ARTWORLD FACT CHECK: The Burns Halperin Report

Artnet News released its 2022 Burns Halperin Report at the end of last year. It has, or had, legs in the media, with uncritical recapitulations of its claims appearing in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Artforum, The Art Newspaper, Financial Times,

10 Ways Artnet’s Burns Halperin Report Gets It Wrong

Fact-checking Artnet’s Burns Halperin Report

Artnet News released its most recent Burns Halperin Report at the end of last year. It has, or had, legs in the media, with full features or citations of its claims appearing in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Barrons, Artforum, New York Post, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Financial Times, Widewalls, USA Art News, Art Dependence, Art News, Cultured, MSN, Monocle and Axios. Initiated in 2018, the authors Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin break with what market reports are thought, or supposed, to be: informational documents surveying an industry’s size, growth, market segmentation, general landscape, regional dynamics, outlooks, and projections. Instead, their focus and personal motivation are narrowed and self-determined: “we had a clear goal: to use data to track whether the mainstream art world really was providing overdue recognition to Black American artists…” The report examines two more demographics:

[W]e examined representation in U.S. museums and the art market for work by Black American artists, female-identifying artists, and Black American female-identifying artists, by tracing museum acquisitions (a total of almost 350,000 objects) and exhibitions (nearly 6,000), as well as auction results over more than a decade, and data from leading galleries on representation and sales.

The “report has grown into the largest database of its kind” and its authors claim to have found an “entrenched system of racism and sexism” in their research. This is an inference drawn from a disparity of representation; the percentages in market activity, the number collected works by museums, and the headcount of minority artists within leading commercial galleries, are expected to mirror-match the percentages of minority group populations according to the American census data. 1 Few people question the existence of sexism and racism in the artworld, whether or not that is true, or to what extent. Similarly, the report is replete with claims that the media has “a shared delusion about how much progress we are making,” as its rhetorical foil.

Burns Halperin Report co-authors citing the identity groups they studied. promotional video

Some people are not sold on the Burns Halperin Report’s method and measures in addressing its main concerns, according to the authors. One question raised is whether or not there are minority artists in sufficient numbers to adequately fill these gaps the authors believe to be proof of systemic sexism and racism. In an Artnet’s The Art Angle podcast interview, Charlotte Burns says anyone who suspects there might be fewer minority than she claims is “not paying attention.” Burns derides those who have expressed doubts about her claims or suggest the data she is presenting is wrong or flawed. She’s clear about this: “We’re not trying to convince people of the data … it’s become more of an advocacy project.” 

Charlotte Burns and Julia Burns discuss the Burns Halperin Report with Tim Schneider

The advocacy is made more explicit and forceful through the subsequent publication of op-eds and writings by prominent figures in the art world. Contributors include artist Adrian Piper, curator Mia Locks, Dia Foundation Director Jessica Morgan, Guggenheim Curator Naomi Beckwith, Creative Capital President Christine Kuan, art advisor Allan Schwartzman, journalists Zachary Small, and art critic Ben Davis, editor Tim Schneider, and senior reporter Katya Kazakina from Artnet, as well as art history professor Nizan Shaked, among others. It also published Artists and Critics React to the 2022 Burns Halperin Report featuring Jerry Saltz, Deborah Kass, Bisa Butler, Jenny Holzer, Paul Anthony Smith, Laurie Simmons, Robert Clarke-Davis, Andrea Fraser, and more.

The data is indeed unconvincing. Artnet’s Burns Halperin Report needs to be reconsidered. It:

  1. Unhelpfully overestimates the number of minority artists in the workforce.
  2. Confuses its own data sets of “artworld” artists with the US Census’s data sets of ‘working’ artists.
  3. Fails to provide by its own criteria any coherent percentage of artworks that encyclopedic and international museums in America should acquire.
  4. Misrepresents the broader nature of modern and contemporary art and artists.
  5. Diminishes the significance of artists who do not make material objects for commercial distribution.
  6. Ignores intractable problems museums have in storing their overfull collections.
  7. Ignores the orientation and goals of differing art museums in their healthy varieties.
  8. Methodologically contradicts itself when generating gallery and institutional data sets.
  9. Pushes American Nationalist imperatives onto international collections and markets.
  10. Fails to clearly differentiate success from failure, on its own terms, due to inconsistency

The advocacy project (henceforth BHR) consists of “audits” on 31 institutional collections in America – museums that volunteered their information – to determine the total and proportional holdings of art objects made by women (or “women-identifying,” that will be here “women”), Black Americans, and Black American women. One stated motivation in the introduction of the BHR is to “push museums” into acquiring more work by such artists. The BHR also applies such quota-based measures to four commercial blue chip galleries who offered their sales data for the project. The third sector is the international art market where global sales totals are tabulated in the same way, with quotas and proportions to fulfill.

