The Canon Explodes: The Museum World Aims for Diversity

"We have to move from tokenism to transformation..." For the future-forward American museum, that process appears to be underway.

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A detail from Kehinde Wiley's 2005 "Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares." Wiley's update of a classic genre reflects the ongoing expansion in art history and curation. Photo: Rubell Family Collection.

In 1963, Bob Dylan sang:

The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

The lyrics sounded a cannon shot back then for civil rights and antiwar activism. Fifty-six years later, the lyrics sound like a cannon shot at the art history canon. Across America, a course correction is a-changin’ the look of art, spurring the rise of underrepresented artists. “There’s a very heightened shift in museums’ strategic planning and mission statements toward diversity, equity and inclusion,” art consultant Anne Bergeron told me. “It seems to have reached a pivot point — that moment when there’s no going back. This is the way forward.”

Independent curator Lowery Stokes Sims agrees. “Either the mainstream art world will catch up,” she said, “or they’ll be left behind.” Sims attributes the escalation of the trend to two factors: the Black Lives Matter movement catalyzed by “social media around African-American men gratuitously shot by police, coupled with market trends that have made African-American art very desirable.”

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Detail from 2012’s “American Shotgun,” in which Carl Joe Williams replaced Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” figures with haloed African Americans in front of a New Orleans “shotgun” house.

In more than a dozen interviews, curators, consultants, academics and museum directors expressed enthusiasm for overturning the prior focus on white, male “geniuses.” The current political tumult, they said, makes highlighting contributions by women and artists of color a necessary, urgent reform.

“In an era where white supremacy is much more open than at any point in my memory, an all-male, all-white curriculum ceases to be viable,” said Noam Elcott, chair of Art Humanities at Columbia University. Consequently, for the first time in 70 years of teaching its survey of 2,500 years of Western civilization, Columbia is modernizing its core course in art history. “The election of Trump and a turn toward a much more open embrace of white nationalism, which is really just code for white supremacy, called for a reckoning,” added Elcott, who also heads the committee to update the syllabus. “The curriculum is only catching up to the values of people. The trend toward diversity makes for an intellectually, aesthetically and ethically richer, more complex and compelling course.”

Even the venerable Museum of Modern Art, its reinstallation to be unveiled on Oct. 21, is on board. Instead of describing modern art primarily through works by white males of Paris and NYC, MoMA, said board chair Leon Black, wants “to lead with a new vision…to explore more women artists, artists of color and art from more geographies than ever before.”

Many interviewees cited ethics as equal to aesthetics in catalyzing the shift. “Art has to challenge us and ask the most fundamental questions about human existence,” Elcott said. “It can’t do that if we focus on a very narrow slice of the human population.”

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Mickalene Thomas’ 2007 “Baby I Am Ready Now,” a diptych in the Barnes Foundation’s “30 Americans.” Photo: Rubell Family Collection.

Gregory Stevens — director of Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics in South Orange, NJ — concurred. “When people are grappling with larger social issues like racism, LGBTQ rights, gender equity and immigration,” he said, “museums as public institutions have both an obligation and an opportunity to respond. This is what we must do because it’s the ethical thing to do.”

Similarly, it would seem that greater diversity in programming is also increasingly essential for museums’ survival, especially if they wish to attract new audiences in a pluralistic society. “I always remember the maxim ‘You can’t be what you don’t see’,” said Matthew McLendon, director and chief curator of the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art. “Opening up to diversity will enable increased visibility so people see themselves reflected and know they’re welcomed.” On Sept. 13, the Fralin announced it will devote half of its future programming to historically underrepresented artists. The hope is that representing different points of view may increase tolerance, understanding and empathy toward those with different experiences.

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Nick Cave’s 2008 “Soundsuit,” featured in “30 Americans.” Photo: Rubell Family Collection.

Indeed, a consortium of museum professionals has formed The Empathetic Museum to advocate for greater inclusion and diversity of thought. Co-founder Gretchen Jennings, a veteran museum professional, has called for systemic transformation to replace discriminatory practices. Not only do exhibitions lack diversity, she has noted, but so do acquisitions for permanent collections, board members and staff.

At the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, director Thom Collins has embraced diversity even as he presides over a predominantly Eurocentric collection. The Barnes’ upcoming “30 Americans” exhibition features themes of social justice in work by prominent, contemporary African-American artists. “The museum is one of the few spaces dedicated to the presentation of new ideas,” Collins said. “It’s critically important that the public understand we are engaging with these pressing social issues.”

