Breaking Down the Demographics of the New Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Exhibition
by Hrag Vartanian

The Whitney Museum‘s new building will open to the public on May 1, and its inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, promises “fresh perspectives on the Whitney’s collection and reflects upon art in the United States” with more than 600 works by 406 artists. We took a look at the cultural and gender breakdowns of all the participating artists to assess just how fresh these perspectives really are.

As expected, the exhibition skews largely male and white, with percentages of each that are higher than the national averages in the United States. Since ethnicity, like race and other categorizations, is often hard to assess, we’ve done our best to break down the group into categories that make sense. Some artists posed problems, such as Mark di Suvero, who was born in Shanghai, China, but we categorized as White/European. Not a single featured artist appears to define themselves solely as Native American or American Indian. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet fits into multiple categories as a woman of both black and Native American heritage — we placed her in the former category. There is one transgender artist, Wu Tsang, which represents less than 0.5% of the total (and possibly close to the percentage of the population that identifies as such) but we didn’t add it to our pie chart as it would be hard to distinguish.

Is this an improvement over previous exhibitions? Probably, particularly considering that the Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 grand reopening show included fewer than 20 works by women (out of 415), which represented less than 5 percent of the total. But the representation of women in America Is Hard to See is less than the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which featured 32% female artists. Works by African Americans are closer to the realities of the US population (10% in the exhibition vs. 13% nationwide), which is certainly an improvement over the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which was only 7.3% black.

The biggest shock, aside from the glaring lack of Native American voices in any show devoted to art in the US, is the very low percentage of works by Latino artists (4% in the exhibition vs. 18% in the general population). These statistics probably reflect the lack of diversity at the museum itself and the biases of staff, namely a curatorial department that is far less diverse (ideologically and culturally) than the population it serves (assuming it is serving the public and not the Whitney’s trustees). The bottom line is that the Whitney Museum has to try much harder.



“Knowing when to stop, knowing when to say no…all these rules that aren’t written down for you, and you have to figure it out yourself through trial and error—and I’m learning as I go.” —Jacolby Satterwhite

New in Art21’s New York Close Up series: Artist Jacolby Satterwhite works down to the wire on his latest animation, Reifying Desire 6 (2014), leading into its premiere at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The artist is shown at work at Recess, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

WATCH: Jacolby Satterwhite Is Going Public

IMAGES: Production stills from the Art21 New York Close Up episode, Jacolby Satterwhite Is Going Public. © Art21, Inc. 2014. Artwork courtesy OHWOW Gallery, Los Angeles and Mallorca Landings Gallery, Spain.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Keith Mayerson’s Drum Majors (Martin Luther King, Jr., and Family), which was installed at the 2014 Biennial.

Keith Mayerson (b. 1966), Drum Majors (Martin Luther King, Jr., and Family), 2008. Oil on linen, 40 × 30 in. (101.6 × 76.2 cm). Courtesy the artist

a piece of the “People in Pain” wall by Gretchen Bender remade by Philip Vanderhyden 2014 at the Whitney Biennial Museum


2014 Biennial: Jacolby Satterwhite

Authorship has become very slippery, and the ownership of ideas has become less interesting today than the rapid sharing of them.
—  Michelle Grabner, one of the three curators of the 2014 Biennial, in The New York Times profile of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN, a global collective whose work will be on view in the exhibition.

Stuart Davis made American Painting in 1932 for the Whitney’s first annual painting survey exhibition (the series of shows that went on to become the Biennials). The work pays homage to Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham, along with Duke Ellington. Davis altered the painting in 1942 and 1954, adding color and a number of other elements. 

Stuart Davis (1892–1964), American Painting, 1932/42–54. Oil on canvas, 40 × 50 ¼ in. (101.6 × 127.7 cm). Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; on extended loan from the University of Nebraska at Omaha Collection. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York