Gender and race disparities demonstrably exist in greater or lesser magnitudes across these spheres, yet women and Black American artists bring in a disproportionately high percentage of revenue for the galleries – as much as 52% – relative to their respective demographic size. The BHR yet still finds dreadful racism here. Otherwise, in raw numbers of individual artists, these minorities are considered to be too low in volume and the de facto cause for this low number is “sexism, racism, and misogynoir,” in America especially, and globally as well. For the authors, the data shows that these international galleries are disenfranchising their own golden gooses.

RUNNING FROM NUMBERS

Who is correct here, the data skeptics or the BHR? I’d wager on a low “supply side” position, primarily because the BHR’s attempts to demonstrate an abundance of minority artists in the workforce consistently fall short. Regarding the proportion of American women artists on the supply side, the BHR asserts that:

Women account for 46.1% of working artists in the United States, according to data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts between 2015 and 2019…

However, the NEA study on such U.S. Census data doesn’t say what the BHR says it says. The NEA defines “artists” as creative professionals working within a cluster of occupations that include “fine artists” among many other fields. (Table 1, from the study.) Of the 11 groups of professionals in the list there is a tripartite group that includes “fine artists” of the sort relevant to the BHR’s tabulations. This group totals 46.1%. 

Screenshot from the NEA study

There “fine artist” is combined with “art directors” and “animators” to generate the 46.1% of women who cumulatively hold those three jobs in relation to men. Yet the BHR and Artnet databases do not follow the market for art directors who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, “are responsible for the visual style and images in magazines, newspapers, product packaging, and movie and television productions.” But Artnet does employ such workers. Nor does the BHR and Artnet count as artists animators who “create two- and three-dimensional models, images that appear to move, and visual effects for television, movies, video games, and other forms of media.” Such occupations do not factor into museum collections, blue chip galleries sales, and international auctions, which is the narrowed scope of the BHR’s data sets. This error, weird to have been made in the first place, is sufficient to toss out the 46.1% number, knowing that it represents a broader category of creative workers than what the BHR purports to have isolated and understood. 

FEMALE AT YALE 

The BHR contends that the number of male and female artists in the artworld are relatively equal. As claimed: 

There has been parity in graduation rates from the country’s top art school, the Yale School of Art, since 1983, according to a recent study, suggesting women have been entering the highest levels of the professional art world in equal numbers for almost 40 years.

BHR coauthor citing findings from “top art schools” (plural) when Yale (singular) was the only school studied

However, the study does not support their claim. For one, the study was published in 2017, meaning that the documented duration for parity among graduates is 35 years, not 40. Moreover, the study specifies that it isolates the 35-year range of parity in order to compare apples to apples in the auction market, and does not necessarily reflect the overall population of women artists in the art world:

We test for gender effects in the art market using auction prices for artists who graduated from the Yale School of Art. Yale’s female graduates have significantly fewer auction sales, controlling for their graduating year gender ratio. Conditioning upon sale, works by female artists obtained higher average prices. The results suggest that, while institutions and career paths may condition on gender, the market may not. 

The practice of controlling for graduating year gender ratios in the Yale study is intended to create a sample where gender parity exists, with true peers in terms of quantity and quality of work. However, this method does not provide any insight into the current or historical population of women artists that the BHR data set aims to represent. Unlike the Yale study, the BHR data set does not control for age. Furthermore, the Yale study shows that the total graduates from Yale were predominantly male (as shown in panel b), indicating a lack of gender parity in the supply-side of artists in the market. Additionally, the Yale study found no evidence of bias against women at auction: 

“Conditioning upon sale, works by female artists obtained higher average prices.”

