Cultural Reproduction and Race in the Visual Arts

Curating Inequality: The Link between Cultural
Reproduction and Race in the Visual Arts*
Andria Blackwood, Department of Geography, Kent State University
David Purcell, Department of Sociology, Kent State University
Although the U.S. population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,
research indicates that minority participation in the arts continues to decline. This article
addresses the racial disparity of public art museum attendance by examining the role of
the art museum curator and the process by which concepts of race are reproduced within
the space of the public art museum. Utilizing Bourdieu’s theories of cultural reproduction, social space, and symbolic power as a preliminary framework of inquiry, we examine the concept of whiteness as privileged social construct. Through face-to-face indepth interviews with museum curators, we investigate the means by which the dominant cultural narrative of whiteness is maintained through the preferences, decisions, and
social interactions of curators. We draw upon critical white studies, a part of critical race
theory, to underline the manner in which whiteness presents itself as a position of dominance. Our findings show that whiteness is maintained through the process of exclusion
by presenting the white cultural narrative as both ordinary and invisible.
While the United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse
(Passel and Cohn 2008; U.S. Census Bureau 2010), minority participation in
the arts is progressively declining (American Alliance of Museums [AAM]
2010; National Endowment for the Arts 2009a). The importance of civic
institutions such as public art museums cannot be understated. National
Endowment of the Arts (NEA) research reveals a profound link between
museum attendance and a variety of community involvement, including volunteerism, sports participation, collaborative art-making, and family attendance
of out-of-school performances (NEA 2009b). Museums have been shown to
forge bridges between social groups and also foster greater understanding of
cultures and beliefs (Thea 2009). Moreover, the environment of civic institutions such as museums has the ability to cultivate dialogue, engaging as civic
agents to promote general public discourse on such issues as the changing
concepts of race, ethnicity, politics, and culture (AAM 2010; Putnam 2001;
Tepper 2011). Thus, it is important to examine the relationship between race
and the reproduction of culture within the public sphere of the museum in
Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 84, No. 2, May 2014, 238–263
© 2014 Alpha Kappa Delta: The International Sociology Honor Society
DOI: 10.1111/soin.12030
order to better facilitate active, positive, and productive engagement between
disparate groups.
The majority of research on patronage of the arts focuses on the demographics, preferences, and habits of museum visitors, and the social, cultural,
and generational changes that have taken place within American society and
their effects on art museum attendance (AAM 2010; NEA 2009a). However,
there appears to be a gap in the literature as to the role curators may play in
influencing the demographics of museum participation. Thus, we focus on the
role of the public art museum curator in regard to issues of racial and cultural
reproduction. We ask: how can the role of curator influence public participation
in regard to both white and minority populations?
Curators are the institutionally acknowledged experts within the field of
art and are involved in a variety of professional capacities (Ramirez 1996).
The Code of Ethics for Curators (American Alliance of Museums 2009a)
describes the many professional duties of a curator, including conducting original research; developing new scholarship that contributes to the advancement
of the body of knowledge within their field(s) of expertise; developing and
organizing exhibitions; assuming responsibility for the overall care and development of the collection; representing their institution in the media, at public
gatherings, and at professional conferences and seminars; remaining current in
all state, national, and international laws as they pertain to the objects in the
museum collection; advocating for and participating in the formulation of institutional policies and procedures for the care of the collection that are based on
accepted standards and best practices; and making recommendations for
acquiring and deaccessioning pieces within a museum’s collection (AAM
Along with this considerable list of responsibilities, curators are now also
required to be educational conduits between museum collections and the public
by developing and participating in educational workshops, symposia, lectures,
and art classes. Moreover, since the mid-1990s, curators’ professional capacity
has been broadened to include the role of cultural broker: a controversial role
that is viewed by a variety of art professionals either as helping to destroy the
restrictive hierarchies inherent in the canon of Western art, or as aiding in the
production and support of reductive constructs that frame, package, and market
the collective identities of marginalized groups to elite buyers’ tastes and interests (Ramirez 1996: 23–24). Curators are considered to be the “gatekeepers” of
museums as they choose which objects to exhibit, which artists to showcase,
how art and artist are presented, and how the public will interact with the art
displayed within the frame of a museum’s physical and ideological space
(Alexander 1996: 10). Thus, curators wield a great deal of power in influencing
both the production and presentation of culture embedded within art.
This research therefore examines issues of cultural reproduction, power,
and race through the lens of the art museum curator, and investigating how the
professional capacity of these cultural gatekeepers may influence the level of
minority attendance within public art museums. Based on in-depth, face-to-face
interviews with public art museum curators, we investigate how race is viewed
and constructed within the field of art. Our findings suggest that cultural reproduction surrounding the art museum promotes a narrative of whiteness through
the preferences, decisions, and social interactions of the curatorial staff, board
of directors, and donors. Additionally, financial constraints within public art
museums limit the abilities of curators to address issues of diversity in purchasing works and presenting exhibits by artists of color as well as interacting with
the surrounding community. We conclude by discussing outstanding questions,
this study’s limitations, and future directions for research on the link between
cultural reproduction, race, and the arts.
Social Space, Privilege, and Culture
Historically, the ideology of public art museums has been divided into two
distinct arenas: either to acquire, preserve, and display art, or to educate the public on the value of art and the process of art appreciation (Duncan 1995; Zolberg
1981). Curators play a pivotal role in either approach, as their choices simultaneously create and reflect the dominant cultural narrative interpreted through the
curators’ training, beliefs, and experiences (Robins 2005). A museum’s exhibitions and permanent displays communicate this particular narrative based upon
the selective interpretation and presentation of art by its curatorial staff (Ruitenberg 2011). The racial history of much of this dominant cultural narrative is
decidedly Western and white and yet, portrayed as neutral and normative
(Berger 2005; McIntosh 2001; Zolberg 1984). Thus, the choices of the curatorial
staff illustrate their power to reproduce the dominant cultural narrative of
whiteness and white privilege, which in turn becomes the social reality and is
therefore construed by the public to be both normal and legitimate.
