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BMA could do even more to diversify its collection

This photo by Amy Sherald was one purchased by the Baltimore Museum of Art after to help improve the diversity of its art collection.
This photo by Amy Sherald was one purchased by the Baltimore Museum of Art after to help improve the diversity of its art collection.(Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art)

The Baltimore Museum of Art made a big splash with news of its decision to buy only works of art by women for an entire year. Exhibits created by women are woefully underrepresented at the Wyman Park museum, making up just 4% of the 95,000 artworks in the permanent collection. It is far past time that was corrected.

The bold way the BMA has chosen to attack the issue could be a model for other museums, and officials say they hope to inspire others. They plan to spend up to $2 million on paintings, sculptures and other pieces of artwork. How much that will allow its collection to grow will depend on what artwork is available for sale at what price. Those details will ultimately determine how big of a dent they will be able to make.

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The museum, like many around the country, has a lot of ground to cover in making up a massive deficiency decades in the making. It’s a problem faced by many cultural institutions that have long been far from inclusive. BMA officials know this is not something they can remedy in a year and say the commitment is a long-term one that will continue after the year-long buying spree.

We give the museum credit for realizing it needs to better represent different cultures, races and genders in its collections. It is no longer enough to curate an occasional traveling exhibit or to pay attention during Women’s History Month. These works deserve a permanent home, and even baby steps are better than no effort at all.

The entire art world needs to work harder at representing different perspectives in its works. A recent study found that museums have talked a good game about changing gender inequities in art, but that these institutions still ultimately favor pieces by white men and are not willing to make the hard decisions to sell artwork to make room for more progressive pieces.

While those types of decisions bring backlash from people opposed to change, museum directors need to have the fortitude to bring their institutions into the 21st century. The BMA took heat when it decided to sell seven artworks by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline to purchase paintings and sculptures by women and artists of color. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.

In fact, the statistics tell you pieces by white male artist are way over-represented in museums. Just 11% of all art bought by 26 prominent museums were created by artists who were women, according to an investigation by publications artnet News and In Other Words. Just as bad, only 14 percent of exhibitions at these museums over the past decade were created by women. To break it down further, of the 260,470 works of art that have become part of permanent collections since 2008, only 29,247 were by women.

These museums don’t do any better when it comes to works of art by African Americans and other people of color. Last year, a survey of major museums found that just 2.3% of all art bought by and gifted to 30 museums in a decade were the work of African American artists. The BMA says it has roughly 470 works by African Americans currently in its collection — a tiny fraction.

The BMA and other museums need to take their efforts a step further and evaluate the makeup of their staffs and boards as well. A board and employee roster full of white, male faces may not as easily see or execute the priority of diversity. The BMA’s decision was strongly influenced by having a female board chair and senior curator of research and programs.

Other Baltimore museums have also implemented initiatives to create a collection that better represents the racial and gender makeup of the country. The Walters Art Museum last year hired four minority and women-owned firms to manage part of its $116 million endowment portfolio. The Hackerman House, owned by The Walters, features art that explores racial and social injustice.

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Some might argue that there are gender and racial-specific museums, including The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, to showcase artworks from certain groups. These museums do a good job, but it’s important for more mainstream museums to be just as inclusive.

That’s not to say that museums shouldn’t include the works of Mr. Kline, Mr. Warhol and all the other male artists that have long adorned the walls of museums. But Georgia O’Keefe, Jean Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden and Amy Sherald should also be a part of that landscape. And not just in a small corner of the museum.

We can no longer have a white-centered art world in a country that is so much more than that.

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