Breaking Down the Demographics of the New Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Exhibition


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.

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