The news may shock you if you were living in a cave, but this spring an “Arts in NYC” course taught at CUNY Guttman College by James Case-Leal has crunched the numbers to demonstrate how white the top of the commercial art gallery pyramid truly is.
What the students found was that in the 2016–17 season, 80.5% of all artists at the top 45 New York galleries were white, though if the statistics are parsed to focus only on US artists, then the percentage climbs to 88.1%. In a country that’s 64% white, that’s a drastic difference.
Other shocking statistics include the lack of Native American artists and the huge disparity between the Hispanic population in the US and artists in New York galleries (16% in general population vs. 1.2% in top New York galleries).
The statistics for male/female artists is equally disappointing:
And while this is for all artists, the number for US artists is only slight better (68% male and 32% female).
Other notable markers include education levels: 46.9% of artists have MFAs, while 24.7% have no formal post-secondary degree.
The full data is available at a specially designed website curiously titled Haven for the Dispossessed, but I do urge caution when using the stats.
The researchers themselves warn that their data was compiled based on the perception of the researcher, and artists were not interviewed, so the stats are not completely reliable. Their website clarifies that “Gender and race determination is not representative of how that artist self-identifies. When available, we looked at indicators used by publications (artist’s writing, gallery statements, and press), but in the absence of this, race and gender were recorded based on how they were perceived by the reviewing researcher.”
Case-Leal told Hyperallergic the tally doesn’t need to “be read as accusatory.” He explained, “It is intended to be an honest assessment. Naturally, it is indebted to previous feminist counting projects. But the critique is an open question, particularly for those in a position to elevate or ignore artists.”
He says the statistics were also designed to help him work with students in this current age of siloed information and fake news. “We are in an era of very individualized information. We’ve cultivated a culture of distrust around any new information that we don’t already believe,” he said. “This presents a unique challenge to educators. There is this pervasive idea that what gets talked about in the classroom is an exchange of personal opinions. Especially when wading in to highly politicized subject matter … It is very difficult to talk about an issue if we can’t agree that the issue exists.”
“Each student was assigned seven artists a week to review,” Case-Leal explained about the process. “They would research, enter information, and pull out examples of work that they responded strongly to (often negatively) for class discussion.”
His class did discover some surprising things, too. “Another revelation came from looking at MFA graduates by age,” he said.
“I’ve had the impression that the need for an MFA is a new phenomenon. Older, established artists question why artists need degrees now when they did not. Masters programs are often (rightly) critiqued for being linked to the professionalization of art practices, the university industry, the debt industry.
“What our data reveals is that while it’s true that artists under 45 have more degrees than artists in the 45 to 65 age range, artists 65 and older have education rates comparable to the youngest generation.
“There could be other factors at play. The numbers do start to thin out over 65 simply because of retirement and death — perhaps degreed artists live longer. Maybe they’re less likely to retire. But this raises the question if what we’re seeing is actually a passing wave of self-trained artists popularized in the United States from 1955 to 1970. There honestly isn’t enough data amongst living gallery artists to be conclusive, but the preliminary charts I’ve made of this certainly reveal enough to call it into question.”
The professor’s answers to Hyperallergic’s questions demonstrate a careful understanding of the issue. He clearly understands the power representation plays on the public’s imagination. “When we construct our collective sense of what Art Is at the moment — we tend to base it on the art that we see,” he said. “How does that sense of taste change if we acknowledge that our image of what art in America looks like is incomplete and inaccurate? Our sense of taste, quality, and greatness is constructed from a history of exclusion. How do we know what great art really is if our measure of greatness is based on an inaccurate history? Is it appropriate to compare young artists to a history that has excluded their art ancestors? What new forms of expertise exist that speak to abstract experiential meaning?”
The statistics are fascinating and offer various perspectives on the facts of commercial art galleries, but because this was compiled by students who may not be aware of all the cultural and identity factors in an artist’s life, the results are definitely a little off based on an independent assessment from Hyperallergic. For instance, Jack Shainman Gallery shows the work of Native American artist Brad Kahlhamer, who most recently was in a spring group show at the gallery, yet he is not recorded as a Native American artist. While Paula Cooper shows US artist Walid Raad, who is Middle Eastern, but he is not recorded as such in the charts. Both artists grapple with material connected to their identity, so it is a little puzzling how the student researchers may have miscategorized them.
What’s clear from these figures is that the commercial art world clearly isn’t inclusive of the range of artists. But who will hold them accountable? A professor and students at CUNY Guttman College are doing their part.
Editor’s Note: Case-Leal told Hyperallergic they will update the report based on errors that come to their attention.