At the Mississippi Museum of Art, its Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) acquires and displays visual art relevant to community concerns. Managing director Monique Davis noted that her state’s contribution to the civil rights movement makes it “ground zero for talking about equity issues in the US.” Since “the original hurt and trauma existed here,” she explained, “we had to be part of the conversation.” At the museum, she added, “We’re trying to live in that in-between space of talking about social-justice issues and still show pretty things on the wall.” By presenting art from diverse perspectives, she hopes that CAPE will “model how to disagree agreeably, with compassion, and connect people based on our shared humanity, even in the Deep South.”

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Oletha DeVane, “Traces of the Spirit” at Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is also spearheading the movement to broaden presentations with local communities in mind. “Over the last three years,” said director Christopher Bedford, “we’ve been relentlessly pushing and revising exactly what equity and inclusion and justice look like within the museum program.” Using a holistic approach across decision-making, “We reoriented the core of the institution to make ourselves irresistible and irresistibly relevant.” BMA’s 2020 Vision initiative will present an entire year of exhibitions of art by women.

The BMA contemporary galleries have been infused with work by artists of color as well — with gratifying results. “The museum is buzzing,” Bedford said. “Overall attendance is very high, and [on weekends] the audience looks different. It looks like the city of Baltimore.” Aesthetic quality is not the loser in this new emphasis. “By adopting this program,” Bedford said, “we’re actually championing the best art being made today.”

Oletha DeVane, an African-American stalwart of the Baltimore art scene, recently displayed “Traces of the Spirit,” an installation of powerful, mixed-media sculptures at the BMA. “I look at artists as visionaries and teachers who open up the eyes of the public,” she said. “Artists communicate with not one voice but many voices and tell many stories.” As for the suggestion by some that expanding the canon reflects political correctness rather than a judgment of quality, her response was insistent: “If you bring me in as a token, I’m not going to be your token. I’m going to speak up.”

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Carl Joe Williams’ 2019 “Clarence and Annie Williams, the Early Years” at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Works by New Orleans artist Carl Joe Williams are on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art until March 1, 2020. Williams believes “with new curators, there’s been a changing of the guard,” making him feel more included in the art world. In place of “unrealistic, minstrel imagery…propagated by white supremacy and racists,” he creates complex, patterned portraits. His method to combat discrimination is “to make the best work I can,” saying, “if the viewer is challenged and the art is effective, maybe visitors will come out better, more informed human beings.”

James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, told me that the role of museums is “to promote greater human understanding about our interrelatedness” by encouraging “curiosity about difference in the world.” The Getty Museum in LA, renowned for its collection of Old Masters, sponsors programs to broaden awareness and discourse. It is building an archive on African-American art history, and its Unshuttered initiative combines teens, photography and social activism.

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Clearly, though, diversity and inclusion are goals more than reality. A 2019 study by Williams College faculty revealed little diversity at 18 major American museums. In their permanent collections, 85.4% of works were by white males, 1.2% by African Americans and 2.8% by Hispanic and Latinx artists. Artnet.com reported that, at 30 top museums, less than 3% of museum acquisitions in the past decade were by African-American artists; 11% were by women. As for exhibitions, 14% presented work by women at 26 prominent American museums; 7.6% showed art by African Americans.

At a September meeting of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Kyoto, Japan, museum directors from 119 countries debated whether the definition of a museum needs revision. Is the museum a forum for disparate views and potential controversies or a temple to preserve and venerate beauty? One proposed definition frames museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue,” including discussions of planetary well-being (climate change) and social justice. Naysayers tabled the proposed definition as an “ideological,” political manifesto.

Calling the museum’s acceptance of a civic role more a gradual evolution than a revolution, Gregory Stevens admitted “not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.” Still, he argued, “A museum cannot be neutral. We’re operating against the backdrop of a chaotic, politically charged world, amidst a sea of shifting demographics and changing public perceptions.”

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In an interview, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker told me that he’s optimistic that museums will come to embrace social responsibility, even though “We are underperforming and we have a long way to go in representing women and people of color.” Calling himself  “a proponent of reform,” he said, “We don’t need to destroy the system of museums in this country but to improve and evolve the system. It’s a real mistake to label all museums as elitist.”

Walker added: “Museums are among the most important institutions in our democracy. They tell our story of who we are as a people for history.” He believes “the public is hungry for change. We have to move from tokenism to transformation of American museums. Culture is a powerful tool for building a strong democracy.”

In an introductory essay for the catalogue of the 2017 exhibition, Blue Black, that he curated at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, MO, African-American artist Glenn Ligon wrote, “In this turbulent moment in our history, we need art to speak, as much as we as citizens need to speak up.”