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American Museum Collections Are Overwhelmingly White and Male

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Caravaggio’s David With the Head of Goliath, ca. 1607.

Traditionalists who yearn to return to a time when white males enjoyed unquestioned dominance can sometimes feel uncomfortable in diverse big cities. But in most metropolitan areas, there is at least one prominent place where the outdated dominance of men is still on display: the museum of art.

A first-of-its-kind study analyzes the race and gender of the artists represented in the permanent collections of 18 major American art museums, and finds that three-quarters of them are white men. Women represent only 12.6 percent of this elite group, and African-Americans of any gender only 1.2 percent.

It’s hard to frame those figures as something rosy.

“Museums with similar collection missions can have quite different diversity profiles,” lead author Chad Topaz of Williams College noted in announcing the findings. This observation suggests that “a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection might do so without changing its emphases on specific time periods and geographic regions.”

For the study, published in the online journal PLoS One, the researchers visited the websites of 18 of the nation’s most prominent art museums, and recorded the names of each artist represented in their permanent collections. The institutions included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery.

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