U.S. Museums Collections Overwhelmingly Male and White, Study Finds

U.S. Museums Collections Overwhelmingly Male and White, Study Finds

An overwhelming majority of artists represented in the collections of American museums are male and white, a report by researchers at Williams College finds.

Based on an analysis of eighteen major museums in the U.S. whose full collections are publicly accessible online, the report, Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums (HTML or PDF, 15 pages), found that only 12.6 percent of the more than nine thousand individual artists in the sample were women. With respect to race/ethnicity, 85.4 percent of the artists were white, 9 percent were Asian, 2.8 percent were Hispanic/Latinx, 1.2 percent were black/African American, and 1.5 percent were of other ethnicities (American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, or Middle Eastern/North African). The four largest groups represented across the eighteen museums were white men (75.7 percent), white women (10.8 percent), Asian men (7.5 percent), and Hispanic/Latinx men (2.6 percent). 

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the report notes that while different museums have different missions, most typically tend to focus on a specific time period and/or geographic region. The average birth year of the artists represented in each collection, for example, ranged from 1802 at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to 1949 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), while the artists' geographic origins were predominantly European (44 percent of the total) and North American (44.6 percent). The study found, however, that institutions with similar missions often have different levels of diversity in their collections. The museums in the sample with the highest representation of white artists included DIA, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, while the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Denver Art Museum (DAM), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were less white in terms of representation.

The share of black/African-American artists was highest at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, while the representation of Hispanic/Latinx artists was high at DAM and MOCA, and the representation of Asian artists was high at MFA Boston, RISD, the Yale University Art Gallery, and LACMA. In terms of gender, the representation of women artists was lowest at DIA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MFA Boston and highest at MOCA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney. 

Chad M. Topaz, Bernhard Klingenberg, Daniel Turek, Brianna Heggeseth, Pamela E. Harris, Julie C. Blackwood, C. Ondine Chavoya, Steven Nelson, Kevin M. Murphy. "Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums." Williams College Report 03/20/2019.