The BHR says things like: “According to our projections, there will not be parity for women artists in the auction market until 2053.” But if the Yale study is right, the disparity is not lower prices, as the BHR infers, but instead a lower quantity of artworks reaching auction – what the  study phrases as “conditional on getting to  market”:

One unexpected result of our study is that prices established at auction do not appear to be negatively biased against female artists and their work. Conditional on getting to market, work by women command (sic) a premium, not a discount. Robustness checks suggest this is not a statistical artifact. We likewise find that in-house experts – those closest to the auction market display no apparent gender bias in their pre-sale estimates. 

The results also argue against [the] theory … that the market reflects an anti-female bias held by major collectors. While that theory may be supported by the skewed ratio of works brought to auction, it is contradicted by the premium those collectors are willing to pay. [Emphases mine]

The single takeaway from the Yale study that the BHR hopes to offer – parity of male and female graduates entering the highest level of the art world – is misconstrued (Figure 1, from the study). What the Yale study actually shows, which remains unmentioned in the report, contradicts key premises on which the BHR has mobilized its activism (Figure A1).

Graphs from the BHR-cited study of Yale graduates

By combining the BHR’s claims and Yale study’s findings, it can be seen that a significant supply-side deficit may exist for women artists in terms of the quantity of artworks reaching auction, rather than lower prices as the BHR infers. It runs like this:

Premise (1): There is no ‘anti-female bias’ at auctions [and there won’t be until at least 2053].

Premise (2): If there is no ‘anti-female bias’ at auctions, then the fact that women have less than 50% of the auction market sales revenue implies that they bring fewer works to auction than men do.

Premise (3): It will be the case that women have less than 50% of the auction market sales revenue until 2053.

QED: Women will bring fewer works to auction than men do until 2053.

BLACK AMERICAN ARTISTS 

Turning from American female artists to Black American artists, the BHR manages to do worse:

A 2014 analysis of U.S. Census data by [the group] BFAMFAPhD found that eight percent of working artists in the United States were Black.

But the study, again, does not say what the BHR says it says. Rather, the U.S. Census:

defined working artists as people whose primary earnings come from working as writers, authors, artists, actors, photographers, musicians, singers, producers, directors, performers, choreographers, dancers, and entertainers.

Screenshot of the BFAMFAPhD study

There isn’t a need here to elaborate on how obviously wrong it is for the BHR to report an 8% count of Black American “artists” in America from the Census that  aggregates 13 different creative fields, as if visual artist Kara Walker, comedian Wanda Sykes, and Ye, whose market has indeed tanked, practice the same craft. Black American artists in the BHR are supposed to produce objects of the sort museums acquire. The number 8% does not represent these artists and is in this regard meaningless.  2

BLACK AMERICAN WOMEN ARTISTS 

Black American women are 6.6% of the population, therefore according to the BHR the count of objects made by Black American women in art museum collections needs to constitute 6.6% of the total inventory. But Black American women do not comprise 6.6% of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded art history – what encyclopedic museums seek to present –so it doesn’t make sense to use that figure to represent these artists’ assumed place in such a museum. Along the span of global history, the total population of Black American women (which, according to the BHR, is presently at 0.3% of the world) immediately rounds to 0%. Yet, on the podcast, Halperin says that the current proportion of museum acquisitions of art by Black American women artists at 0.5% is “sad.” 

“Uphold Your Men” (1971), Carolyn Lawrence, Screenprint. Photo: Rob Colvin

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection consists of “more than 1.5 million objects spanning 17 curatorial areas that reflect over 5,000 years of human creativity,” according to its website, including vast holdings of Asian art, medieval armor, and the Egyptian Temple of Denduur. To satisfy the BHR’s number for equity at 6.6%, the Met would need to own at least 99,000 art objects made by Black American women [6.6% of 1,500,000 is 99,000]. 

The true target number is actually more stratospheric. Since the MET already owns at least some works by Black American women, including Kara Walker, it doesn’t need to acquire 99,000 more. However, even if we assume that the Met owns a high number of 1,000 works by Black American women, which is implausible given that the European Paintings collection is only around 2,500 works, the target exceeds 99,000 objects. Once the collection adds the necessary 98,000 works to the current 1,500,000, the total MET collection becomes 1,598,000. From this new total holdings, the BHR requires 6.6% of objects made by Black American women, which means the final total – 6.6% of 1,598,000 – becomes 105,468 art objects. 