Bourdieu’s (1989) theory of social space and symbolic power offers a preliminary framework to examine the collective social experience within the public art museum. Bourdieu maintains that social position is defined by one’s
location within social space, a space which is made up of economic, social,
cultural, and symbolic resources. Differing access to these resources creates
variation in social relationships with individuals and groups “defined by their
relative positions within that space” (Bourdieu 1985: 723–724). Thus, through
social interaction, social space can be a place of conflict or of collective unity
(and be both, simultaneously). These social places house the internal and external symbolism that mark their inhabitants as insiders or outsiders (Dangschat
Bonilla-Silva (1996) extends this examination of social space and symbolic power by connecting social space and symbolic power with race. BonillaSilva’s concept of “racialized social systems” maintains that these economic,
political, social, and ideological realms of society are also influenced by the
placement of individuals into racial categories. Within racialized social systems,
the categorization of individuals involves a hierarchy whereby the dominantly
placed race often has greater access to a variety of resources as well as the
power to designate physical and social boundaries between itself and other
racially marginalized groups (Bonilla-Silva 1996).
These resources include the cultural images and symbols which represent
what Bourdieu (1989) labels as the “schemata of classification,” a symbolic
language that creates and reflects the social reality. Those who control the schemata of classification control the social space and in turn, the social positions
within it. Thus, social space can be used as a means of exclusion by the dominant ingroup—individuals and groups that control the economic, social, cultural, and symbolic resources—and through the use of symbolic power,
“impose the vision of legitimate divisions” (Bourdieu 1989: 21) within the
social space of the public art museum. These boundaries include a racial identity, which may be expressed in terms of discrimination and bias against the racialized outgroup (Bonilla-Silva 1996; Brewer 1999).
A cumulative body of research examining whiteness in politics (Avila and
Rose 2009; Holyfield, Moltz, and Bradley 2009), education (Picower 2009;
Preston 2007), and professional sports (Newman 2007; Staurowsky 2007) supports the notion of the construction and utilization of racialized privilege in various institutions. Cultural capital, defined as the “institutionalized, high-status
cultural signals used for social and cultural exclusion,” presents an avenue for
exploring whiteness and white privilege within public art institutions, as whiteness becomes part of the visual code used for social and cultural exclusion (Lamont and Lareau 1988: 156). Culture is powerful, for it contains the ideas,
beliefs, and traditions of a group or society while simultaneously offering the
means for collective communication, interaction, and cohesion (Swartz 1997).
Art museums transmit culture linking individuals and solidifying group membership by communicating these ideas, beliefs, and traditions via visual codes
(Bourdieu and Darbel 1991; Swartz 1997). Hence, meaning accorded to visual
art objects and the social interactions surrounding them can reflect the privileged social construct of whiteness and add legitimacy to the racialized social
hierarchy within society.
White privilege and cultural reproduction in the arts are connected by the
interaction between art object, museum, and patron. White privilege presents a
series of rewards, including “the probability that imagery will support the white
experience, the ability to purchase imagery that reflects whiteness, and the
ability to remain unaware of other languages and customs of persons of color
without feeling guilt or ignorance” (McIntosh 2001). Cultural capital as a powerful tool of social and cultural exclusion has the ability to frame the cultural
experience of the art museum as a racial experience of white privilege. Hence,
public art museums contain the power to control the categorization as well as
legitimize the method of classification within the realm of ideas known as culture (Alexander 1996).
Moreover, within the art museum, the power to present racially marginalized groups as “the other” is often expressed in terms of its visual relationship
to the white dominant group (Desai 2000). Exhibits are frequently packaged as
properties and exploited by the theme of “the other” to appeal to the broadest
possible audience (Noriega 1999; Zolberg 1981). Artworks from countries such
as China and Japan are often displayed using iconic definitions of Western art
standards and interpretations (Desai 2000). These standards are set by art
museum professionals—the curators, directors, and board members—who have
the power to impose a certain cultural value and status within the field of art
(Acord 2010). Whiteness thus becomes the unnamed norm as non-whites are
presented as separate, and “othered” in contrast to the standard of whiteness.
“Othering” is defined as the reductive representation of an entire group
into dichotomies of “us versus them,” or “primitive versus civilized,” to be
used a marker of identity within a social hierarchy predicated upon power and
status (Said 1979). Examples of “othering” in art are discussed in Berger’s
(2005) critique of works of the mid-1800s American genre painter William Sidney Mount. Berger’s research reveals the embedded racial identities of Mount’s
white and non-white subjects which enable audiences to invoke a decidedly
European American view of “a series of binaries” (industrious and lazy, awake
and asleep, white and black) giving whiteness tangible visible traits. This racialized view within art and its subsequent reductive stereotypes is also examined in the research of sociologist Stuart Hall (1997) through his discussion of
the reification of the “cultural other.” Stating that black artists’ works have
become “the multi in multicultural,” Hall (1997: 274) maintains that this reification mutes the individual voices of black artists within the culturally dominant
structure of the art museum or gallery. This research expands upon the concepts of social space, symbolic power, race, and exclusion in order to examine
how whiteness is embodied within the field of art through the social interactions and cultural resources associated with public art museums.
Employing an inductive grounded theory approach (Corbin and Strauss
1990), we gathered and analyzed data from the actual experiences of curators
engaging in their profession within the field of the public art museum. Data
were gathered by the first author through face-to-face interviews at nine
museums open to the general public in a Midwestern state in summer 2011.
Utilizing U.S. census data (2010), we chose ten museum sites in nine different
rural, suburban, and urban areas in order to account for differences in
population density, regional employment opportunities, interests, and cultural
offerings. We further divided our sample by choosing five sites that 2010 U.S.
census data indicated were weighted heavily toward a black population and five
sites that were heavily weighted toward a white population. We use this
method of site selection to account for possible differences in exhibition offerings and attendance demographics. Curators were recruited personally by mail
after a review of museum Web sites. All but one museum responded, for a total
of nine museums in nine different metropolitan locations: four museums in
predominantly white regions and five in predominantly black regions. Eleven
public art museum curators and five public art museum directors were
interviewed. All directors interviewed were acting in a curatorial capacity due
to budget cuts and the elimination of curatorial staff.1 The demographics of
interview participants categorized by race, gender, and degree earned are
described in Table 1.
