By Jim DeLa
New College Professor of Statistics Bernhard Klingenberg, working with eight other colleagues from around the country, posed a question: How diverse are the artists represented in major museums across the U.S.?
Although there is data about gender, ethnicity and nationality among museum staffs, and even their visitors, “No one had ever looked at the diversity of the artists,” whose work is displayed in these museums, Klingenberg said.
A paper on the study and its results is scheduled to appear later this month in PLOS ONE, one of the world’s largest online, open access research journals, published by the Public Library of Science.
Klingenberg explained the first task was to select a representative sample of museums and discover what artists are in those collections. Eighteen museums were selected from the Northeast, Midwest, South and Western U.S. To find out what those collections contained, they used a technique called data scraping. “Most major museums publish their entire collections online,” he said, so they devised a computer program that extracted that data into usable form.
Once that data was collected, the researchers selected a random sample of more than 10,000 records to use in the study. They then hired people to sift through the records. “Our goal was to find out gender, ethnicity, birth year and nationality,” Klingenberg said. To be sure they wound up with reliable data, each record was examined more than once. “We had each artist-museum record researched by at least five independent workers,” the paper noted.
When the results came in, Klingenberg said that because this data had not been collected before, “We didn’t have any expectations.” They found the vast majority of artists represented in the museums sampled are male (87.4 percent) and white (85.4 percent). “Art historians were not surprised,” he said, “but it’s good to have the numbers.”
Other numbers the study noted: “With respect to gender, our overall pool of individual, identifiable artists across all museums consists of 12.6 percent women. With respect to ethnicity, the pool is 85.4 percent white, 9.0 percent Asian, 2.8 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 1.2 percent Black/African American, and 1.5 percent other ethnicities. The four largest groups represented across all 18 museums in terms of gender and ethnicity are white men (75.7 percent), white women (10.8 percent), Asian men (7.5 percent), and Hispanic/Latinx men (2.6 percent). All other groups are represented in proportions less than 1 percent.”
The study concludes by saying this data may lead to more diversification. “Efforts towards diversifying collections might be improved by first quantifying the diversity of U.S. art museum collections. Our work lies in the context of other studies of diversity in academia, advertising, and employment … and has implications for shaping a museum’s collection practices and priorities as well as on the disciplines of art history, cultural history and museum studies. Additionally, beyond the sphere of art, our methodology can be used to assess diversity on a large scale in other fields.”
– Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.