Screenshot of the MET museum website

Suppose the MET board gave the authors of the BHR a blank check, as wealthy medieval Catholics might have bought from the Church indulgences to avoid eternal damnation. Where might the authors find 105,468 works by Black American women? It is doubtful that such a volume of acquirable works exists at all.  

As late as 1980, Black American women artists were believed to be underappreciated throughout American art history. The creation of the exhibition, “Forever Free: Art by African American Women 1862-1980” sought to mitigate the problem, traveling across six museums during 1981-1982, making it the most significant show of Black American women artists to date at that time. But it was difficult to find art for the exhibition, despite over six years of work, as the curators Anna Alexander Bontemps and Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps explain in the preface to the exhibition catalogue. [We] “made a good-faith effort to contact as many artists as we could identify” and still came up seemingly short.

In 1980 Blacks constituted 11.7% of the American population or 226.5 million people in total. Split this in half and we have 113,250,000 American Black women in 1980. The total number of Black women presented in this historical and contemporaneously generous survey show, “Forever Free,” came together by the two curators at 49 artists. These 49 Black American women artists were represented by 118 artworks. 

Photograph of the “Forever Free” exhibition catalogue
“Black Unity” (1968) by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), an artist in the Forever Free exhibition. Photo: Rob Colvin

Why there were only 49 Black women artists for a show in 1980 that took six years to put together might be better answered by others, but the BHR needs to take supply side concerns seriously. The burden for the BHR’s authors is not to champion progress in the face of institutional racism – that’s easy – but to locate 105,468 works of art by Black American women available for the MET to purchase at any price. 

WHERE ARE THE ARTISTS? 

As discussed in the Artnet podcast, 0.1% of auction sales from 2008 – 2022 were of works by Black American women artists, and results skewed toward younger artists. When asked by the host for an explanation of what appears to evidence a small number of artists, Burns promptly rejects this and blames the “entire ecosystem” of galleries and institutions. Further: 

We know that some of the most interesting art is being made by the people who are excluded from these data sets … There is this kind of abundance out there that exists separately to this.” 

Rather than taking an Occam’s Razor 3 approach here and say, ‘maybe there aren’t that many Black American women artists,’ Burns indicts her own data as unreliable to answer the host’s question about quantity. Because “we know” these artists exist, the data’s record is flawed, and the data is flawed because the “entire ecosystem” is inaccurately representing Black American women artists. Here the BHR’s advocacy invokes racism at a scale comprehensive enough to delegitimize the integrity of the sources from which it generates its own data. Both the BHR authors and their critics agree that the data isn’t reliable, but the authors have in the podcast dismissed that data with greater clarity, force, and finality.

Artforum putting the population of Black American artists at 21,905,400 people

Confusing and confused, these befuddlements with data metastasize into otherwise credible publications. For example, Artforum misinterpreted the report’s figure of 6.6% of the American population representing Black American women as referring to Black American women artists. In an article, Artforum stated that “Black American female artists… make up 6.6% of the US population.” (See screenshot) This brings the total count of Black American female artists in the workforce to just under 22 million people, exceeding the populations of countries such as Romania, Syria, and Sri Lanka. Or, by inference, all Black American women are professional artists.

WHAT ART AND ARTISTS ARE 

Since the stated aim of the BHR is to “push museums” to buy more works (by minority artists, here), the market report necessarily recasts art and artists in its own likeness. Remember, this report is for Artnet, “the leading online resource for the international art market, and the destination to buy, sell, and research art online.” Therefore, “artists” – every artist that ever existed – are tacitly redescribed as people who create objects of the sort art museums acquire. In the terms set by the BHR’s methodology, the categories “art” and “artists” are reduced to quantifiable units for measuring moral abstractions such as recognition, representation, justice, progress, and so forth. One consequence of this reductionistic categorizing is the marginalization or exclusion of canonical artists and artworks that “dematerialize” art into performance, conceptual art, temporary art, “happenings,” and other means of taking the “art” away from the  object. This was an idea that sometimes questioned the monetary nature of art objects, which does not fit in to the Artnet framework. These artists do not make art of the sort the BHR counts. Importantly, a significant development in “post-object” art is the Feminist rejection of the very art market the BHR takes to be determinative of artistic value and definition.

