Dealers Say They Want to Diversify Their Rosters. A Look at Their Newly Signed Artists Shows Progress—Up to a Point
Dealers are working to correct for long-held biases in the gallery system, but progress is not as rapid as they might think.
While galleries across the United States and Europe were shut down for much of 2020, they remained busy behind closed doors. Even at the height of the shutdown, it felt as if dealers were making announcements “seemingly ever other week,” as one put it, about new artists—and particularly, non-white artists—joining their rosters.
As dealers, along with the rest of the art world, reckoned with their role in systemic racism, inequality, and injustice during a summer of protest, it appeared that many were making a concerted effort to diversify the list of artists they represent.
However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that while the art market may be moving towards more balanced representation, it did not in fact overcorrect its long-held exclusion of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) artists this year. The majority of newly represented artists—57 percent—are white, according to an analysis by Artnet News.
What We Found
We gathered a list of 100 artists who joined a total of 70 galleries, largely but not exclusively in the Global North (35 in North America, 32 in Europe, and three in Brazil) between March and November 2020. Galleries announcing new artists in this time frame included 15 blue-chip dealers and 55 mid-size and emerging dealers.
(A note on methodology: we defined “white” based on the US census definition, meaning people of European descent. We made classifications of ethnicity, gender, and age based on artists’ bios, press mentions, or their own statements.)
Despite the tectonic shifts of change in the public sphere in 2020, less than half—43 percent of artists—gaining new representation in our data set were non-white.
It should be noted that we do not have data on representation announcements from previous years to track progress. But similar studies suggest galleries are making changes to the status quo—just not as dramatically or systematically as they might think.
A study conduced by CUNY’s Guttman College in the fall of 2016 found that 80.5 percent of the 1,300 artists represented by New York City’s top 45 commercial galleries were white. That’s almost 25 percent more than the proportion of white artists in the new crop who have joined international galleries this year.
Chela Mitchell, a New York-based art advisor who specializes in building diverse collections, says this change has been hard-won, and led by artists themselves. “The equity and diversity that we have seen recently have come from artists of color fighting, expressing their demands, and supporting one another,” she tells Artnet News.
The numbers reveal where galleries are making progress on upending long-held biases in their rosters, and where those biases remain.
Thirty-two percent of artists who gained representation were white and male; non-white male artists accounted for 18 percent of our list. Female-identified artists comprised a little more than half (52 percent), suggesting that parity in new additions has been reached (though work by female artists still sells for much lower prices). Women of color accounted for 25 percent of those new women-artist additions. None of the artists in our data set identified as non-binary, according to our research.
“[These numbers] are not in any way showing things are radically going in the right direction,” LA-based dealer Susanne Vielmetter says. But the breakdown, she says, is at least a bit more “reflective” of the population at large in the US, which was 60.1 percent white, according to the most recent census figures.
Notably, nearly half (47 percent) of artists in our data set were emerging, and have not yet had a solo show at a major museum, suggesting galleries are open to taking chances on untested talent. (Vielmetter notes that this number seems “extremely high,” particularly at a moment of turbulence in the market.)
Also revealing is the discrepancy between galleries headquartered in Europe versus those in North America. In the US alone, 51 percent of artists who gained representation this year were non-white. In Europe, that number was much lower: 28.3 percent. European galleries also added more white men (38 percent as opposed to 23 percent) and fewer women (44 percent as opposed to 51 percent) to their rosters.
“This sadly does not surprise me,” Berlin-based artist Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo says of the discrepancy, “but I do hope for a serious change because art in Germany is not inherently white and new topics that involve migration, family, race relations, history, and all these complex issues deserve attention.” She notes that, despite galleries discussing representation or trying to be inclusive, the subject is not being meaningfully implemented in many programs.
The swell of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were met by an art world eager to align itself with the right side of history. But any incremental changes in representation, some point out, belie the need for a more fundamental rethinking of a system that has not been built to support artists of color.
