By Shiva Chopra
In the months after George Floyd's murder, my Instagram feed started filling up with photos. The normal Monets with their fluffy dresses and the jewel-tone balloon dogs from Koons were replaced by regular appearances by influential Black artists: David Hammons' “Untitled (African-American Flag)” or the neon light spelling "America" by Glenn Ligon. Curiously, however, these pictures did not seem to come from the places where those artworks are housed. Cultural institutions, galleries and museums have been mostly silent; many have taken months to respond to the social debate while others have yet to comment.
Black Lives Matter's protests encourage many companies to dig inward, do better. Promises for reform rippled through the art world after numerous calls to action from activists and artists. Hauser & Wirth, a blue-chip gallery with a range of artists, has reported its commitment to finding solutions; other galleries have vowed to audit their processes and identify measures for improvement. Tate shared a photo of “No Woman No Cry” by Chris Ofili, a painting which protests police brutality, thus describing the gallery’s responsibility to speak out for human rights and anti-racism. Some settled for quotes from Martin Luther King.
But even after the news of Floyd's murder, as demonstrators marched in the streets, I still saw museums posting paintings of William Holman Hunt as if the world were not on fire with humanitarian debate. Tackling social media and settling on a statement to post is a challenging and uncomfortable problem, but it is important to put in the time and effort to deal with these issues. The art world should do more than project morality, but make proactive efforts to do better—after all, isn't it true that art holds truth to power and justice? For if depicted well, art can bring about positive political change.
Maybe the art community feels it's enough for Black artists to boost their exposure incrementally. Hey, there've been some hit shows and record-breaking Basquiat retrospectives and auctions. The roll call of the past few years in the U.S. and U.K. includes Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald's official portraits of the Obamas, Martin Puryear representing the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the Soul of a Country show at Tate Modern, and Sonia Boyce, the first Black artist expected to represent the United Kingdom, at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Yet we really shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back. A 2018 study found that in the last decade, found that only 2.37% of all gallery acquisitions and only 7.6% of all displays at 30 prominent American museums were works created by African American artists. It's a pitiful figure, given that Black or African American people make up more than 12% of the U.S. population and produce some of the most compelling narratives and art of our time.
The Black Artists and Modernism National Collection Audit, led by Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, found that there are in fact just around 2,000 works by Black artists in the permanent collections in the U.K.—and most of them are not even on exhibit. The place where real change starts is in the storage units.
Furthermore, a 2019 study found that in the past decade, 11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibition programming in 26 major American museums were credited to women artists. Just 3.3% of the small number are Black. If exposure to female artists, regardless of race, is still an uphill struggle, promotion of Black female artists is Sisyphean.
The promotion of equity and the amplification of differing voices is not just a matter of duty, nor is it merely a show of filling a quota—it is a vital tool for ensuring the relevance of museums in an ever-changing world. If art is really "for everybody," then in art "everybody" needs to be able to see themselves. We have to educate and encourage the public, not just adhere to existing tastes.
So, how do we tackle the problem? The case for prioritizing merit has been a common response when debating policies for inclusion of diversity. But debates may not actually make a difference; group meetings and resolutions are not “doing.” Artists took it into their own hands across the pond: last year, Kehinde Wiley launched the residency of Black Rock Senegal to give space for artists of color to create. In the U.K., the Future Collect project of the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) allows commissions to be made for a museum by an artist of color. The current grant scheme set up by Carl Kostyál Gallery in London for Black art students in the U.K. and the U.S. is a major part of concrete action from the commercial sector, while Artistic Debuts has also launched a monthly grant for Black British artists of all ages. True change includes checkbooks.
The key question is: now what? The interactions we have with ourselves and with others are meant to catalyze progress. Art will help us understand our subjectivity and introduce us to other cultures, backgrounds and points of view to better appreciate the world in which we live now. It brings empathy—and empathy brings justice. I believe in the power of a vibrant, decolonized art world and I believe in the power of creativity. Let's be and do better. Together.