Little progress is being made in diversifying US museum acquisitions, new report finds

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Initial data gathered for a new report published this month on representation of minority artists in US museums and the international art market suggests there has been almost no progress since 2008, certainly when it comes to museum acquisitions.

The Burns Halperin Report 2022 tracked three groups between 2008 and mid-2022 for market data and between 2008 and 2020 for museums data: Black American artists, female artists and Black American female artists.

The Art Newspaper has seen a preview of the new data and can reveal that, focusing on the breakdown of gifts versus purchases in museum acquisitions, for female artists, gifts outweigh purchases by 71% to 29%; while, for Black American artists, gifts represent 63% of acquisitions and purchases 37%. Work by Black American female artists is the only category in which purchases outpace gifts, at a ratio of 56% purchases and 44% gifts, although the actual numbers are tiny.

So, what does the acquisitions data tell us about the progress, or lack of progress, made in US museums (more than 30 were surveyed for the study)?

Journalists Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns, who co-authored the report, suggest that the data shows the limited purchasing power of museums and how much they rely on donors to shape their collections—and, ultimately, how tightly connected museum trustees and the market are. As Halperin puts it: “Gifts come from people who are on the board, from old-school patrons, and they tend to have collected the antiquated picture of art history.”

Speaking on the podcast Death of an Artist, hosted by the US curator Helen Molesworth, Halperin adds: “Acquisitions [have] proven to be so much stickier in terms of change because the ultimate decisions are made by the people who hold the purse strings, by the board, and by the people who are a bit more entrenched in the systems of power.”

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