Screenshot from 2013 Artspace article by Alex Greenberger

It is true that post-object art is sometimes itemizable and collected, in contracts, certificates, and so forth, but the proportionality of these works is minuscule. But such works are often transmuted back into the market anyway in the form of photography, as Artsy does by crosslisting performance art with photographs that document performance art, therefore merging the mediums to make “performance” a buyable object. 

But for the “art market” that the BHR cares about, Joan Jonas, for example, would be classified as unproductive, offering meager, as if merely incidental, museum collectables. Likewise, her upcoming show at the MoMA will soon be reduced to ‘one show’ for the BHR to tabulate in its ‘women’ column, and nothing more. 4

Jonas’ canine collaborator Ozu sitting on my bag as a reminder not to leave him in a New Brunswick motel. Photo: Rob Colvin

Other artists that don’t conform to the BHR’s measurements and method: Ana Mendieta, Martha Rosler, Lorraine O’Grady, VALIE EXPORT, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Mary Kelly, Marina Abramović, Coco Fusco, Agnes Denes, Mary Miss, Maya Lin, Nancy Holt, Hannah Wilde, Tania Bruguera, Yvonne Rainer, Vanessa Beecroft, Laurie Anderson, Carolee Schneemann, and so on. 

What insights might the BHR offer here? In rolling out the dead male Spaniard again, as the BHR does, these women artists should be painters, perhaps leading Cubists, working in a moment in history when the traditional pictorial coherence of painted imagery is being contested in Europe and spilling onto American soil, threatening the careers of hard-working traditional realist painters who probably teach anatomy drawing once a week at the National Academy of Design. If our putative American female artists aren’t going to mess with any of that, they should at the very least be making things, lots of things, durable and efficiently storeable things, and at rapid pace, at Picasso pace, at full factory Warhol. Every rich person in the West should be able to own one of these things and put their things together with the other people’s things and have shows of them for decades to come.

In reality, what counts as “fine art” in the artworld is far more expansive than what art museums acquire, galleries promote, and auction houses sell. Performance, installation, temporary projects, public commissions, and several other newer practices that are both fully institutional and yet largely or completely out of the very marketplace that the BHR designates to be the authoritative proxy measure for artistic significance. Accepting the BHR’s picture of art and artists requires pruning the artworld’s normative and institutional understandings.

There is a subtler problem the BHR has in defining what an “artist” is, seen throughout its writing since 2018. Note these sequential claims in a BHR “Reality Check,” even if we’ve observed the second of them is false: 

–Black American artists created 7,370 out of the 339,969 objects acquired by museums during the period we examined. 

–A 2014 analysis of U.S. Census data by BFAMFAPhD found that eight percent of working artists in the United States were Black.

In the first claim, the BHR defines “artists” narrowly as makers of objects of the sort art museums acquire. However, the second claim refers to “working artists” based on census data, categorizing them by their primary income source. Although we know the number of Black artists responsible for the 7,370 objects tracked by the BHR is less than the proposed 8%, we cannot determine their main income sources. Therefore a proper count of artists relevant to the BHR cannot be performed. 

Screenshot from the BFAMFAPhD study’s presentation

Many artists creating museum objects may also work as professors, muralists, commissioned artists, designers, and in other creative occupations. It is unclear whether these artists overlap with those in the BHR’s database, which focuses on the selling, buying, and collecting of objects. Notably, 40% of the census artists, who may not overlap with BHR artists, do not hold bachelor’s degrees, a number implausibly high for contemporary artists of the sort the BHR tracks. Fewer than 16% possess fine arts degrees, which encompass a range of fields beyond object-based art, such as art history, theory, criticism, performance art, exhibition design, fashion design, and social practice. Additionally, 9.3% studied communications. (See the study’s video presentation.) By misunderstanding what the 8% in the BFAMFAPhD study is composed of, while contrasting it against BHR’s data set, the BHR is wrong on its own terms, twice.

MUSEUMS AS VAULTS 

The BHR’s bean counting model of the art historical canon and agenda for museum reformation brings to question what museums actually are if they are anything but vaults. As the New York Times writes:

‘[M]any American museums are bulging with stuff — so much stuff that some house thousands of objects that have never been displayed but are preserved, at considerable cost, in climate-controlled storage spaces

Art storage structures offered by System Center

The BHR has audited museum collections of which the public sees only a marginal fragment. The Buffalo AKG Art Museum, for example, can only accommodate 3% of its 6,750 works for display, as Halperin herself once wrote in . And yet, the BHR did not until recently consider that works of art are often donated to, rather than purchased by, museums. As Burns recalls on the Artnet podcast, after the second version of the BHR was released, an artist asked the authors about the art being tallied, “Are you looking at whether it’s a gift or a purchase … how is the work entering the museum?” The author admits, “We hadn’t been asking that.”