Table 1
Demographics of Survey Participants
Participant type Number
Total number 16
Females 11
Males 5
Master’s degree
Total 6
Female 6
Male 0
Doctoral degree
Total 10
Female 5
Male 5
Title of curator 11
Title of director 5
Race—white 16
Interviews were semi-structured yet flexible to allow for the discussion of
topics deemed relevant by the participants. Our questions focused on the duties
and practices of actively employed museum curators as well as their conceptualizations of art, quality, culture, community, race and ethnicity, and their institutions of employment. The interviews, which lasted between one and three
and one-half hours in length, were conducted at the participants’ places of
employment, digitally recorded (with two exceptions),2 and transcribed verbatim. We manually coded all interview data and field notes and initially focused
on keywords such as “white,” “culture,” “European,” “history,” “fundraising,”
and “money.” Each sentence was coded—often with multiple codes—to make
certain of complete theoretical understanding and treatment. These codes,
including all variations, were later grouped into substantive categories which
were then checked for exclusivity. As interviews progressed, subsequent interview questions were added to focus on specific categories until saturation (no
new knowledge of an idea or concept) was reached. Our categories included
cultural reproduction as the means by which societal values and beliefs are replicated within the art museum; museum bureaucracy and how this bureaucracy
affects cultural reproduction; and the interaction between race and art, and how
race is defined and presented through curatorial behavior and attitudes. Reflective memos were written to aid in the understanding of the relationships
between categories. Further analysis revealed theoretical links between categories concerning curators and the connection between cultural reproduction,
social space, and race in the field of art. Categories were ordered into a logical
whole, pointing to an explanatory theory.
Whiteness: The Role of Curators and Patrons
Curators have the ability to project a particular social reality and to push
social and intellectual boundaries by presenting these cultural images and symbols through various forms of media (Paul 2005) as well as to ask thought-provoking questions by exhibiting controversial works of art (Cuno et al. 1997).
The curator’s crafting of an exhibit has the ability to project the politics, ideology, and values of the time (Staniszewski 1998). Throughout our study, curators reflected on their choices and the collections under their care while
discussing their role in reproducing and normalizing the dominant cultural narrative. To investigate the power curators have in crafting the cultural narrative
our initial questions concerned cultural reproduction, we asked the following.
What cultural messages do you feel the art itself imparts to the viewer? What
responsibility and/or influence do you feel you have, if any, in crafting these
messages? What constraints, if any, do you encounter?
Nine curators readily acknowledged their role in defining culture, while
seven seemed to underplay or discount their role in the process. Discussing the
artworks under her care, Gwen, a curator of contemporary art, explains the
shaping of historical context and the connection between art, social class, and
GWEN: So a museum is a place of understanding: seeing the real thing and
not the reproduction, actually being in contact, in the flesh with the
work and learning about history. So there is only one history this
museum tends to say. It could be a little more articulate (here).
FA (First Author): What history is that?
GWEN: It’s the history of the rich people who bought these pieces and now
we (curators at the museum) understand that it’s not any more just
about that but…I think that everyone in any point in time (here)
thought that they were doing their best…doing the best for everyone.
A historical perspective can point to the manner in which much of museums’ permanent collections denote an underlying narrative linking issues of
race, status, and social class (Thompson 2008). Walter, a curator of European
painting and sculpture, expressed similar views, connecting the permanent collection under his care with race and a history of whiteness:
I might like to think these things (issues of culture and history) are sort of broadly understood; not at all. So there’s a kind of remoteness. Yeah, I mean it’s also…you know it IS
European so in a sense it’s not (understood) and it’s OLD so it’s not (understood)… it’s neither contemporary…which in itself has a whole set of problematic…and it’s you know, about
a very particular set of cultures which are, you know…white.
Whiteness also extended to the artists as well as the art collectors.
Throughout our interviews, whiteness of art and artists was presented as the
unquestioned norm, with white art and artists deemed generic without race or
ethnicity. Nine curators readily acknowledged the whiteness of art. However,
three curators proclaimed that the field of art, and specifically the curatorial
profession, had moved beyond this limiting vision of race and ethnicity. Geoffrey, a museum director with over 30 years of curating experience, recognized
the whiteness of art as well as issues of gender embedded within the field of
There’s been an unspoken norm—it’s not even unspoken. I mean Guerilla Girls (an anonymous group of feminists who fought sexism within the visual arts) made their point not all
that long ago…like only 8% of the artists at MOMA on the walls were women. And that’s
changed, but it’s not 50%, so yeah, that was very vocally attacked and…laid bare for what it
was…the art was mostly white males.
Curators frequently referenced only white male artists in their comments,
and notably, no curator referenced any artist of color in describing significant
art or beloved American artists. For example, Lucy, a curator of prints and
drawings, referenced Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper in her discussion of
prominent American artists, while renowned African American artists such as
Robert S. Duncanson, Jacob Lawrence, Edmonia Lewis, and Romare Bearden
were noticeably absent. Whiteness was also part of the underlying standard of
cultural excellence in Edward’s discussion of prominent artists in American art
and American history:
We chose to emphasize an historical perspective; Velasquez to Warhol. Warhol is considered
to be the master of post-modernism. Rauschenberg, Johns (all white male artists)…all these
artists give us a unique perspective of history. This is all part of American art and American
Museum patrons also influence the selection of predominantly white artists
and white art. Curators discussed visitors’ lack of art knowledge and how this
unawareness constrains the choices of exhibits, limiting the cultural narrative.
Curatorial selections of exhibits are often made based on the amount of recognition an artist or art movement seems to have with the public. Lena, a
museum director with over 20 years of curating experience, lamented the limited repertoire of proven exhibits and the dubiousness of success in curating
lesser known or even unfamiliar works of art:
It’s hard to figure what people like in exhibitions. You know people like Impressionism and
Egypt. Past that you never know. Part of the problem is the average person—the only people
they’ve heard of are Picasso and Renoir…and they love Egypt. So maybe Michelangelo will
fill a room. So if you go away from those ten names, let’s say. You just don’t know.
