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:
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.