In not having asked that, the BHR had neglected to account for the means by which hundreds and thousands of works have historically entered museums and still do. Gifting agreements often favor the donors’ wishes over the museums’ needs or interests, such as museums’ interests of the social justice sort. Getting rid of the works collected or replacing them is very difficult. And some purchases are easier to make than others. According to the Times:

And many still hold the view that a wholesale parting with objects can be risky. Overlooked art comes back in style. Forgotten treasures turn up. Many pieces, they argue, should be retained for scholars, regardless of how often they go on public view.

Yet this does not address the scarcity of works by Black American women coming through these acquisition channels. The BHR nevertheless hits on it at an oblique angle:

Museums are putting their own resources behind collecting the work of Black American female artists. This is the only category in which purchases by the institutions outpaced gifts from donors, with a ratio of 56 percent of acquisitions made through purchase versus 44 percent made by gift, for the works for which we have provenance.

The limited number of available works on the market – the lack of adequate supply – makes sense of these purchase options. There are comparatively very few historical works by Black American women of previous generations on the secondary market or held in private collections for gifting. By contrast, there are at present many more works being generated by Black American women for the primary market, available for direct purchase at galleries.

OWNING VS SHOWING 

In terms of experiencing art, the BHR registers no difference between owning or possessing artworks and showing artworks. It indiscriminately tabulates solo museum shows of women vs. men, but does not control for the kind of art, medium, period in which the artist worked, country, culture, etc – nothing as to why the art is being shown as opposed to not shown within its scope of programming. But when it comes to individual artworks – the main focus of the BHR – it matters not if an acquisition is on view or in storage, which is perhaps the only thing that matters to an engaged public or culturally impactful demonstration of “representation” in museums. To this end, it’s worth reiterating a quote from the New York Times article: 

It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are thousands, if not millions, of works of art that are languishing in storage,” said Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Perhaps the authors of the BHR disagree?

ALTERNATIVE COLLECTING

Given that the BHR both ignores legitimate obstacles that museums have in acquiring works by minorities at high speed and great volume – while it also aggressively hectors museums for not doing what they cannot always do – the BHR can incentivize the adoption of “alternative” collecting practices. These take the form of expediency. Note the Whitney Museum’s effort in early 2020. 

Black photographers of the See in Black collective had recently donated works for free to be sold at discount for charities. As the New York Times reported, these works were priced at $100 with the hope that most anyone could own one, despite such pieces likely retailing for far more, in the thousands, at a gallery. The Whitney Museum, in a stroke of genius, purchased all the works to enter the museum’s special collections, housing objects like posters, prints, books, zines, and so forth. An exhibition of these new acquisitions organized by the museum, to feature more than 80 artists, was canceled due to outcry from these artists who felt exploited by the museum upon receiving notices through email of such acquisitions and their planned presentation at “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change.”

Antwaun Sargent tweet criticizing the Whitney Museum’s “alternative collecting” method

Despite suffering a bad news cycle, the Whitney Museum did ‘perform’ well by all of the BHR’s standards and imperatives. The negative criticism might have been obviated had the museum not been so quick to present the work, or show so much at once, but the pressure to signal at that time overwhelmed an otherwise successful move to diversify the raw numbers in the museum’s permanent holdings. If other museums can obtain artworks through comparable, yet more discreet methods – bulk acquisitions of works on paper for effective storage in flat files – without facing disapproval, there appears to be no drawback to adopting such pragmatism in meeting the BHR’s requirements.  

SAMPLE SELECTION PROBLEMS 

No reason is given why a disparate mix of American museums is chosen or what they together are meant to represent. But when choosing commercial galleries to sample, the opposite approach is taken, selecting four of the largest galleries in the world. Rather than select for diversity, the gallery sample is small and homogeneous. As said on the podcast: “We felt that when you look at the mega-galleries who kind of control the overall market it would be more representative.”  

