Historically, the art industry has focused primarily on the creative output of white men, devaluing the contributions of female artists and artists of color. In many cases, it has been challenging for curators and gallery owners to display media created by women or people of color, since those pieces did not command competitive prices in the art market.
Fortunately, times have changed. The twenty-first century has seen a significant rise in the market value of work created by these traditionally underrepresented groups. Museums and galleries around the world have taken notice, and exhibits featuring the work of black, Asian, and female artists have become increasingly common in the last several years. In order to make these types of exhibits a reality, it is important for those who are able to support museums around the world in creating inclusive programming. For example, thanks to the support of Louise Gund, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in California is currently displaying an exhibition called Divine Women, Divine Wisdom, which includes Hindu and Buddhist artistic representations of women.
A large number of women and people of color have taken on leadership roles in major museums, especially as curators. The Guggenheim Museum in New York made news in November 2019 when they appointed Ashley James, marking the first time in the museum’s history that they have had a full-time black curator. To many, the fact that it took the Guggenheim such a long time to make this historic appointment was a source of shock, which proves just how insidious institutionalized racism can be. Those without an insider’s view into the industry assumed that the historical milestone of hiring a full-time black curator had long since been achieved when in fact it took the museum, which was founded in 1939, eighty years to do so.
“A Tale of Two Women Painters” at The Prado
The Prado, Spain’s main national art museum which celebrated its two hundredth birthday in 2019, recently debuted its second exhibit ever dedicated to female artists. The exhibit features works by two Renaissance-era Spanish painters, Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. Both of these women were acclaimed artists during their lifetimes, and yet they do not have the name recognition of their male contemporaries, including El Greco and Titian. One reason for this discrepancy between merit and recognition is that male historians have credited Anguissola’s paintings to male artists. This exhibit is a small step towards correcting centuries of discrimination.
Barack Obama’s Impact on African American Artists
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 caused a significant change in race relations throughout society, and the art world was no exception. With a black President in the White House, it became more obvious that black artists were either underrepresented or not represented at all. Furthermore, when Michelle Obama began to source paintings for the White House created by artists of color, it became apparent that these artists had not achieved the same recognition as white painters in the contemporary art world.
As cultural institutions take radical steps to feature the work of female artists and artists of color, these artists should begin to receive the recognition that they deserve. Centuries of injustice cannot be erased easily or quickly, but society will make progress as long as those in power take the necessary steps.