity could be seen as a step forward. We could live in a hodge-podge of uninspired mush governed by skin color and gender concerns rather than ability.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I addressed this point in the piece, but I’ll say again: I’m not advocating for quotas and saying we need absolutely equal representation. But your argument avoids dealing with the actual issue, which is the appalling lack of diversity in the art world. Throwing up your hands and saying ‘we’ll never make it all equal so what’s the point’ is, in effect, the same as saying there’s no issue. If, on the other hand, you think there IS no issue and the art world’s overwhelming whiteness doesn’t matter…well, that’s another story.

      • Traditionalist

        Your article hardly qualifies as a scholarly in-depth discussion of the issue of “diversity in the art world” and so your accusation that the comments in response to what you have published “avoid dealing with the actual issue” is a bit fatuous.

  • homesickyank

    Does “of color” include Asians? (and come to think of it, which Asians would be “of color” -East, Subcontinent, Arabic/Turkish, Central Asians?)

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      That’s a very big question that continues to impact the issue of identity, and then the question of people of mixed heritage is another. This is a continuing issue …

  • Guest

    Some very excellent points, and well articulated, fleetfootphil. However, I personally am interested to know about the unique experience of the artist, so I don’t agree at all that, using your example, the “black experience…is inferior to..the human experience.” Ignoring subcultures is certainly no way to approach or understand the “human condition.”

    The issue should be the QUALITY of the artist’s perceptions, not the subject matter per se. The problem with tokenism is that it requires suspension of discernment of quality.

    The goal of a museum exhibititon should be to celebrate greatness, and greatness has been achieved by people of every sort, exploring their own particular world view. The content of the work and the quality of what the artist has to say should be the issue, not where the artist and his particular experience fall in some simplistic scheme of human types.

  • Traditionalist

    Some very excellent points, and
    well articulated, fleetfootphil. However, I personally am interested to
    know about the unique experience of the artist, so I don’t agree at all
    that, using your example, the “black experience…is inferior to..the
    human experience.” Ignoring subcultures is certainly no way to approach
    or understand the human condition.

    The issue should be the QUALITY of the artist’s perceptions, not the
    subject matter per se. The problem with tokenism is that it requires
    suspension of discernment of quality.

    The goal of a museum exhibititon should be to celebrate greatness,
    and greatness has been achieved by people of every sort, exploring their
    own particular world view. The content of the work and the quality of
    what the artist has to say should be the issue, not where the artist and
    his particular experience fall in some simplistic scheme of human
    types.

  • PonckhockieCreekwoman

    This is why many people refer to the Whitney Museum as the White-ny!

  • DMTX

    I’m all for equality but don’t believe in quota’s as lots of people seem to want here but just aren’t saying so. Yes the ~7.6% is less than the ~12% of the total black population in the USA, but somehow I think some people won’t be happy till it’s well above the ~12% mark. That said, things are getting better and more inclusive, remember the Biennials from the 1980’s?

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