The Whitney Museum‘s new building will open to the public on May 1, and its inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, promises “fresh perspectives on the Whitney’s collection and reflects upon art in the United States” with more than 600 works by 406 artists. We took a look at the cultural and gender breakdowns of all the participating artists to assess just how fresh these perspectives really are.

As expected, the exhibition skews largely male and white, with percentages of each that are higher than the national averages in the United States. Since ethnicity, like race and other categorizations, is often hard to assess, we’ve done our best to break down the group into categories that make sense. Some artists posed problems, such as Mark di Suvero, who was born in Shanghai, China, but we categorized as White/European. Only one featured artist, Jimmie Durham, appears to define himself solely as Native American or American Indian. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet fits into multiple categories as a woman of both black and Native American heritage — we placed her in the latter category, as her removal from the former did not fluctuate the percentage much and the number still rounded up to 10%. There is one transgender artist, Wu Tsang, which represents less than 0.5% of the total (and possibly close to the percentage of the population that identifies as such) but we didn’t add it to our pie chart as it would be hard to distinguish.

Is this an improvement over previous exhibitions? Probably, particularly considering that the Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 grand reopening show included fewer than 20 works by women (out of 415), which represented less than 5 percent of the total. But the representation of women in America Is Hard to See is less than the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which featured 32% female artists. Works by African Americans are closer to the realities of the US population (10% in the exhibition vs. 13% nationwide), which is certainly an improvement over the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which was only 7.3% black.

The biggest shock, aside from the glaring lack of Native American voices in any show devoted to art in the US, is the very low percentage of works by Latino artists (4% in the exhibition vs. 18% in the general population). These statistics probably reflect the lack of diversity at the museum itself and the biases of staff, namely a curatorial department that is far less diverse (ideologically and culturally) than the population it serves (assuming it is serving the public and not the Whitney’s trustees). The bottom line is that the Whitney Museum has to try much harder.

Correction, 4/15: An earlier version of this article claimed that no artists featured in America Is Hard to See identifies solely as Native American or American Indian. However, the sculptor Jimmie Durham does, and the text of the article and the graph (which also moved Nancy Elizabeth Prophet to the same category and thus presenting 0.5% of exhibiting artists as Native American) has been revised to reflect this.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

46 replies on “Breaking Down the Demographics of the New Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Exhibition”

  1. America is even harder to see when so much of it does not get displayed. The Whitney should stop holding itself up as such an arbiter of American Art if it intends to leave so much out.

  2. These stats match the ethnicity and gender stats in top tech companies; in other words, pretty depressing. Somehow I thought that the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition would have the insight to be more imaginative, it being part of the art world and all. But then again, maybe not 😐

  3. Work from their “permanent collection”, it appears? But of course! It would look a whole lot better if they went outside to curate and looked around. Diversity is soooooo easy to do- It is actually hard NOT to do if you just get out there-out of your office, out of NY, and away from your usual network, which is obviously just as provincial.

  4. I’m sorry but I don’t agree with the logic of matching race demographics with art selection. Are curators suppose to look at every personal profile of an artist before deciding to select their artwork over another piece? That sounds extremely racist to me and it does nothing but perpetuate further racism. Shouldn’t selected works be chosen based on what is appropriate for the exhibition? Obviously diversity needs to be considered but to be required to match population demographics seems just as absurd. I agree with the comment about the lack of Native American art when supposedly trying to represent “America”, there should be some representation. However, the logic of believing we should have the same amount of art as number of people of a particular race is in itself racist. Do you seriously prefer to see less quality work over good selections just because you need to meet a percentage of the population? Are juried art exhibits suppose to review personal profiles of artists first before ever seeing their artwork? Oh, we’ve met our quota of 18% Latino artists for that show therefore we can’t accept anymore, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. Oh and let’s see, 9% has to come from Latino women and 5% has to come from …. Seriously, show diversity when attempting to represent sections of the population but let’s not base our decisions on the quality of work shown purely on race alone.

    1. The belief of not being able to find 18% of good/showable Latino artists is racist. Why suppose quality would be dismissed as criteria just because of the quota?

      And I don’t think they are proposing quotas based on ethnicity/race, I think they are documenting the structural racism that lies, yes, also among the art people.

      1. So once you have your 18% you can’t have anymore? This entire concept is racist. What is the purpose of the exhibit? There is no way any single exhibit can demonstrate all of the cultural diversity of this country. How far are you going to break down the demographics?

        1. Again, I think you’re missing the point of the article. The author doesn’t advocate for the show to be based on quotas for ethnic/racial groups. The author exposes the awful general trend that is the subtext of our society as a whole (i.e. racism is real and everywhere) and specifically the irony that is to call a show “america is hard to see” if even the artists shown don’t represent the demography of the america they want to refer to.