“Racism, gatekeeping, and the normalization of artists’ exploitation are some issues that are actively keeping the change that we want to see in the art world from happening,” Chela Mitchell says. “While we have seen the continued rise of artists of color in the art market, what we haven’t seen evolve or dismantled are the systems that seek to oppress them in these spaces.”
Galleries’ rosters are also just one part in a much larger ecosystem. Dealers of color, and specifically Black dealers, have faced roadblocks: there are only two African American gallery owners, for example, in the 176-member Art Dealers Association of America.
Kibum Kim from Commonwealth & Council notes that the situation is more extreme in Europe, where there are even fewer nonwhite dealers. “Who are the stewards, who is guiding these artists’ careers?” he asks.
Disparities in representation can also have a long-term ripple effect on art history. A 2018 study by Artnet News and In Other Words found that just three percent of museum acquisitions over the previous decade were of work by African American artists. Since museums most frequently acquire art through galleries and via gifts from private collectors—and far less often from artists’ studios—representation is a crucial step in gaining institutional recognition.
What Is (Still) in the Way of Change?
Part of the reason trends in the representation of artists of color have been slow to shift—despite the fact that both the art market and institutions are no longer undervaluing their work as much as they have in the past—is because of the way in which galleries identify artists to join their rosters.
Kim from Commonwealth & Council says that a roster “develops slowly through an artist community.” If dealers are entrenched in a monolithic community, the only way to expand it is through concerted effort.
“Very often, artists will mention or connect you with someone else in their orbit,” says Vielmetter, who notes that Deborah Roberts, an artist who she admired for years from afar, joined the gallery only after they were introduced through a mutual contact. Furthermore, these relationships aren’t cemented overnight: Vielmetter notes the evolution from first conversation to representation takes time.
Thaddaeus Ropac took on two young London-based artists of color this year, Mandy El-Sayegh and Rachel Jones, both of whom he came to know through the gallery’s artistic, director Julia Peyton-Jones. He says he has made a more concerted effort in recent years to build contacts within the art scene in London, a diverse metropolis, where he opened a gallery in 2017.
“When it comes to which artists join the gallery, those we want to join our program, it’s always been a matter of engaging with art that I find exciting, stimulating, invigorating,” Ropac says. “Whether it’s historical artists or new artists, it’s about appreciating the role they play in the culture of our time.”
Opportunism and Outcomes
Nicola Vassell, a dealer and founder of curatorial agency ConceptNV, notes that the changes evidenced now are likely to cause a positive feedback loop over time. “It stands to reason that the most recent reckoning on race would prompt dealers to accelerate a trend that they had already, to some extent, committed to and experienced significant economic success with,” she says. “Speaking to peers, I feel they are trying to participate genuinely in the conversation, even if they aren’t steeped in the nuances.”
Vielmetter notes the industry may have finally reached a point where it is willing to address its blind spots. “Before, calculating numbers like this would regularly trigger outrage and the question of quality would come up—as if diversity means a loss in quality,” she says.
At the same time, however, dealers acknowledge the danger in tokenizing artists at a time when some collectors are seeking to fill gaps in their holdings at warp speed, sometimes without deeper engagement. (One dealer recalled a collector walking away from a deal when they realized the work that they were buying was not by an artist of color.)
“When I see a new email of an artist rep, and the very first sentence describes their identity, that kind of framing engenders a certain kind of dialogue,” says Kim of Commonwealth and Council. “It is meant to register in a certain way and make it fit into a certain market legibility. This is not that great for the artists, and we should be able to handle that conversation with more nuance.”
Vielmetter says she has noticed a lot of galleries putting portraits of their artists in their press releases, as if to showcase their identity. But while the identity of the artist should not be pushed ahead of the work itself, she says, tracking progress is important. “A lot of artists are doing very well,” she says, “for the first time in their life right now.”
[Note: An earlier version of this story cited the New York Times report to note that there was one African American dealer in the Art Dealers Association of America. That number has changed since the article was published—there are actually two.]
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