Patrons’ lack of knowledge and limited familiarity of artists (Newsom and
Silver 1978) encourage a cycle of whiteness in the presentation and exhibition
of art (Berger 2005). Thus, the dominant cultural narrative is recycled, further
supporting the value and meanings connected to whiteness. These values and
meanings permeate throughout our culture creating an overarching narrative
which is fostered and projected by the museum curator, viewed as the arbiter
of the standards by which art and artists are judged (Bourdieu 1993; Brody
2003). This narrative often contains an element of ingroup and outgroup status
for art and artist (Brody 2003). Curators shape these distinct groups through
the presentation and interpretation of art within exhibitions (Robins 2005).
These distinct groups can include a racial component in which the dominant
cultural narrative of whiteness is put forward and seen as neutral and normative
(Banks 2010; McIntosh 2001).
Art viewers seek out familiar elements when examining art in order to provide individual meaning, which in turn invokes “memories, associations, and
emotions” (Smith 2006). The experience of white privilege allows for whites to
interact with images that represent their race and life experience on a frequent
basis (McIntosh 2001). The unacknowledged norm of whiteness becomes a
standard by which all other forms of art are judged (Rosenthal 2004). Several
curators reflected on interactions with visitors that made this outgroup status
clear. Jessica, a director acting as curator of a small municipal museum,
described one encounter illustrating the standard of whiteness and the exclusionary experience that can take place within a public art museum:
I brought…they were a group of primarily African American students into the gallery and I
essentially said… “How do you feel? These are all white people.” And they were pretty…
some were more honest than others. And they said, “Well, you know black people were
slaves. They didn’t have money. They couldn’t pay for a painting.” They also recognized that
or…what else did they say… some of them…one did say, “Well, you”—you know, meaning
the museum—“didn’t think black people were important, so you don’t have any paintings of
black people.” So yes, it was like, “It’s like this all over.” It was kind of like an acknowledged dismissal and probably chalked up as kind of a shortcoming on our part.
White privilege can also appear in art museums through the order of presentation. Geoffrey discusses the arrangement of art by culture and the subtle
symbolism behind this presentation:
In a museum like this, right now today, because we have Oceanic art and African art and
Asian art—it would be very difficult to say with OUR collection right now that the majority
were white males because we’re so multicultural on the walls. In the European and American
galleries though…what’s interesting is that they’re the two galleries that are upstairs and they
take the entire first floor (laughing). You literally go down to the basement sort of, physically
to see the other cultures, which is a little weird. It’s not foregrounded like the American and
European art. Like you walk in…And there it is.
Gwen also addresses the power of exclusion in choosing works of art.
When directly asked about issues of race and exclusion, she points to several
issues of inequality inherent within the collection under her care. She goes on
to discuss matters of choice, recognition, and constraints in acknowledging
artists, presenting art, and purchasing artworks:
I want to show you these two pieces over here. We only have two pieces hanging here that
are by African Americans. You could never tell they were done by African Americans. This
(African American) artist and this (white) artist are contemporaries. They were good friends
and often worked together, but THIS artist (white) is the one that is renowned. Why is that? I
don’t know. This (African American artwork) is an important piece. It paved the way for all
these artists (gestures to a section of all white artists) over here in this part of the gallery
space. He was a huge influence, a pivotal force. Is it his best work? I don’t know, but I had
to work for hours to convince the director to let us have it and it was a donation! Very few
people have heard of him; the public. No one knows. I told the accessions committee that we
needed to be more diverse, that only about 3.5% of the art was done by non-white males.
They asked me why that mattered.
The phrase, “you could never tell they were done by African Americans,”
was echoed by another curator, demonstrating the “centrality of whiteness”
(Tierney 2006) in norming the art experience. Art, as a representation of culture, is therefore a “positional truth” connected to issues of history, power, and
authority (Abu-Lughod 1991). This positional truth has shifted throughout
history, excluding the participation of not only people of color, but women
(Guerilla Girls 1998), gays (Katz 2008), and youth (Mason and McCarthy
2006) as well. Jessica’s African American students demonstrated an acknowledgement as well as an acceptance of this exclusionary experience and also the
feelings of powerlessness to change it. Both Jessica and Gwen admitted to
issues of inequality and also the need for art museums to address these issues.
Jessica spoke of broadening the collection to better reflect the diversity of our
society. Gwen talked of the necessity to press for recognition and inclusion of
artists of color.
All curators spoke of the need for some kind of change, including broadening their reach, expanding their collections, and calling for more diversity
within their profession. Institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) (2011) also recognize and promote the need
for curatorial diversity and a moving away from the Western standard of art in
order to make the experiences and identities of minorities and minority artists
more visible. Gant’s (2011) preliminary research of art museums within New
York State—one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the country (American Community Survey 2010)—indicates that the racial minority
presence of museum staff is highly underrepresented. Additionally, African
Diaspora curators, as well as those on the continent itself, continue to wrestle
with the Western colonial way of viewing other cultures demonstrating the
breadth and width of whiteness within the field of art (Chikukwa 2011). Gwen
referenced a past experience at another institution outside the region in which
she curated:
I’ve come to understand that the reason why art galleries do not see a lot of African Americans is that there isn’t a lot of African American curators. I don’t know why that is… but I
mean it is clearly an aspect of American society and it’s an impermeability that is still
there… but I had an African American colleague when I was at (another institution) and you
know… she made the difference between night and day. One day all of a sudden our audience changed and that’s because she was there. Absolutely. Of course, you as a curator have
to make an effort to be welcoming and to be… to work on this and everyone around you has
to do it. But, little by little it happened. It was unbelievable.
These struggles with issues of authentic representation illustrate the persisting marginalization of other cultures and identities within the field of art as a
whole, as well as the inherent power of cultural production.