    2. “Do you seriously prefer to see less quality work over good selections just because you need to meet a percentage of the population?”

      Why do you automatically assume that work by persons of racial, ethnic, gender or sexual minority groups is of lesser quality?

      1. We have galleries and museums dedicated to particular ethnicities. If that is your ONLY criteria for seeing a show then by all means feel free to only attend those events. I’m merely pointing out that the OP seems to think the number of works displayed should be directly proportional to the number of people making up the population based on ethnicity. How can one showing display ALL of the ethnic diversity in the Americas based on population numbers? I personally think this is a very unrealistic expectation and it would require the exclusion of pieces of work from the show based on ethnicity alone, not on the quality or appropriateness of the piece on display. As I stated, once you hit your percentage you eliminate any further pieces of work regardless of the origin. I don’t think it is realistic to expect the number of pieces to match the percentage of the population. The art should be the focus and I do agree with the OP that the Whitney should not make claims of representing ALL of the ethnic diversity on this continent if they can’t actually pull it off. I would far rather see a show based on cultural diversity, having nothing to do with your ethnic background but rather having everything to do with your cultural heritage. Louisiana Creole next to Brazilian artwork next to Alaskan artwork would better serve the concept of diversity without regard to race or gender.

        1. “I would far rather see a show based on cultural diversity, having nothing to do with your ethnic background but rather having everything to do with your cultural heritage.” WAAAAT.

    3. It’s not about meeting quotas, it’s about a logic progression of thought – “Hey, there is this percentage of Latino/Native American/Black or African Diaspora individuals, so it would make sense that there is a proportional amount of artists within those communities to exhibit.”

  5. Without a checklist or more detailed description it’s hard to know whether this is supposed to be an historical overview of the collection or something else entirely? If it does include a backwards view, then the demographics are hopelessly skewed by past omissions and an entirely different cultural milieu with regard to gender and ethnicity. It seems this discussion might be a case of apples to oranges inasmuch as a survey of the collection cannot really be compared to recent biennials where the presence of women and minorities is much more of an issue than when Gertrude (a woman artist!) founded the museum. Indeed, many museum including the Whitney are beginning to look at under-known women and ethnically diverse artists from these earlier decades of the 20th century with an eye toward inclusion.

    PS–just saw the checklist and, yes, it does seem to be an overview with many artists from earlier decades of the 20th century.

  6. The recent past of american art is certainly lacking in it’s representation of a full spectrum of those involved. Which is why a show about a museums collection would most likely do the same. It’s about the past, even if it’s the recent past. Going forward we keep this in mind, if we work at museums or cultural institutions, so as not to make the same mistake. I bet there’s some rad pieces in this show though!

  7. It’s racist to focus primarily on one demographics’ work, while it’s just as racist paying attention to the race of the artists (and see which one is “underrepresented”). What this article is implying about “lack of racial representation” is just as racist. What people don’t get is that it’s just as racist to point out the racialness of everything.

    Let’s let art be art – an individual’s creative expression regardless of who they are. I don’t want to be put in the pedestal and given special treatment just because I’m a minority: we just want to be treated just like everyone else.

    1. First of all it focuses on ethnicity, which is not the same as race, second, creativity is impacted by structural biases in society. To think it isn’t is to be naive about the way opportunities work.

      1. If it’s not one bias, it’s the other .Life goes on and it balances things out, history repeats itself ad nauseum. Being overrepresented as a group also cheapens their accomplishment in relation to the rest within their own demo, if we look at it another way.

        If people want to have art of a certain demographic be represented exclusively, they should make a museum themselves. I don’t care about the race/ethnicity thing, as far as we all know, we’re all artists – end of story.

        1. The statement “I don’t care about the race/ethinicity… we’re all artists” sounds a lot like the idea “I’m not racist, I don’t see race at all.” These statements ignore the systematic and institutional oppression that under represented, oppressed, and marginalized groups have gone through; cheapens their struggle; and does nothing to help the flaws of the hegemonic system

          1. In art, we care about art. Race, politics, ethnicity, nations, etc. – how we categorize ourselves as demographics is outside of that. It’s a factor that can add into one’s art, but it’s not everything.

            It’s just as racist to make a big deal about racism, and it seems it’s mostly white people pointing fingers at one another in this subject, waiting for someone to slip and say something not politically correct. Racists and people who claim to fight against it are of the same ilk – thinking that us minorities had to be “coddled” and added into everything to make things “fair’ in the legal justice system within their minds. Can’t everyone admit that they’re all racist for even bringing it up as a factor?

            Most minorities don’t give a rats ass about this, we just want to be treated like everyone else.

