The Artistic History of (Part of) a Nation

"Young Woman with Peonies" by Frederic Bazille, 1870.

“Young Woman with Peonies” by Frederic Bazille, 1870.

My daughter arrives to live with me in eight days, as my bi-coastal family reaches the end of phase one of our West-to-East transition and enters phase 2, aka the phase where Cici lives with me and my husband begins his months of being childless after 5 months of being a single dad.  I am excited and terrified at the upcoming changes, but most of all I am looking forward to having her around, being able to snuggle with her and give her hugs and talk with her when I want—and the logistics of single-parenting a child while my husband, Seth, completes his Fulbright research in Brazil will sort themselves out.

I have been, these past months, more and more preoccupied with how my daughter might end up seeing the world.  I think that not having her here with me has paradoxically allowed me the distance to imagine in more detail some version of her experience in the world, which would have been at least somewhat closed to me had I had to stay caught up (as I will soon) in the minutiae of day-to-day fatherhood.  This preoccupation, as I have written here before, was one of the primary motivators for my new and sustained interest in issues of diversity, access and equity in representation of art (my daughter is bi-racial, and I am not).  My preoccupation has woven back and forth in a variety of directions over these past months, especially on the heels of the publication of the Arts Diversity Index report.  As I continue to work with staff at Americans for the Arts to build out a comprehensive program to help local arts agencies and arts institutions interrogate what it means to diversify, what it means to be engaged in community conversation and development, and how we as an overall arts field can do a better job of representing the viewpoints and histories of our entire nation, how my daughter will see her history in the art of our day-to-day experience has preoccupied me.  All the arts, all the people.

In that spirit, and because when I sit at home on the weekends without my husband and daughter around I often find myself getting either antsy or depressed, I took a trip in mid-May to the National Gallery of Art.  I had been a few weeks before, on the tail of seeing Permanent Collection, about which I have written before, and found myself preoccupied with the (lack of) representation of people of color in the art.  So I headed out to conduct a little survey—I decided to count representations of non-white people in the paintings and sculptures, just to see.

Before going further, I need to lay out the caveats that (1) this was not an exact exercise, and it is entirely possible that my counts will be slightly off both because I missed something and because I was making personal judgments on the race of the people in the paintings and (2) my examination was limited to the permanent galleries of the non-contemporary-art building (the National has 2 buildings, one devoted to classical art and sculpture and the other to contemporary art) and so did not take into account temporary exhibitions.  The Chinese porcelain gallery in the museum was also sectioned off on the day I was there for some reason, so I wasn’t able to visit those pieces, which likely would have increased my count.

But even with that said, as I whisked through the galleries, marking representations in pen on the little paper map they give you at the entrance, I was surprised.

By my count:

  • In the permanent galleries (excluding the Chinese porcelain gallery), there are about 1,200 total works.  Of those, I would estimate from spot-counting that about 20% are landscapes without any figures, which I excluded.  This leaves about 960 total works.
  • Of those 960 works, 30 works, or about 3.1% of the total permanent collection on display, have representations of people who aren’t white anywhere in the piece (background or foreground).
  • Within those 30 works, there were a total of 126 non-white people represented, out of a (very roughly) estimated 2,000 or so total human figures.  This translates to 6.3% of all of the people in the paintings.
  • Of those represented, there were African, Polynesian and Native American figures, but I didn’t find any representations of Hispanic, Asian or non-Native American indigenous peoples (though, again, I couldn’t access the Chinese porcelain gallery).

As I said, I did that in May.  Since then, I’ve been trying to sort out what those numbers mean to me.  I was ready to be quite upset; almost all of the representations of people of color, particularly in the paintings, represent them in the background.  There are two beautiful large portraits, one of a black man and one of a black woman, and there are some relatively prominent representations in a small number of other sculptures and paintings, and then a whole lot of what might be termed “bit players.” (Of which there are, of course, also a whole lot of white folks.)

But that initial reaction became muddled for me as I further investigated the National Gallery and discovered that its mission and goals belie its name.  The mission of the National Gallery, I was surprised to learn, is not to represent the artistic history of the nation.  It is instead “to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.”  Further down, I was surprised to discover that the National Gallery “limits its active art collecting primarily to [works]…originating in Europe and the United States from the late Middle Ages to the present.”

