By: Megan Sue-Chue-Lam, Denise Tenio, and Dominica Tang
Ever since we can remember, we’ve had a deep love for art galleries; they make you feel small in a way that feels safe, while enlightened and inspired all at once. Meandering through brightly lit hallways with twenty-foot-high ceilings, walls covered with everything one’s mind could imagine – art galleries make you think that the only limit to what you can create is your imagination.
Creativity stems from believing in possibilities – possibilities that require different perspectives in order to be realized. But what happens when those possibilities are limited to a singular voice?
Take a look at any given institution, and you’ll find that the vast majority of artists in a museum’s collection are men. And usually white men, at that.
Yes, their works are still some of “mankind’s” greatest achievements. Yes, there is a longstanding history of women not being considered as capable artists. Yes, women’s work was (and according to some, still is!) often thought of as craft, as opposed to fine art.
But if we’ve moved past the period when women can’t be artists, and into a time when art is even seen as feminine, then why are art galleries still dominated by white men? In September 2019, the New York Times reported that “only 11 percent of all work acquired by the country’s top museums was by women.” The article, by Julia Jacobs, goes on to state that works by women are still seen as risky investments, even though artists in the field have reached gender parity.
As long as this gender bias continues to be reinforced, people will perceive great artists largely as men. Folks like us, young Asian women, will continue to see a world of possibilities that is just out of their reach. Don’t even get us started on the fact that Asian art and that of other cultures are often relegated to “ethnographic” collections, let alone that galleries and museums are colonial and classist in the first place. So, where does that leave us?
There is one word that has the ability to strike fear into the heart of any museum worker: deaccessioning. Getting rid of artworks from a collection is a move that, seemingly without fail, causes controversy. The pushback often comes from art-lovers that decry the fact that they will no longer be able to see an iconic piece in a specific institution.
Even though change is scary, it’s important. Deaccessioning redundantly-white artworks literally makes space for others that bring in nuanced understandings of the world that challenge the dominant white, patriarchal narrative. We need to remember that these works aren’t being destroyed – they’re simply being appreciated elsewhere. If galleries are going to diversify their collections, they need to make room. Vaults aren’t limitless, and money is needed to acquire new works. Luckily, people are actually starting to take on this challenge. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it would sell seven works by great artists in order to create the funds to buy works by women and artists of colour. Here in Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that it would deaccession 20 works by A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven, arguably the most recognizable Canadian art collective, in order to create space for marginalized artists.
From galleries, to comic books, to movie theatres, if we don’t see ourselves in the art we love, what hope do we have of joining the ranks of iconic creators? It’s great to see that an artist such as Yayoi Kusama can drive thousands upon thousands of visitors to galleries to see her work. But sadly, cases like this are few and far between.
That’s why the three of us joined together. We’re three young, emerging museum professionals that have made it our goal to diversify our field: to make space for ourselves, and other marginalized professionals and visitors in museums. Institutions do not change policies for the sake of it. Change is driven by individuals who voice their concerns and make their dissenting perspectives known. As such, the field needs to diversify behind the scenes in order to enact the change we want to see at the forefront of our cultural institutions. And, just like any other job, we need to see people like us in these positions in order to aspire to them.
While we are not advocating for the “deaccessioning” – if you will – of white museum employees, we are challenging the white hierarchies that are built into museums and have excluded meaningful representations of our histories, voices, and perspectives for far too long.
Even though it’s an uphill battle, the weight of this work has been made so much lighter now that we share it. We are stronger and louder together. We hope that, bit by bit, we can continue paving the path that has already been started for us, and hold those big, heavy museum doors open for future generations of marginalized museum professionals to come.