In story after story after story, one powerfully persistent meme of the 2012 American presidential election was that the GOP faced a significant “demographics problem” in which the growing numbers of former minorities such as African-Americans and Latinos threatened to make the Republican Party itself a minority. ARTINFO executive editor Ben Davis recently raised a very interesting question as to whether the art world today has a similar demographics problem. In “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society,” Davis worries that the future of art museums in America looks as bleak as future Republican electoral chances unless the whitening trend is reversed. Does the art world have a demographics problem and, if so, what can be done to correct it?
“Would it surprise you to know that, on this score at least,” Davis asks, “the liberal-leaning art world has more in common with Republicans than Democrats?” The idea that NEA-cutting Republicans and their typically liberal art opponents can be affected by the same population shift seems unlikely, but demographics makes strange bedfellows. Davis taps into the Center for the Future of Museums’ 2010 report “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums” to find a whole slew of troubling trends, which Davis sums up in one quote from the report: “This analysis paints a troubling picture of the ‘probable future’—a future in which, if trends continue in their current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society.”
The basic problem is that the audience for most American museums is blindingly white in composition. Citing another study, Davis writes, “Among those who frequented art museums, a stunning 92 percent identified as white, and only 16 percent identified as a minority (in this survey, respondents were allowed dual identification). Compare: 87 percent of registered Republicans are white.” Why does the art establishment fail to see this growing problem? Because it’s centered in New York City, Davis answers. “Cosmopolitan New York is a majority minority city, and has been for as long as anyone can remember,” Davis suggests. “But walk from the subway towards any gallery opening or museum party, and watch the color drain away.” “[T]oday’s art world looks more like Boise than NYC,” Davis quips.
This demographic problem reaches all the way into the museums themselves. “Some 80 percent of museum studies graduates are white,” Davis adds. Until people of color begin walking through museum doors, people of color will never believe they can be part of that world and contribute to the discussion. As much as museums strive to be multicultural and ethnically diverse and conscious in their exhibitions, all too often in the world of Dead White Male Blockbuster shows, art museum studies look a lot like Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (shown above, from 1632): a bunch of live, white males dissecting a dead, white male.
But what lesson should museums learn from the Republicans’ and their own quandary? Davis helpfully adds that “you also have to stress that the problem isn’t just the lack of good will or general cluelessness.” There’s no need to blame the victim in this problem, but also no need to coddle the patient. Ultimately, racial lines in museum attendance follow economic patterns. People of lower socio-economic status rarely patronize museums for a host of monetary and educational reasons and their children rarely get much arts exposure beyond the occasional school field trip, so the cycle of racial disparity not only continues, but increases in magnitude as those population groups increase.
As with so many other problems in America today, the root of the problem is education. Better education equals better economic opportunity for the individual and their children, thus reversing the negative cycle and, we hope, starting a positive one. Solve the disparity there and you strike at the cause rather than merely treat the symptoms. “These are political matters, not things that good arts policy can turn around,” Davis writes, anticipating those who ask what the art world can do. “The art world could, however, at least have something to say about them. Otherwise, it cannot help but become more and more removed from the living experience of the population in our increasingly diverse and still troubled nation.” Perhaps it’s time for art museums to advocate actively for a place in the national educational curriculum, not just for their own selfish survival, but to save culture itself as a important part both of our heritage and of our future as a coalition of creatively, critically thinking citizens. Clearly there are centuries of Dead White Male art (and thinking) to contend with, but if the future of America will look different than that fast-shrinking demographic, then it’s time that art museums and other cultural institutions swallow the medicine Davis prescribes or else die on the table—an exquisite corpse with little relevance to the country and people it exists to serve.