Artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Julie Mehretu, Museum director Belinda Tate

 

WOMEN ACCOUNT FOR 51 PERCENT of visual artists working today, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The figure mirrors women’s representation in the U.S. population, which was 50.8 percent in 2015, based on Census statistics. The parity ends there.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) produced a graphic report outlining the Facts About Gender Disparity in the Arts, based on a variety of sources. According to the report, women are over-represented in MFA programs (65-75 percent). In the real world, female representation plummets and opportunities for women artists lag far behind their male counterparts:

  • 2 women made the list of “100 most expensive artists of all time”
  • 3-5 percent of artworks in permanent collections of major U.S. museums are by women
  • 5 percent of artworks on major museum walls in the U.S. are by women artists
  • 25–35 percent of artists with gallery representation in U.S. & U.K. are women
  • 27 percent of solo exhibitions went to women artists, out of 590 at
    70 institutions over 6 years

BLACK WOMEN ARTISTS barely register in the above assessments. While the overarching art world landscape continues to be forbidding, there are individuals making significant strides.

Black women artists barely register in the above assessments. While the overarching art world landscape continues to be forbidding, there are individuals making significant strides.

Julie Mehretu consistently ranks among the most expensive female living artists, based on auction sales. The distinction means her work is the most expensive by a black woman artist, living or dead. The Ethiopian-born, New York-based artist’s auction record was set in 2013 when “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” (2001) sold for $4.6 million (including fees) at Christie’s New York.

Critically recognized emerging artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby is acquitting herself well. The Nigerian-born, Los Angeles-based aritst produces about five to six large-scale paintings a year. Museums are clamoring to buy them and her auction values are soaring way beyond her primary market prices.

Last September, one of her paintings, an untitled work from 2011, sold for nearly $100,000 (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York. A record at the time, it was nearly four times the high estimate. Then “Drown” sold for more than $1 million in November, also at Sotheby’s New York, setting a new artist record within two months. Yesterday, a 2012 mixed-media painting titled “The Beautyful Ones,” brought more than $3 million (including fees) at Christie’s London, setting a new, exponentially high benchmark for Akunyili Crosby.

Over the past year or so, a number of African American women artists have joined major New York galleries, including Emma Amos at Ryan Lee, Simone Leigh at Luhring Augustine, Deana Lawson at Sikkema Jenkins, Jordan Casteel at Casey Kaplan and Nina Chanel Abney at Jack Shainman.

Abney’s first solo museum show opened in February at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “Royal Flush” features about 30 paintings, collages and watercolors produced over the past decade. In May, the New Museum in New York is presenting a solo exhibition of paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the British artist known for her portraits of imagined figures.

 


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey (2015)

 

MEANWHILE, THE RACIAL DEMOGRAPHICS of museum staffs are dismal. According to a 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation survey of American museums, only four percent of employees in the job category “Curators, Conservators, Educators, and Leadership” are black (16 percent are non-white or minority). Some progress may be afoot as a recent Culture Type feature about appointments at cultural institutions indicated. The Mellon survey found when “younger” employees born in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were isolated, the share of minority employees in the category including curators and leadership grew to 27.5 percent.

Opportunities for women museum directors are disconcerting, too. Women run about half of America’s art museums, but they are helming small museums with relatively modest budgets. According to “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” a 2014 report issued by the Association of American Art Museum Directors, women only lead 24 percent of the largest museums (with budgets of $15 million or more) in the United States and Canada, and earn about one-third less than their male counterparts.

Women run about half of America’s art museums, but they are helming small museums with relatively modest budgets.

Black women have served in important posts as directors of the Studio Museum in Harlem, National Museum of African Art, and museums at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, all institutions that focus on art by African American and African diaspora artists. Opportunities to run mainstream art museums have been largely elusive. Sharon F. Patton served as director of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum (1998-2003) and Belinda Tate is currently at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan. (I hope there are more, please share additional names.)

The nation’s major museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have only been led by men. With the announcement that Thomas P. Campbell is stepping down as director of the Met, the institution would be more than remiss if it didn’t seriously consider as his replacement, one of the many qualified women helming museums and heading up curatorial departments throughout the country.

IF ART MUSEUMS are serious about better serving their audiences, they should take steps to ensure their boards, staff and programming reflect the communities they serve. Art institutions could take their cue from the National Football League (NFL) and adopt a policy similar to the Rooney Rule, an effort to level the playing field when it comes to executive hiring. The rule requires NFL teams to include non-white candidates in the interview pool for head coach and senior football operations jobs.

Art institutions could take their cue from the National Football League and adopt a policy similar to the Rooney Rule, an effort to level the playing field when it comes to executive hiring.

The relationship and obligations between the NFL and team owners is completely different from the art museum field which is composed of institutions that operate independent of one another. Given this, museums should collaborate with the Association of American Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums to develop and implement an NFL-style mandate with regard to both women and minority candidates. CT

 

BOOKSHELF
Consider “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power” to learn more about how in the late 1960s African American artists and curators fought for influence with New York City’s major museums. Also, further explore the work of two of the most successful black women artists working today. Coinciding with her first museum show at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., “Njideka Akunyili Crosby: I Refuse to be Invisible” is the first catalog to focus on the practice of Nigerian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Accompanying the artist’s 2007 show at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, “Julie Mehretu: City Sitings” features five new Detroit-related works from her City Sitings series. “Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared” complements the artist’s first major solo exhibition in London at White Cube gallery. The show presented new and recent paintings in a specially constructed environment designed by architect David Adjaye in collaboration with Mehretu.

 


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey (2015)