  8. Speaking of ratios: curious to what the breakdown is of artists with MFAs vs. not, as so many (big) shows are just curators culling from predictable art school grad rosters and networks. For example:

    Of the 66 artists curated into the Hammer’s Made in LA 2012 exhibition:

    61 artists had MFAs [92 %]

    At least 2 had exhibited at LAXART* at the time of collecting this data [3 %]

    (*Director and Chief Curator of LAXART is Lauri Firstenberg, who was also one of the curators of Made in LA 2012)

    At least 1 artist had exhibited at the Hammer [1.5 %]

    1 artist was a Los Angeles art school Dean [1.5 %]

    43 artists had an MFA from UCLA / UC Irvine / CalArts / USC / Art Center [65 %]

    26 artists had donated to the 2011 LAXART* auction benefit [39 %] <<

    2 artists were Chairs of fine art depts at Los Angeles art schools [3 %]

    1. There were lots of charts I would love to make that I couldn’t, because of the lack of info, including issues of class and where they lived most of their careers.

  9. I’m 5’4″ and bald, well, short men have been discriminated against forever! Get over it already!
    We’re all discriminated against for one reason or another depending on who’s judging us.
    I don’t want my work shown for any other reason except that it’s good art.
    I don’t think that there’s an easy answer for representation in the art world, artwork by white males has been the benchmark for so long that it’s ingrained in our psyche.
    Change is slow, quotas are not the answer and yet, change is happening.
    Look at the acceptance of outsider art, of someone like El Anatsui, this is change and for the better.
    And, what about this, if you’re not in NY, you don’t exist!!!
    There’s no easy answer here except maybe having work presented without attribution of any kind but the commercial side of this would never put with that.
    At 68, I’ve been around the block, seen a lot of schlock and a lot of great art done by unknown artists who never seem to get into good galleries or museum shows.

    One other thing, it’s not about the finished work, it’s about the journey!

  10. Can’t believe you are running numbers on races and diversity! At first I thought it was who came to the museum! It would probably be similar except for more women less men viewers. I guess I don’t like the measuring and weighing. I don’t think the art in museums should necessarily reflect ethnic percentages in the population, or in any other profession, really. I don’t like quotas, or the affirmative action thing because it isn’t fair or natural. For example: are there too many blacks in the NBA? They are over-represented. I don’t think we should interfere and put in more players of other colors. Some people(s) are good at certain things. Alleluia! Diversity is fine when it happens naturally. When it is engineered it is scary.
    If you really want to get into programming you must take time delays into account etc. 30-40 years ago when an artist would be beginning a career a whole different set of variables and percentages were in play.

  11. Jimmie Durham may self-identify as being “Native American” but no tribe claims him. In the US, you cannot represent yourself as a Native American without actually belonging to a tribe. It’s unfortunate that the Whitney Biennial 2014 didn’t include any Native American artists, but Native artists have participated in the Sydney Biennale, Conture in Belgium, Moscow Art Biennale, Novosibirsk Biennial, and other global art events. Apparently, we have to leave the United States to achieve recognition, but Native American artists are making our impact on the global art world.

      1. Thank you for asking. Durham claims to be Cherokee, which is quite possibly the best-documented ethnic group in the United States—the Cherokee Heritage Center even provides a genealogy library and three professional genealogists to the public for their own family research. Arkansas has no federally recognized tribes, and the country he was born has few Native Americans and is no where near the Cherokee Nation (Hempstead County is across the state border from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I bring this up only because a European article described Washington, Arkansas, as being a “Cherokee community”).

        There are three Cherokee tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in Cherokee, North Carolina (members are descended from people on the Baker’s Roll and have to have a minimum of 1/16 Cherokee blood), the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (members have to have 1/14 Cherokee blood), and the Cherokee Nation, also based in Tahlequah (which has no minimum blood quantum requirements, members can have any degree of Cherokee blood, they just have to prove descent from the Dawes Rolls).

        Durham is not enrolled in any of these tribes. He’s stated that his parents refused to sign onto the rolls; however, they either weren’t born or were babies when the Dawes Rolls were being recorded, so they couldn’t have made that choice.

        Tribes can choose a non-enrolled artist to be a “designated tribal artisan.” When the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was being debated, Wilma Mankiller was the chief of the Cherokee Nation, and she set the policy of not choosing any “designated tribal artisans.”

        A Google scholar search reveals that Durham appears in 8 times as many articles and citations as Kay WalkingStick (prominent Cherokee artist) or Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee fashion designer and founder of IAIA). Hopefully the art world will start looking towards actual Native American artists who are involved with their tribal communities. Alan Michelson (Mohawk), Raven Chacon (Navajo), and James Luna (Luiseño) are some contemporary Native artists with international reputations today.

          1. Anytime, and thanks to Hyperallergic for covering Native art shows, such as “You Are on Indian Land” and “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.”

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