Bureaucracy, Money, and Whiteness
Curators often spoke of the constraints that prohibited them from affecting
these changes. Many of these constraints center on the power dynamics and
money associated with the internal workings of the art museum. The debate over
money, power, and art is well documented and centers on whose voice carries
more weight: the curator, the “stakeholders,” or the public (Cuno et al. 1997).
Structural elements within the field of art and within the art museum itself also
influence the cultural narrative. This portion of the interviews revolved around
this initial question: In what ways do the board and your sponsors (financial
backers of a specific exhibit) enhance or inhibit your choices/actions?
Curators raised several issues involving museum bureaucracy. A key factor
of the museum bureaucracy is the power and prominence of the board and its
affiliates, which helped shape the selective interpretation and presentation of
art. The influence of whiteness is reflected in the museum’s board members,
donors, and patrons. The museum’s continual need for funding enables the
board to influence the museum’s choices of art and art exhibits, and thus reproduce the dominant cultural narrative of whiteness.
According to all curators interviewed, all of the museums that are examined in this study are similarly administered. Public art museums are organized
and managed by a board of trustees whose primary role is fiduciary. Board
membership is voluntary and members are nominated and elected by existing
members of the board. The director is employed by the board and oversees the
collections, research, exhibits, and “public face” of the museum. The director
hires curators to manage each particular department, such as contemporary art
or renaissance painting and sculpture. Curators consult the director in regard to
new acquisitions and the selection of possible exhibits. All fiduciary issues of
acquisition and selection are brought before the board after being vetted by the
director. New art purchases and the leasing of outside themed exhibits must be
approved by the director and then the board. The board has final say in all matters of purchasing and leasing.
Historically, money has influenced the arts through patronage and/or purchase (Banks 2010; Thompson 2008; Zolberg 1984). Board members are
among the key “stakeholders” in a museum. Their main focus is the management of money, which involves acquiring donors, attracting audiences, and
maintaining legitimacy (Alexander 1996). Members of the board tend to be
white and have a certain level of education, wealth, power, and prestige; as
such, the social space they inhabited represents whiteness and an elevated
amount of economic and cultural capital.
When asked about the diversity of the museum boards, curators responded
with a variety of answers that revealed the normative view of whiteness by
associating diversity with gender, age, or occupation—race was absent in all
but one of curators’ responses. For example, Jessica responded by first
discussing gender:
FA: So how diverse is the board?
JESSICA: The board is, I would say…fairly representative of the
community; probably hovering in the 60–70% sort of range.
There’s some work to do.
FA: What do you mean by 60% to 70%?
JESSICA: Gender and age. OK (slightly defensively)…the missing 35–40%
is that we don’t have as much racial diversity as we should. We
also probably need some socioeconomic diversity but that’s very
difficult for nonprofits…for whom…nonprofits that rely on their
board as essentially fundraising instigators.
Jason responded to the question of diversity through occupational prestige,
while Harriet, director and curator of a small rural museum, replied by discussing age:
JASON: It’s the way that boards work and they select people from various
aspects of the community, I mean it includes SOME diversity…I
mean there’s a MINISTER…I mean they try to be inclusive but
most of them have a financial responsibility.
HARRIET: It’s not as much (of a closed circle) as it used to be. We’ve been trying
to break out of that as much as we can…and go to younger people.
The necessity of external funding and maintaining social networks that can
tap new financial connections dominated much of the curator’s comments. The
non-profit status enables public art museums to receive grants. However, it was
agreed by all curators interviewed that grants are no longer enough to support
a museum. It was apparent throughout the course of all interviews that the
search for financial support and the overall lack of financial resources influence
board choices and membership. Issues of racial and ethnic diversity are overshadowed by the need to acquire a steady stream of funding. Lena described
board members as, “friends of people who are already on the board…they’re
generally from big corporations in town, banks, philanthropists, people who
have art collections.” Cameron gave a similar description, saying that board
members tend to be “economically well-placed…they’re successful business
men and women from the community or sometimes they come from old
money. Many of them are art collectors in their own right.”
Many curators are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Geoffrey further
explains the tension between a museum’s desire for a diverse board that reflects
the community population and the need for financial resources:
We have a diverse board and we have African Americans on the board. We don’t consciously
say, “Oh, do we have someone from the Asian community, someone form the Indian community?” I mean it would be great if you know we had various…every type of ethnicity and religion or whatever—we don’t—but we definitely try and get people from…certainly
geographically from around the region; different areas, different backgrounds, different jobs.
We hope the way things are that the board members bring their connections with them. I mean
that is DEFINITELY part of it. Can they help fundraise and…We’re always looking for people
that can inspire giving and can help with the fundraising; so that’s a big plus if they bring that.
The continual quest for financial resources aids in the reproduction of
whiteness among board members. Attached to whiteness is a shared cultural
narrative of history and identity (Frankenberg 1993), creating a high degree of
social and cultural isolation (Bonilla-Silva, Goar, and Embrick 2006). The
board’s whiteness becomes “racialized” through the norming of matters such as
personal preference, emotion, and esthetics (Bonilla-Silva 2003). Throughout
our interviews, it became clear that the racialization found within the boardroom creates definite esthetic as well as social constraints.
Many of the constraints placed upon art museums and art curators are
fiduciary in origin. The recession of 2008 created a financial setback—often
significant—for all art museums in our study. All curators indicated that
decreased financial support from corporate sponsors, private donors, and government-funded grants has forced many museums to cut back their programs.
In turn, shortage of funds has eliminated staff, stifled community outreach, and
curtailed curators’ choices of exhibits. This lack of financial support has helped
to create a whiteness of place by compelling the museum and its staff to adhere
to more conservative policies that align with a proven base of support. The
museum community is predominantly older, whiter, and better educated (NEA
2009a). Policies aimed at maintaining these established audiences are therefore
chosen by default to support the visual symbols of racial exclusion predominantly white-approved art and white artists—which distinguish the dominant
group. Although many curators stated that they continue to offer a variety of
exhibits and programs, they also confessed that financial setbacks have severely
curtailed these offerings, thereby reducing their impact. Geoffrey discusses the
impact of reduced funding on the nature of exhibits and the pressure curators’
face to produce exhibits of quality as well as exhibits that are profitable:
GEOFFREY: Can you keep doing shows on Rockwell ad nausea? When
you have a bad turn out for a particular show, it so impacts
the board. The board looks at your numbers and asks, “Well,
what happened here?” Well, you know nobody knew who the
artist was. “Well, who do people know?” Well, they know
Rockwell and they know Monet and they know Warhol (all
white males)…it’s like the same five shows over and over.