Scrolling even further, I found an explicit recognition of the narrowness of those guidelines: “Because its collecting field is narrow when seen in the context of world art, the Gallery strives to supplement its own works with exhibitions of material from other times and cultures.”

On that same trip down to the National Mall in May, I visited both the Native American museum and the American History museum, which is currently housing an extraordinary exhibition on civil rights created to promote the impending opening of the African American museum.  As I passed through these similarly “narrow” collections—not yet aware of the narrowness of the mission of the National Gallery—I was caught in a moment of confrontation with myself.  Here—and I would argue, despite laudable language in the mission statement, even after understanding the mission of the National Gallery and its attempts to navigate the narrowness—in these three collections I was confronted baldly by the pervasive vocabulary of whiteness.  Our National Gallery displays only Western art, white historic experience as represented in art, while the galleries of non-white cultures, their missions more accurately proclaimed in their names, are left to represent those other parts of the world.  I found that frustrating.

Or was that just my white guilt, suddenly laid bare after some decades of dormancy, rearing up?  There is no question in my mind, having now spent hours and hours in those galleries looking at brush strokes, examining carvings, studying faces, seeing the full span of human emotion, of storytelling and life and death, laid out in the works, that the National Gallery has pursued its particular mission to the fullest.  It is an amazing collection of art.  And I have now had three conversations in the last week that echo Barack Obama’s sentiment that his daughters are “Better than we are” at engaging with race—that say that the rising generation doesn’t understand racial disparity in the same way, that they don’t seek validation in representation, that that type of “special” effort, to ensure equity, is insulting, not welcome.

But still, and despite the good efforts of the National Gallery, the particular vocabulary of the title sticks a bit in my craw.  It is not a national gallery in the sense that it does not represent the artistic history of the whole nation, which, mission aside, is what I had hoped to be able to show my daughter.  The stories told there are not all the stories, and that is a detriment not just to my bi-racial daughter, but to everyone who comes to look at the art.

There’s a placard in one of the French galleries that talks about “Exoticism” and the impact of Northern Africa on French art.  In that gallery, among the 12 paintings, there is only one with a black person in it.  He is in the background, in darkness, draped in muted white almost completely and playing a sitar for a resplendent white woman, lounging in the foreground, porcelain arm crooked above her head and blocking most of the black man’s body, her red hair flowing down a brocade pillow and shimmering in honeyed white light.

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  1. says

    It mystifies me as to why we continue to name institutions in DC “national” simply because they exist in the nation’s capital. I was on staff at The Washington Opera (a perfectly good descriptive name) when it was changed to Washington National Opera, which is both confusing and not in fact true. If this country has ever had a national opera company, it is undoubtedly the Metropolitan Opera, serving national audiences through touring productions, radio broadcasts, and now movie theater simulcasts. That’s no knock on WNO – it’s an excellent company that serves a city of this size very well. But it’s no more “national” than the Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera or New York City Opera.

    “National” might simply be too tall an order for arts organizations in a country this diverse and this physically large. Someone may always be left out, and notional representation might be worse than none at all. The proliferation of museums on the “National Mall” plays out the same problem on a different scale.

    Perhaps what we need is a “national” level designation for a web of institutions across the country. No one wants to be likened to Major League Baseball this week, but the Nationals baseball team shares an imprimatur with peers across the country. We could add, for example, the excellent collections of Spanish American art and Native American textiles at the Denver Art Museum to the French paintings at the National Gallery without diminishing the specialness of either.

  2. Michael Wilkerson says

    When I lived in DC I dreamed of starting a mechanic garage (not that I know anything about cars) just so I could call it “The National Center for Automotive Repairs.” Of course the National Gallery is playing a game, as are the other relevant Smithsonian museums and the Kennedy Center (National Center for the Performing Arts). As long as they are perceived as (or named) “National,” then they will receive line-item funding from the national government, without which, the abyss. If you got your car fixed at my garage, you would leave knowing not just that your beloved was running well again, but that you had been fortunate to visit the very pinnacle of automotive excellence. For which you would have paid more than at the same garage in Indiana.