This article is part of our latest dedicated museum section, 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 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At a time when cultural institutions across the United States are making a concerted effort to integrate more women and people of color into their collections, staffs, boards and exhibits, shows by established white male artists continue to feature prominently on museum calendars.
In part, the continued presentation of these traditional artists speaks to their enduring importance in the canon of art history. But it also raises important questions for museums about how to make room for alternative voices and how to review the contributions of historical figures through a contemporary lens.
“It’s about complicating the story,” Max Hollein, the director of the Met, said in a telephone interview. “In this environment, taking a fresh look at art history means we can reassess their oeuvre – not only diversifying those examining it, but also ensuring that the work is presented in a more complex way.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts for diversity, equality and inclusion are now a top priority for nearly every institution and have led to incitement of entrenched racism by the staffs of some, including the Met, the Guggenheim and the Smithsonic.
Museums are now aware of the need to diversify their boards and hire a greater number of trustees and staff to ensure multiple points of view are reflected in an institution’s decision-making.
Many museums engage external diversity advisors or hire internal diversity officers to monitor their progress.
The current show “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” – which the Met co-hosted with the National Gallery in London – focuses on conflict in the artist’s work, from depictions of the 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 Homer’s only major Caribbean seascape painted in oil and the only one to depict a black figure, it also references complex social and political issues,” explains the painting’s wall text, “including the legacy of slavery and imperialism.” in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American War.”
Denise Murrell, who recently joined the Met as an associate curator for 19th- and 20th-century art, said it’s also important to look at the mix of shows in a museum at any given time — are different points of view represented? The Met currently holds the exhibitions ‘Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room’ and ‘Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast’. The “Fictions” show features the marble bust “Why Born Enslaved!” by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who explores Western sculpture in relation to the history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and empire.
For the 150th anniversary of the Met, each gallery had one or more wall labels that chronologically represent how the collection was constructed. On the label titled ‘The Met and Black Artists in the Early Twentieth Century’, the museum acknowledged its shortcomings.
“One of the major modern art movements that the Met neglected in the early 1900s was the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of creative talent and energy in literature, music and the visual arts in the 1920s and 1930s,” the label said. The lack of engagement with key artists, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston and Laura Wheeler Waring, the label continues, “is especially surprising and regrettable given its proximity to the neighborhood of Harlem, the fundamental hub of this international movement.”
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Ms. Murrell is now working on a Met show about that period. “There is clearly something going on,” she says by phone. “We are actively considering how we will present these collections. There is movement in it.”
In October, the Philadelphia Museum of Art — which includes the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice, France — plans to present “Matisse in the 1930s,” which focuses on that decade of the life of the painter.
The show will partially explore how the artist interacted with his naked female models, one of whom also served as his assistant. “What we’re trying to do is explain the issue of the male artist and the clothed or unclothed female model,” Matthew Affron, the Philadelphia Museum curator of modern art and one of the curators of the Matisse show, said by phone. “It raises questions about what he was doing and how we should think about what we did.
“Questions about gender are central,” added Mr Affron. “It’s 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 simultaneously presents exhibitions by four contemporary artists who may be less well-known: Igshaan Adams, Basma al-Sharif, Hiroshi Senju and Judy Fiskin.
“This variety and balance is at the heart of our mission,” said Mr Rondeau by email. “We are able to leverage more established names while introducing new work and offering a broader view of contemporary art.”
Even as curators approach exhibitions differently, the public is also bringing and demanding a more nuanced perspective on what they see in museums, art experts say. “That increases the impact and awareness of both sides,” says Hollein of the Met.
Some traditionalists have been concerned that museums are in the midst of an over-correction, showing a preponderance of colored artists while neglecting some of the old guard. In 2020, Gary Garrels, the longtime chief curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, caused a stir after allegedly saying at a Zoom meeting, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” replied that his comments were “a little skewed”, he resigned, but according to several curators, it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.
“All museums want to expand the canon to have a more balanced program,” said Mr Affron. “It’s not either or, it’s yes and. We want a wider variety of voices and images. When we make exhibitions about historical figures such as Matisse, we do so in a scientific way with a sense of historical perspective. But we also need to apply positions based on today’s questions.”
That ‘yes and’ approach should inform any museum’s exhibition program, some curators say, taking into account the artist’s cultural context, personal history and potentially controversial imagery. “Providing a context that doesn’t obscure the work and its efforts seems like a strategy we should all use,” Valerie Cassel Oliver, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, said in an email. mail. “Hopper’s work must address the reality of communities that could not stay in the hotels he listed, nor in trade journals he made for or in the paintings he made.
“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 shape the conversation in an organic way that feels less like intervention and artifice and provides a real and impactful dimension to those artists’ practices.”
If the balance has shifted for the time being, others say, so be it: the white European male art tradition has long dominated. “For centuries, Western cultural institutions have had a very narrow view of what artistic excellence means — namely art made by white men,” Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said by email. “The fact is that the ideas that shaped our collections and exhibitions are deeply intertwined with histories of oppression, which limited the possibilities for greater enrichment for both artists and the public.
“It matters what stories we tell and who tells them,” Ms Pasternak continued. “At the Brooklyn Museum, we strive to be more intentional and inclusive of artistic excellence across all major populations of New York City. The playing field is becoming fairer.”
Museums have also become much more aware of what they are acquiring – filling gaps in their collections with the work of artists they have failed to recognize over the years.
For example, in 2019 the Baltimore Museum of Art pledged to acquire work only by female 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 it would acquire and conserve thousands of photographs of James Van Der Zee, the portraitist who chronicled the Harlem Renaissance. These developments are cautiously encouraging some museum leaders.
“We’ll just have to see how things evolve over time,” Ms Murrell said, “and whether museums live up to their promise to be anti-racist in everything they do.”