FA: So it does become almost circular in the sense that it’s the same
GEOFFREY: Absolutely, over and over again.
Policies aimed at attracting this established audience are also reflected in
the expanded duties of curators, who are now required to actively pursue
donors. Curators acknowledged that these donors are largely linked to board
members by personal affiliation. The curators’ pursuit of donors reproduces the
whiteness of structure by mirroring the whiteness, wealth, and power of its
board. Cameron illustrates this link between whiteness, money, and art in
describing his expanded duties as curator:
Curators today are expected to be many more things. We’re involved in development…we’re
expected to convey a group of donors through the galleries if it benefits the institution.
Museum donors are treated with deference in order to insure their financial
support and to establish a long-term relationship that continues from one generation to the next (Alexander 1996). Donors wield a certain amount of leverage
in the choice of art and art exhibits. Art and status are linked by money and
the prestige that art symbolizes (Thompson 2008). Culture is therefore reproduced through the taste and values of the donors connected to the museum as
well as its board (Alexander 1996). Since financial support supersedes all other
needs, the choices and voices of the art museum curator are constrained and
compelled to reflect the taste and values of those connected to power and
money. Consequently, the exclusionary cycle of whiteness is reproduced, a
never-ending circle of donor, board, director, curator, and art object based upon
the underlying whiteness privilege and power. Power and culture merge as the
defining characteristics of culture are dictated by the dominant group.
The Interaction between Race, Place, and Art
Art museums project a predominantly white image (Berger 2005; McIntosh 2001) creating a place of whiteness, which in turn fosters a social barrier
of racial exclusion (Fredericks 2011; Gilmore 2002; Shaw and Sullivan 2011).
The lead question in this portion of the interview was: In what way do you feel
any group, such as a specific racial or ethnic group, might feel either included
or excluded in the museum experience and/or the art on display within it?
Twelve curators spontaneously noted the perception of whiteness of place
when discussing museum patronage and recognized that reaching beyond the
demographic of whiteness requires an acknowledgement that art and art-making
is a varied practice. Lucy talked about the whiteness of place and linked the art
and the social experience in her explanation:
I think, unfortunately, there’s a perception that there isn’t anything there for me, kind of thing
among some people (in reference to African Americans). That the artists who show here have
nothing to do with me and my life, which I think if they came, they would see that wasn’t
true. I think it’s also museums tend to be very social experiences. I mean some people come
alone, but most people come in pairs or small groups and it can just be a factor of, “It’s not
something my close-knit group of people does together.”
Alice and her colleague Lydia described their efforts in attempting to foster a place of racial and cultural inclusion for an African American audience:
LYDIA: We met with an African American women’s group about exhibitions.
ALICE: We were trying to talk to them about an exhibition that we were
planning. We were going to have African American artists in it, but
they weren’t even particularly interested in that. They only wanted to
know about exhibitions that were ABOUT African Americans or
African American art, because this exhibition wasn’t specifically
about African American art; it just happened to have a number of
African American artists in it.
LYDIA: They had very specific ideas about the types of art they were familiar
with and the types of art they wanted to see. But they made it very clear
that those weren’t going to be like gateway exhibitions or exhibitions
that would get them in the door initially so they would come back and
consider other exhibitions. So we were really dismayed at first, I think,
because of that. Because in OUR mind…OK so if we had a show, like
a quilt shown of African American quilts that would get them in the
door then hopefully, that would be a way that you would get people in
here initially…would get them comfortable.
ALICE: We were trying to talk to them about cultural identity and the
complexity of cultural identity and they weren’t interested. And we
thought surely—maybe this was, well obviously, that was pretty
na€ıve on our part.
Alice and Lydia highlight the complexity of cultural reproduction and the
intricacies of creating an authentic experience within the space of an art
museum. Urban researchers maintain that culture is a powerful means of exclusion through the production and domination of geographical space (Shaw and
Sullivan 2011; Zukin 1995). Many curators attempt to alter this perception of
white space within the art museum through targeted exhibits, hoping to connect
with other communities. However, there is often a racial and/or cultural
disconnect between the curatorial staff and the public it is trying to reach
(Cuno et al. 1997). Wendy described curating two exhibits that effectively
reached the African American community in her town. Her description also
showcases the astute observation of one of the African American artists:
Well, we try to reach out to the African American community. We have had two shows (two
African American artists). Both of these shows were very popular with the African American
community. After the one artist had his opening, he told me it was the first time he had a sea
of black faces at an opening. He said most of his openings are white.
However, the attempt by Geoffrey’s museum to reach the African American community had limited success:
I went to the radio stations in black communities, black radio stations. And one of the things
that just sort of blew me away personally—for example, I was talking with a radio show host,
and his station is about I would say less than a minute drive from here…and he asked me
where the museum was. I mean, because he really didn’t know. He said, “Wow, do I have to
be a member to get in the door?” and I said, “Oh, no.” And so he asked a number of questions that he felt his listeners wanted to know: where it was, if you had to be a member, basic
things. He wanted his audience to be sure and get this information because he assumed they
wouldn’t know. I thought, “Wow, we are really disconnected.” This museum has been here
90 years and you’ve NEVER had to be a member to come in the door and ah…it’s always
been free up until this past year. There are no restrictions on entrance of any kind. We discovered that with the African American community, I mean, historically we have not been
really as connected as we could be or even as we thought we were. I think what the entire
museum organization: the board, the steering committee, everybody, experienced was that
there’s a lot of work to be done.