In collecting its own data, the BHR is misguided in its selection of samples. While the BHR authors didn’t understand the scope of the sample in the Yale study, co-author Burns offers a self-contradicting methodological rationale in choosing which museums to audit in contrast with the selection of commercial galleries. For the museums, the BHR “deliberately sought a mix of institutions in terms of budget, focus, attendance, and location.”

Starry AI’s versions of “a pile of museums on top of each other, squished and flattened” into one

There is a distinction between dominating and controlling the market. Mega chip galleries operate as slow-moving consolidators of market efforts performed by others at smaller scale, but with rapidly higher returns. The large scale of the galleries is inversely proportional to their ability to innovate. They are conservative by constitution, risk averse, taking only artists who bring with them a growing market pre-established elsewhere, at non-random places by non-random people. They will and do, maybe have to, take on most any artist selling above a certain amount, without embarrassment, discarding the older organizational model of having a “program” of taste, focus, and specialization. But since women at these mega chips “outperformed in terms of sales, representing between 26 percent and 52 percent of the galleries’ revenue,” one wonders why a less uniform sample set of galleries was not chosen by the BHR to achieve far more deliberately disheartening numbers. 

AMERICAN NATIONALISM 

The methodological contradiction in sample choice – heterogeneity vs homogeneity – is more problematic in the case of art museums in America: it yields a pernicious American Nationalism. In mixing heterogeneous institutions, the BHR’s “push” for a fixed American demographic quota system generates chauvinistic, erratic, and arbitrary demands on all but one of the museum’s selected. 

“American Bald Eagle Day, June 20th” (2014), ClaraDon via Flickr

Nationalism here refers to the principled prioritization of American interests over interests of neighboring countries or global interests. For the BHR, the desirable American domestic interest should be engineering public and private sector art-industry activities to symbolically mirror America’s racial demographic composition, inside the country (in museums) as well as abroad (in the global auction art market). “Exceptionalism” here is a softer word that nevertheless captures the moral sentiments held by persons who find the country exceptionally great in world history, or among all nations, or exceptionally bad, What the BHR’s attitude is here isn’t as relevant as the fact that it holds out distinctly exceptional value of artworks made by designated American minorities over and above artworks made by people from other countries and cultures. 

The American Exceptionalist mistake the BHR made with its faulty analysis of the MET’s collection is repeated with regard to other encyclopedic museums as well as museums with international holdings. Of the 31 museums in the United States audited by the BHR, 29 of them are international. The MCA Chicago collects “artworks that span media and movements from the 1920s to the present,” while the Dia Art Foundation is “collecting in-depth the work of a focused group of artists of the 1960s and 1970s.”

“The Casting Call” (2008) by Noah Davis (1983-2015), a great painting that is not a portrait painting that the National Portrait Gallery can include into its collection of portraits. Photo: Rob Colvin

Only two museums – 6.45% in the BHR’s database – focus on art of the sort appropriate to an American population demographic frame: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Yet the NPG is already categorically unique in being subject-specific, with its Congressional “mission to acquire and display portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.” Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s respective paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama definitely fit here. Hank Willis Thomas’ sculptures of sports culture and Jacolby Satterwite’s sci-fi S+M video worlds are out. So are Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s fictive figures. This is not an error caused by the museum; it is an error in the BHR data set that puts this museum in the wrong category of analysis. 

At the National Portrait Gallery, the BHR ought to have compared (A) artworks by women (simpliciter), Black American women, and Black Americans (of both genders) making portraits of other Americans who have made important contributions to the advancement of American culture, with (B) such artworks made by artists from other groups. The math would then run like this. With a total holdings of 23,000 works, for example, the NPG would need to own 1,518 portraits of  namable Americans, made by Black American women (as they represent 6.6% of the population). How many Black American women artists, the BHR might ask itself, produce American portraits of this sort? Not even Amy Sherald – whose painting in the NPG’s collection was a commission, not a purchase – works this way. Her portraits are not of nameable subjects. Does the BHR intend to find fault with Black American women artists for choosing not to produce proper objects to fill this gap?

This leaves the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as the only properly suited museum among those they studied for the BHR’s Americentrist imperatives for American demographic matching. That’s 3.23% of the original sample set. Whatever grade the BHR gives to museum founder Alice Walton’s efforts, this single collection’s numbers are insufficient data to understand or tabulate what any other museum, or all museums together, in America are now doing.  

