If you've ever felt like most museums were displaying the same type of art from the same demographic of artists, your intuition deserves a pat on the back. A new study from Williams College confirms what many have suspected for decades: that most US museums are only showing art made by White men.

In the eye-popping survey of the works in the collections of all major US museums, the researchers found that just 1.2% of pieces were made by Black artists. This is the lowest share of any race.

"By scraping the public online catalogs of 18 major U.S. museums, deploying a sample of 10,000 artist records comprising over 9,000 unique artists to crowdsourcing, and analyzing 45,000 responses...we find that 85% of artists are white and 87% are men," they wrote in the study.

"We find that the relationship between museum collection mission and artist diversity is weak, suggesting that a museum wishing to increase diversity might do so without changing its emphases on specific time periods and regions."

Mathematicians, statisticians, and art historians from Williams and University of California, Los Angeles teamed up to scour through the data, finding most major U.S. museums, even ones in cities with large Black populations, had collections dominated overwhelmingly by white men.

The Detroit Institute of Arts had one of the highest percentages of works made by White artists at 94 percent.

Only 10% of works in The High Museum of Arts in Atlanta were made by Black artists. That was the highest percentage of any museum in the study. Every other museum had less than 3%. 

Artist Mona Chalabi spoke with HyperAllergic's Hakim Bishara about the implications of the study and said it disproves the recent notion that art made by women and minorities was dominating museums.

"The permanent collections matter too. That’s where the artists are going to get a lot of their money from," she said.

"So, if you’re not in the permanent collections, and just exhibited, it [becomes] so tokenistic — we have you up on our walls, but you’re not actually worth buying.” 

In recent years, museums across the country have made a media push around diversity, but the study found that these efforts rarely led to a truly diverse art collection. 

"Our clustering results expose a very weak association between collection mission and diversity, thereby opening the possibility that a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection might do so without changing the geographic and/or temporal emphases of its mission," the study's authors wrote, highlighting that museums needed to diversify not just their collections but the curators in senior positions.

"Combined with the methods we have presented here, a broad demographic picture would then be available to any museum interested in empirical self-reflection as it engaged in collection development with an eye towards diversity."

This very issue blew up on Twitter in September when a furious debate broke out over whether it was fair that white curator Timothy Anne Burnside was helping to run the National Museum of African-American History and Culture's hip-hop exhibit. 

Major media figures and Hip-Hop legends came out in defense of Burnside, who put decades of work into curating hip-hop exhibits across the country. But others said her position was emblematic of the deeper issue concerning Black people being kept out of the art industry's higher echelons. 

The National Museum of African-American History and Culture eventually released a statement on the issue, saying they understood the need for diversity in the museum ranks and were working to give opportunities to Black curators and historians. 



"As a museum dedicated to telling the American story, through an African American lens, we recognize the lack of diversity in the museum field. Many of our staff worked on the front lines for decades to open doors for African Americans and people of color," they wrote.

"We continue to work with the Association of African American Museums and cultural institutions around the world to recruit and train people of color. We also have internship and fellowship programs to develop the next generation of museum professionals, so that the field looks more like the world around us."