The issue of targeted exhibits was debated by several curators. All curators
admitted it was part of a museum’s lexicon to present exhibits directed at specific audiences. However, the framing of this activity was divided into two disparate positions. The majority of curators (13) viewed targeted exhibits as a
method of establishing a voice of diversity within the museum, while a small
faction (3) questioned these types of exhibits’ authenticity. Lena described the
thought process behind targeted cultural exhibits and her museum’s limited success in attracting the African American community:
FA: Do you ever do exhibits targeting a specific audience?
LENA: Yeah, sure, we do. We try to have a variety over the years so you
look at the big picture and you try to see what areas, you know,
we’ll have an Asian show, then we’ll have an African show, then
we’ll have a contemporary show. We’ve struggled with our
neighbors who are by and large African American. But we try to
have different shows that appeal to them. We have an African
American festival and that brings a lot of people from their
neighborhood, but it’s just one day.
However, the targeting of cultural groups through a single exhibit was
viewed negatively by three of the curators interviewed, expressing the view that
the effort was not genuine and was possibly perceived solely as a moneymaking venture. Edward commented on the practice of targeting groups through a
single exhibit by responding:
I don’t like superficiality. The targeting of an audience must be authentic. The activities must
be ongoing and not just a token gesture toward any group. That’s an insult. For many people,
art museums are viewed as elitist institutions that are continually raising money. I often hear,
“I didn’t know the museum was for me, I didn’t know the museum was for my people.”
Further, several museums had organizations such as clubs, guilds, or programs that had a racial and/or ethnic focus. However, curators described these
groups as self-contained entities that did not appear to influence the overall
general museum attendance. As Helen explains:
We have our (African American) society…and also our (African American) committee who
really tries to get us out there. But, of course, they do tend to be more supportive and more
interested in…when we have African American exhibitions.
Comments such as “I didn’t know the museum was a place for me, I
didn’t know the museum was for my people” illustrate the racial divide that
occurs in many museums. Whiteness occurs through the process of exclusion
whereby art and art patronage is seen by many outsiders as a predominantly
white social experience (Shaw and Sullivan 2011). Edward’s comments suggest
that museum exhibitions, although viewed by curators as embracing cultural
diversity, may in fact contribute to feelings of racial exclusion by appearing to
be inauthentic, further enhancing feelings of otherness within minority groups.
Moreover, as Alice observed, racial and cultural exclusion may exist within the
expression of the art itself through a lack of context and meaning between art
object and viewer.
The link between race and social class was also a key issue for curators.
Previous research finds that social class is a proven barrier to museum participation (Jackson and Scott 1999; Jun, Kyle, and O’Leary 2011). Further, the
conflation of race and lower socioeconomic status is prevalent throughout the
United States, as African Americans are often viewed as being of lower socioeconomic status by the white majority (Gilens 1996; Low 2009). Race and
social class were often linked by curators when discussing outsiders’ perceptions of the museum as well as in overall museum attendance. Walter acknowledged the difference between the museum’s patron community and the
geographical surrounding community:
FA: So do you think the community that visits the museum is the same or
different from the surrounding (physical) community?
WALTER: Oh, totally different. They’re older, whiter, better educated. I
mean this has been proven over and over again through studies. I
mean it’s improved but if you mean the truly surrounding
community…it’s mostly African American.
Lucy was more direct in her assessment of some of the constraints of
museum patronage, including lack of leisure time and low income. Her linking
of race with social class was pointed as she raised the stereotype of a single
parent—a status often associated with African American women—as part of an
overall demographic:
I mean how many families, let’s say are a single parent and that single parent is working? So
when are they actually going to come, the weekend? You know, maybe they’re just too busy
doing…they don’t have leisure perhaps. You know I’m not saying that African Americans
are the only poor people in the city. I’m sure that’s not true; but I’m SURE many ARE.
Exclusion was also discussed in terms of an entrance fee. While some museums had no entry fee or charged only for special exhibits, a growing number had
added a fee to cover maintenance costs and other expenses. Other museums
increased their special event prices. Curators were clearly unhappy with these
changes because they believed that it prohibited lower-income people from visiting and enjoying the collections. Many curators worried that it added to the perception that museums were elitist institutions. Geoffrey became quite animated in
his response to added fees and the issues of social class and art, expressing a
desire for experimentation in the hopes of appealing to a wider audience:
The idea that art…that somehow we’ve dealt with the issue of class and art…we have NOT.
And people in the museum world we KNOW this, we KNOW it and when I was talking earlier
about experimenting with things—with poetry slams…we did one here about a month ago—we
had a completely different audience. It was young and we had kids from high school that had
memorized poems by heart. We had some—I wouldn’t say break dancing, I wouldn’t know what
I would call it, because I’m just so out of it—but we had dancers that were grade school through
high school…again we just had this completely different audience here.
Geoffrey further explained that the different audience was much more
racially diverse than usual, including a notable African American presence.
Offering a more diverse program by acknowledging other forms of art had
allowed for alternative avenues of expression, which in turn created opportunities to connect with a larger audience. His viewpoint underscores what he and
other curators had acknowledged: that art museums are perceived by many to
be elitist, too narrowly focused, and racially homogenous. To remain relevant,
many curators stated that art museums must continually work to cast off the
label of elitism and find new ways to connect to the surrounding community.
As Geoffrey demonstrated, creating new connections broadened the museum
community to include groups outside the museum’s demographic norms.
Discussion and Conclusion
In this article, we address how whiteness and white privilege has the
power to influence the racial disparity of public art museum attendance through
the role of the museum curator. At a time when minority participation in the
arts is declining, examining the relationship between cultural reproduction and
race within the public art museum is valuable, as research has found numerous
benefits associated with such participation. Central to our investigation is the
question of how can the role of curator influence public participation in reference to both white and minority populations?
