‘There Has Been Change’: Artist Howardena Pindell on a 1989 Article About U.S. Museums’ Exclusion of Black Artists

Over the past several years, museums and galleries have made concerted efforts to show work by Black artists, responding to growing calls for equity. The protests have gotten louder, but the cause is not a new one, as evidenced by Patricia Failing’s article “Black Artists Today: A Case of Exclusion,” in the March 1989 issue of ARTnews. One of the artists Failing interviewed was Howardena Pindell, who had surveyed institutions and galleries, and found that their offerings were still predominantly white. ARTnews recently asked Pindell to reflect on the article’s meaning for today.

Artist Howardena Pindell, a former associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, compiled a seven-year statistical report on museum exhibitions and current gallery representation of the 11,000 black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American painters, sculptors, craftspeople, photographers, graphic designers, and architects who live and work in New York State…. Only the artists in ten galleries out of a total 64 surveyed throughout the state were less than 90 percent white.

There’s more exposure today, but that’s mainly African-Americans. I don’t think there’s more exposure for Latino and Asian artists. I’m concerned for everyone. But for Black artists, it’s better. Some of my favorites are Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, Whitfield Lovell, Julie Mehretu, and Carrie Mae Weems. They’re people who have been out there a long time doing what they’re doing.

[Read “Black Artists Today: A Case of Exclusion.”]

According to the artist Al Loving, these institutional patterns persist because “many people in positions of power do not believe that an American black can have an original thought.”

I have this wild pedigree of being an artist, curator, and teacher. Working in a museum, you see the underbelly of the art world. I was on the New York State funding committee for institutions, and some of them had guaranteed money. Nonwhite ones had all these hoops to jump through to get less money.

Due in part to the efforts of such dealers and curators as Kellie Jones, a number of black artists, among them Lorna Simpson, Alison Saar, Joe Lewis, and Lisa Jones, are now joining their established peers in shaping the pluralistic contours of American contemporary art.

Things have changed since the article. The biggest change is at the Museum of Modern Art, where [curator] Ann Temkin has integrated the collection. Viewers will see Mel Edwards in the same space as Jackie Winsor, for example. We also now have more African-American curators. Ashley James is at the Guggenheim, which used to be impenetrable—when I was doing my statistics, they would never answer the phone. I remember going to receptions at the Guggenheim, and people would ask why I was there. Also, Valerie Cassel Oliver [at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts] and Naomi Beckwith [at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago]. There has been change, even if it’s just a few people.

“Things have changed since the article,” Pindell recently told ARTnews.Read MoreARTnews, Retrospective, Howardena PindellARTnews.comRead More

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