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Mapping Black Identities gallery shot

Mia is diversifying its collection—so how does that work?

In 2016, when the Guerrilla Girls staged a self-described “intervention” at Mia, the advocates for artistic diversity found some things to lament: relatively few works by women artists in the galleries, few works by people of color. They styled their review as a kind of gotcha moment, as though they were holding up a mirror to the museum.

But Mia was not surprised. Mia’s collection began more than a hundred years ago, with the noblesse oblige of Minnesota’s wealthy industrialists. Thousands of prints donated just a year after the museum opened still form the largest single segment of the collection. European and American landscapes remain the core of Mia’s paintings collection. Since the museum’s current strategic plan was developed three years ago, and for some time before then, the goal of diversifying—the staff, the outreach, the collection—has been imperative. In fact, for many museums around the country, there may be no higher priority.

Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it would sell seven works by white male artists, including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline, to raise millions of dollars for future purchases of art by women and people of color. This year, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, announced it would close for four months to rehang its collection with a broader and more inclusive view of how modern and contemporary art has developed. 

“Museums, especially regarding collections of European art and art of the Americas from the last two centuries, are wrestling with the fact that the bulk of those collections are works by white male artists,” says Bob Cozzolino, Mia’s Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings. “There’s an increasing awareness that although the achievements of a lot of those artists will never be diminished—because they were creative and innovative and important for a number of reasons—we need to add to that narrative.”

False Start by Frank Bowling

“False Start,”‘ by Frank Bowling” anchors Mia’s new “Mapping Black Identities” exhibition.

This month, Mia opens “Mapping Black Identities,” an exhibition of art by black artists from the United States, Africa, and the African diaspora. All of the works were drawn from Mia’s collection, centered around a recently acquired painting by Frank Bowling, from 1970, and demonstrate the breadth of blackness among artists. Mia is elsewhere showing work by African-American artists Bob Thompson, Beauford Delaney, and others. And an exhibition called “Growing the Collection: Drawings and Collage, 1960 to Now” has been up since December, featuring recent additions or promised gifts to the collection that expand the museum’s postwar narrative.

And yet the disparity won’t be resolved quickly. The century-long increase in professional and educational opportunities for women and artists of color, compared to 200 or 300 years ago, hasn’t resulted in the change you’d expect. It certainly hasn’t happened on its own, despite an awareness of the issue in many art circles for 30 or 40 years. 

Why that disparity persists is complicated. And so is changing it.

The Ecosystem of Art

How artists end up in museums is a kind of consensus building. Art critics and dealers surface intriguing artists, who then draw the attention of collectors, who then draw the attention of museums. Museums rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on collectors to donate their purchases—which may not be perfectly aligned with the museum’s priorities. Curators don’t have complete control.

There are no dedicated dealers, for instance, of prints and drawings by African American artists. For about 12 or 14 years, says Dennis Jon, Mia’s Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Mia has been growing its holdings of prints and drawings by artists of color—largely by pursuing them on its own. At its latest Print and Drawing Fair, last fall, Mia invited some dealers who emphasize artists of color, expanding opportunities for artists and collectors alike. “By virtue of showing interest in African American art, dealers will come to you,” says Jon. 

Mia has also shifted its curatorial model to include non-curators in some exhibition planning, like how exhibitions come together and how they’re interpreted. Through projects like MASS Action, an ongoing dialogue between museums on how to become more equitable, and Mia’s Art of Inclusion Fellowships, which bring people of color into the work of the museum, Mia is essentially developing a “new support system” to help it diversify, says Gabe Ritter, who heads Mia’s relatively new Contemporary Art Department.

“From collecting to exhibiting to staffing, the change is systemic,” says Ritter, who collaborated across the museum to pull together “Mapping Black Identities.” And it shows. That exhibition, for instance, challenges the longstanding narrative that the black experience is universally difficult and negative. Instead, it focuses on the dignity and unique experiences of individual artists.

“I am Four Eyes from the Planet Called the Red Tornado / I am Blind and I Can See your Future from my Planet Lovely,” by Henry Ray Clark, featured in the exhibition “Growing the Collection.”

If work by African-American artists in fact made up only 2.4 percent of acquisitions by large United States museums in the last 10 years, as research by ArtNet News has concluded, then Mia is doing a little better with its estimated figure of 4 percent. But it may become harder to boost that, even as more artists of color are surfaced, as the sudden interest among collectors and museums has increased art prices, and public museums, with so many other demands on their funds, are finding it difficult to compete.

“We’re lucky to have a generous collecting community here in Minnesota,” says Jon. “Collectors can be more nimble than museums.” But philanthropy is changing, too, and the cultivation of collectors cannot rely on the same civic impulse that persuaded past generations to donate art to their city museums. 

Still, there are opportunities. Fiber art, for example, from quilts to embroidery to wall hangings, has historically been marginalized in the art world. But Mia has been thoughtfully collecting it for decades, and with the major exception of medieval tapestries—the domain of all-male guilds—it’s almost exclusively women’s work. “Basically by default, as a curator of fiber art, I’m collecting women artists,” says Nicole LaBouff, Mia’s Associate Curator of Textiles. 

Fiber art is relatively hot now, which has surfaced more art and more collectors. “Without Boundaries,” a show at Mia of recently acquired fiber art and paintings by women, runs through July, centered around a textile sculpture by Shinique Smith, a prolific African-American artist known for combining media in powerful, personal ways. This spring, Mia is acquiring several Gee’s Bend quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, based in Atlanta, which has collected and preserved African-American art from the Deep South and helped draw attention to these masterful quilts made by African-American women. 

Because this is fiber art, though, artists still often donate their own work to museums, as they have for a long time now. To get their art in museums, and to build connections with curators. To leave a legacy, one way or another, no matter what’s happening in the art world. 

Top image: a view of a gallery in Mia’s “Mapping Black Identities” exhibition.