We argue that Bourdieu’s (1989) conceptualization of social space and
symbolic power provides a framework for the examination of various social
interactions within the public art museum. Additionally, Lamont and Lareau’s
(1988) definition of cultural capital—institutionalized high-status cultural signals used for social and cultural exclusion—provides a conceptual method of
viewing whiteness as a racial identity in which members actively participate in
its construction and maintenance. Bonilla-Silva’s (1996) concept of “racialized
social systems” further extends this framework by connecting an underlying
racial hierarchy of economic, political, and social privileges with Bourdieu’s
concepts of social space and symbolic power. This racialized social system
embedded within the social structure is thus utilized by the dominant racial
group to maintain a specific racial order. Together, these theoretical concepts
aid in illustrating the means by which whiteness and white privilege permeate
the social space of the public art museum.
We find that within the art museum, whiteness has generally been
employed as the comparative baseline category from which much of art and its
artists are measured. Our findings suggest that curators’ selection and presentation of artworks maintain whiteness by exhibiting predominantly white artists
recognized and well liked by the public in order to sustain membership and
preserve financial contributions and participation by the general public. As
much of money and power is predominantly white, much of art and art exhibits
have moved toward the normative expression of whiteness reflecting these
donors (Noriega 1999). This white base shapes the attitudes of curators and
directors. As a result, art and artists of color are often marginalized or omitted.
Moreover, exhibits and other offerings have either inadvertently excluded
minorities or overtly “othered” them by promoting minority art and artists as a
separate cultural experience (Berger 2005; Chikukwa 2011; Guerilla Girls
1998; Hall 1997; Katz 2008; Mason and McCarthy 2006). This separate cultural experience indicates a form of cultural racism (Helms 1997) whereby the
cultural differences are enough to sequester the art and artists in order to clearly
define how they rank against the established norm (Bonilla-Silva et al. 2003).
While some museums within our research offer clubs or programs to specific
minority groups, it was noted that participation of these members rarely goes
beyond the designated organization. Although the majority of curators professed a desire for the museum to project an image of diversity and inclusion,
none in our study seem to have been successful in doing so. Accordingly,
many of these curators noted that many African Americans seem to perceive
the art museum as a designated white space.
It is evident that whiteness is not only a racial category but an identity that
is fostered and maintained through social interaction. Thus, white individuals’
racial identity is validated by social interactions centered on exclusion presented as neutral and normal through the seemingly unbiased medium of art
(Desai 2000). The whiteness of culture and cultural capital within art museums
is reproduced primarily through seemingly unintentional acts of exclusion and
othering of minority groups by the curators and directors, as well as the use of
predominantly white social networks of the museums’ board of trustees. It
should be noted that the behaviors, preferences, and social interactions that we
documented should be confined to the public art museum experience and
should not be assumed to be universal to all institutions. Nor do we imply that
the preferences, decisions, and social interactions of the curators, directors, and
board of trustees that sustain whiteness are overt in nature.
However, it should also be noted that an undercurrent of “It Wasn’t Me!”
(Bonilla-Silva et al. 2003) prevailed throughout much of the interview process.
Although the majority of curators described their profession as the pivotal force
in research, acquisition, and exhibition, the majority of curators were also quick
to point to the many bureaucratic limitations that prevented them from addressing the racial inequality that was brought to light during the interview process: a
seemingly contradictory stance. These findings add to the body of research that
show how the hegemony of whiteness is actively constructed. Although the
struggle for control over the cultural symbols embodied within art (particularly
contemporary art) is constant, the dominant discourse within this field continues
to be under the control of commercial capitalism and the marketplace (Gramsci
1975; Grossberg 1986: 68–70). This control is indicated by the noticeable influence of board members and their connection to economic resources. As our data
indicate, these board members—as well as their social networks—are primarily
white, educated, and wealthy and therefore have the power to impose a certain
social and cultural reality within the museum they oversee. This social and cultural reality is grounded in a racial hegemony predicated on whiteness.
Our findings are important because they demonstrate the degree to which
ostensibly impartial institutions such as public art museums play a part in the
maintenance of a racial hierarchy predicated upon whiteness. Within the public
art museum, whiteness provides a distinct social reality by simultaneously
reproducing and confirming the dominant cultural narrative within a distinct
social space. Previous research investigating racialized privilege and whiteness
has showcased the connection between whiteness, place, and privilege (Housel
2009; Neely and Samura 2011; Shaw and Sullivan 2011); however, our
research focusing on curators of art museums provides a unique means of
examining whiteness and racialized privilege by exploring the social interaction
of gatekeepers within the context of seemingly unbiased art objects and the
physical space that surrounds them.
This study is limited in three key ways. First, it is possible that different
regions apart from the Midwest would produce different results. Second, interviews inherently present the possibility of socially desirable responses rather
than truthful answers to difficult questions on race and social class. Last, this
study does not directly examine African Americans’ beliefs and practices in
regard to art and art museums, but relies on the preferences, decisions, social
interactions, and observations of curators to garner information as to the interaction between art museums and the surrounding communities.
Future research is needed to disentangle the nuanced relationships between
art museums and the diverse communities they claim to represent. Interviews
with art museum patrons, African American professionals, African American
artists, and curators would garner more information as to the relationship
between African Americans, cultural reproduction, and the art museum experience. Investigation into racialized meanings of culture, the methods involved in
cultural reproduction, and the examination of the exclusionary role of cultural
capital will enable researchers to perceive how power and status is gained
within a social hierarchy of race. Finally, connecting cultural reproduction
inherent within art museums to white studies within critical race theory will
allow us to better understand the racialized cultural narrative within which we
live. This research will enable us to better see the depth and breadth of white
privilege and the subtle power of racial exclusion. By understanding that art
has both an esthetic and a social function, we have the opportunity to use the
civic space of the public art museum as a resource to promote positive dialogue
centering on racial and ethnic equality, mutual understanding, and respect.
Please direct correspondence to Andria Blackwood, Department of Geography, Kent State
University, Kent, OH 44242, USA; e-mail: [email protected]
Hereafter, we will refer to these directors in a curatorial capacity for the sake of simplicity,
to secure anonymity, and to avoid confusion. 2
One participant requested that the interview not be recorded. A second interview could not
be recorded due to poor sound quality.
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