Until the BHR generates a responsible data set of museums to audit, the next best thing to do is to recalibrate and to control for the total American works within the respective collections of international and encyclopedic museums the BHR now has in its database. American art, in isolation from works in collections that are not American, is what the BHR needs to concern itself with.  

AMERICAN ART ABROAD 

The BHR does no better with the  art market than it does institutional collections. To get a sense of the misplaced American Exceptionalist commitments in the report, consider two BHR “Reality Check” lines in sequence: 

Accounting for inflation, the amount of money spent on work by Black American female artists at auction has grown 727.8 percent from 2008 ($4.9 million) to 2021 ($40.5 million).

Still—one last reality check here—their work accounts for just 0.3 percent of all auction sales in the first half of 2022.

But, of Black American females, the same listicle already states (in parenthesis) the size of their global population:

(They represent 0.3 percent of the global population; there is no data available on what proportion of working artists they currently represent.)

So, if the BHR has it right, the global market is buying works by Black American female artists (of which there is no known number) at parity with their global population (0.3% = 0.3%) in real time, while money spent on their work over 13 years has grown 727.8%. 

One might expect a rhetorical celebration of this spectacular increase here, but the authorial tone is one of disgust. What else might the BHR’s “one last reality check” here be if not a cynical rhetorical manipulation designed to reframe good news as bad news, in an effort to further a BHR “advocacy project” that in this regard shows itself to be obsolete? Rather than riding a wave of success and move on to promote the work of First Nations people, perhaps, or maybe contemporary Malawian art, or works by the Ainu people indigenous to Japan, the BHR chose to double down with an Americentrist sales rhetoric, disregarding clear proof that it isn’t needed. And, curiously, one of the authors is British. 

Some activities characterized by American self-interest expanded into international initiatives can be beneficial (such as removing North Korea’s nuclear threat). Nevertheless, in this context, the BHR needs to offer good reasons why American art of a certain order should be more valuable to people in China, for example, than other works of art made by other people. In absence of justified explanations, the nationalistic bias held by the BHR is a decisive flaw. 

CONCLUSION 

Artnet’s Burns-Halperin Report needs to be reconsidered. It:

  1. Unhelpfully overestimates the number of minority artists in the workforce.
  2. Misrepresents the broader nature of modern and contemporary art and artists.
  3. Diminishes the significance of artists who do not make material objects for commercial distribution.
  4. Ignores the orientation and goals of differing art museums in their healthy varieties.
  5. Ignores intractable problems museums have in storing their overfull collections.
  6. Fails to provide by its own criteria any coherent percentage of artworks that encyclopedic and international museums in America should acquire.
  7. Methodologically contradicts itself when generating gallery and institutional data sets.
  8. Confuses its own data sets of “artworld” artists with the US Census’s data sets of ‘working’ artists.
  9. Pushes American Exceptionalist imperatives onto international collections and markets.
  10. Cannot reliably decipher for its readers, on its own terms, success from failure.

NEXT STEPS 

Where might the authors go from here? The BHR might reform itself as a fundraising initiative or consultancy for the formation of new museums or para-museum initiatives unconstrained by present-day institutional frameworks (e.g., talk to Eli Broad.) Museums are deliberately designed to be future-proof and durable against efforts of the sort the BHR declares itself to be: an exogenous political and market force seeking to swiftly change the mission, composition, collection, and nature of the institution itself. 

But even the BHR might be catching on to such future possibilities: 

At the current rate of change, it may be a simpler task to build entirely new museums and market structures than to create the necessary change within the existing systems.

AI generator Craiyon’s versions of “people building an art museum with hammers”

Indeed, the creation of new museums is a crucial and transformative process! The MoMA itself was initially conceived as a solution to the inherent conservatism of traditional museological practices, serving as a concrete and successful example for the BHR’s authors and others to follow. In response to the current MoMA, they could establish something innovative. These new ventures do not need to adopt the BHR’s additive approach to collecting either – which inadvertently reinforces the very canonical frameworks deemed unsuitable – instead of challenging them. 5

The BHR is sponsored by the largest bank in the world, UBS, based in Switzerland, managing wealth and assets of incalculable scale, partly because it is legally immune to audit. The tsk tsk approach to institutions, existing as pebbles under the sea of money that floats the authors’ misreporting, can be redirected today into something better, feasible, and real enough to survive a “reality check” when skeptics come along.