Museums are changing their approach to showing white male artists

This article is part of our newest special section on museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


Winslow Homer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper at the Whitney. Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At a time when cultural institutions across the United States are making a concerted effort to include more women and people of color in their collections, staff, committees, and exhibitions, exhibitions by established white male artists continue to feature prominently on museum calendars.

In part, the continued exposure of these traditional artists speaks to their continued prominence in the canon of art history. But it also raises important questions for museums, how to make space for alternative voices and how to reconsider the contributions of historical figures through a contemporary lens.

“It’s about complicating the narrative,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a phone interview. “In this environment, a fresh look at art history means we can re-evaluate her work – not just diversify those questioning it, but also ensure that the work is presented in more complex ways.”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are now top priorities for nearly all institutions and have led the staff of some, including the Met, the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian.

Museums are now aware of the need to diversify their boards and hire a wider range of curators and staff to ensure that multiple viewpoints feed into an institution’s decision-making.

Many museums hire outside diversity consultants or hire internal diversity officers to monitor their progress.

The current exhibition, ‘Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents’, co-organised by the Met with the National Gallery in London, focuses on conflicts in the artist’s work, from images of Civil War and Reconstruction to hunting scenes. The centerpiece of the exhibition is one of Homer’s most famous paintings, ‘The Gulf Stream’, which depicts a black man on a rudderless fishing boat in stormy seas.

“As the only Homer’s large Caribbean seascape to be painted in oil and the only one to depict a black figure, it also relates to complex social and political themes,” explains the painting’s mural text, “including the legacy of slavery and imperialism after the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American War.”

Denise Murrell, who recently joined the Met as Associate Curator of 19th-20th Century Art, said it’s also important to look at the mix of exhibitions in a museum at any given time – are there different viewpoints represented? For example, the exhibitions “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room” and “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast” are currently running at the Met. The Fictions show features the marble bust Why Born Enslaved! by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who examines Western sculpture in relation to the history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and empire.

For the Met’s 150th Anniversary exhibition, each gallery had one or more wall labels that chronologically represented the composition of the collection. Titled “The Met and Black Artists in the Early Twentieth Century” on the label The museum acknowledged its shortcomings.

“Among the major modern art movements that the Met neglected in the early 20th century was the Harlem Renaissance, a surge of creative talent and energy in literature, music, and the visual arts in the 1920s and 1930s,” according to the label. The lack of engagement with key artists such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston and Laura Wheeler Waring, the label continues, “is particularly surprising and unfortunate given its close proximity to the borough of Harlem, the founding hub of this international movement. ”

Ms. Murrell is now working on a Met show about this period. “There’s clearly something going on,” she said over the phone. “We are actively thinking about how to present these collections. There is movement.”

In October, the Philadelphia Museum of Art – with the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice, France – is planning to present Matisse in the 1930s, which will focus on this decade in the painter’s life.

The show partly addresses the artist’s interaction with his nude female models, one of whom also served as his assistant. “We’re trying to settle the question of the male artist and the clothed or unclothed female model,” Matthew Affron, curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum and one of the curators of the Matisse exhibition, said by phone. “It raises questions about what he did and how we should think about what we did.

“Gender issues are at the core,” added Affron. “This is not a neutral situation.”

The Art Institute of Chicago opened a retrospective on the drawings of American conceptual artist Mel Bochner on April 23. But the museum’s director, James Rondeau, points out that the museum is simultaneously presenting exhibitions by four contemporary artists who may be lesser known – Igshaan Adams, Basma al-Sharif, Hiroshi Senju and Judy Fiskin.

“That diversity and balance is at the core of our mission,” Rondeau said via email. “We’re able to leverage more established names, introduce new works and offer a broader view of contemporary art.”

Even as curators approach exhibitions differently, it also brings — and challenges — audiences to a more nuanced perspective on what they see in museums, say art experts. “It increases impact and awareness on both sides,” said the Met’s Mr. Hollein.

Some traditionalists fear that museums are in the midst of an over-correction, showing a preponderance of colorists while neglecting some of the old guard. In 2020, Gary Garrels, the longtime chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, caused an uproar after reportedly saying in a Zoom meeting, “Don’t worry, we’re definitely going to keep collecting white artists. Although he replied that his comments were “a little skewed,” he backed down. But several curators say it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

“All museums want to expand the existing canon to have a more balanced program,” said Mr. Affron. “It’s not either or, it’s yes and. We want to have a greater variety of voices and images. Of course, when we do exhibitions about historical figures like Matisse, we do it in a scholarly way, with a sense of historical perspective. But we also have to apply viewpoints shaped by the issues of today.”

This “yes, and” approach should inform every museum’s exhibition program, say some curators, careful to consider the artist’s cultural context, personal history, and potentially controversial imagery. “Creating a context that doesn’t obscure the work and its efforts seems like a strategy we should all use,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, per E -Mail. “Hopper’s work was intended to deal with the reality of communities unable to stay in the hotels he depicted either in the trade journals he created for or in the paintings he created.

“As for Johns, why not introduce Sari Dienes,” she added, referring to the Hungarian-born American artist who inspired both Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. “These strategies help create an organic conversation that feels less pandering and artificial, and adds a real and impactful dimension to these artists’ practices.”

If the balance has shifted for now, others say, so be it: the white European male art tradition has long enjoyed primacy. “For centuries, Western cultural institutions have had a very narrow view of what constitutes artistic excellence — namely, art by white men,” Anne Pasternak, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, said via email. “The fact is that the ideas that have shaped our collections and exhibitions are closely intertwined with a history of oppression that limited opportunities for greater enrichment for artists and audiences alike.

“It’s important what stories we tell and who tells them,” Ms. Pasternak continued. “At the Brooklyn Museum, we strive to make artistic excellence more conscious and inclusive across all major communities in New York City. The playing field is getting fairer.”

Museums have also become much more aware of what they acquire – filling gaps in their collections with works by artists they have not recognized over the years.

In 2019, for example, the Baltimore Museum of Art committed to only acquiring works by women artists for a year.

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation says it has helped more than a dozen museums acquire paintings, sculptures and works on paper by self-taught African-American artists from the South.

Last December, the Met, along with the Studio Museum in Harlem, announced that it would acquire and preserve thousands of photographs by James Van Der Zee, the portrait painter who chronicled the Harlem Renaissance. These developments leave some museum directors cautiously encouraged.

“We just have to see how things evolve over time,” Ms Murrell said, “and whether museums are living up to their commitment to be anti-racist in everything they do.”

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