Diversity as Excess Yin
When fresh voices are too fresh for the feminized visual art bureaucracy.
A couple of years ago an animation with handsome graphics and a poorly chosen soundtrack achieved virality by illustrating why the heliocentric model is preferable to the geocentric model when it comes to our solar system. In the former, planets turn around the sun in neat orbits. In the latter, planets loop in complicated, roseate tracks that occasionally seem to move backwards in the sky.
Imagine how much worse the anthropocentric model would look - the idea that you, personally, are the center of solar motion. Every planet would have to make 365 additional loops in the sky for each Earth year.
This doesn’t mean that the geocentric or even the anthropocentric model is wrong. We can still marvel at Joshua ordering the sun to cease its motion at Gibeon. We can speak of the stars overhead. For that matter, in a galactic context the heliocentric model is less apt than thinking of the entire solar system as a singular particle with some incidental local motion, rotating around the center of the Milky Way once every 250 million years.
The problems arise when we can’t switch contexts, when one explanation becomes truth and others heresy, and our rationales are circling in absurd loops order to explain something that has a straightforward cause.
So it is with racism and sexism in the art world. There undoubtedly has been, and is, racism and sexism in the art world. But what many are characterizing as racism and sexism in the art world, not as animosity towards a particular race or sex but as omnipotent, omnipresent, malevolent forces that explain every ensuing manifestation of woe, is a side effect of the simple fact that there are too many women in it.
After centuries of domination of art and almost any other professional field you could name by men, more often mediocre than gifted, with accompanying sexism of the most grotesque sort and a waste of women’s talents so enormous and abject that it hurts my heart to contemplate it - a situation that has only begun to be partially remedied at huge personal cost to brave activists over a protracted time - one should hesitate to say so, and I do. But it’s inescapable: women presently outnumber men in visual art in a manner that in no way reflects the even divide of the sexes in the general population. Just as the worse tendencies of men tend to compound into a stultified, prejudicial dynamic when they preponderate, so it is with women. The difference, chiefly, is the emotional tenor of the dynamic.
The firm Ithaka S+R conducted a Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey on behalf of the American Alliance of Museums in 2022. It found that women comprise 60% of all museum staff, including 76% of intellectual leadership and 66% of museum leadership. By role, women occupy 77% of positions in collections, 69% of communications, 71% of administration, and 74% of public engagement. The only museum role in which men are a majority, at 64%, is building operations.
78% of the 2023 fellows of United States Artists are women. Of the 35 awards given to individual artists in 2023 by Creative Capital, 27 of them, 77%, went to women. 16 of the 20 recipients of the 2022 Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant are women, a full 80% of them. The same can be said for the current composition of the board of AICA-USA: eight women and two men. Undergraduate populations at RISD, SVA, Pratt, MassArt, MICA, KCAI, PNCA, and nearly any other art school you could name are between 67% and 75% female.
We know what happens in such environments because the same trends are taking place in the larger world of academia. 66% of college administrators are women, as are 60% of all students earning Master’s degrees. As Heather Mac Donald reports:
Female dominance of the campus population is intimately tied to the rhetoric of unsafety and victimhood…. The most far-reaching effects of the feminized university are the intolerance of dissent from political orthodoxy and the attempt to require conformity to that orthodoxy. This intolerance is justified in the name of safety and “inclusivity.” It turns out that females and males assess the value of debate and the legitimacy of speech restrictions unequally.
This will to safety and so-called inclusivity manifests as diversity efforts. Mac Donald lists fourteen hires into campus diversity offices since July 2022, all of whom are women. Likewise, the Ithaka S+R study finds that “More than twice as many museum directors see DEAIissues as central to their work compared to 2020…. Directors at more diverse museums also consider increasing representational diversity among museum staff and leadership to be a very high priority.”
These diversity efforts have no target goals. Instead they seek to increase narrowly selected forms of representation for the sake of increase. The trend to include more women in museum roles didn’t stop at parity. It continues, seemingly with the approval of all who study it, into imbalanced female majorities that underrepresent men. To a lesser degree the same is true of the inclusion efforts of people of color, as I have already discussed - art award slates and survey exhibitions nearly or wholly devoid of white men have become commonplace.
Because the diversity efforts have no goals, no one is measuring them for efficacy. It is the same with workplace diversity trainings, which have been known for decades to be ineffective or detrimental and are nevertheless ubiquitous in modern working life. Unsurprisingly, 78% of Chief Human Resource Officers, who oversee such trainings, are women. It is clear to everyone who has lived long enough to witness it that arts settings, along with many workplaces in the wider world, have moved from insensitive and disdainful of peoples’ feelings to hypersensitive and disdainful of disinterested reasoning without ever passing through a point of balance, only a mixture of antithetical worst tendencies.
Another long-known, repeatedly observed phenomenon is mismatch effect. Students admitted to selective colleges under Affirmative Action or related policies tend to struggle and drop out at such high rates that the effect of such policies on graduation rates for the students in question is often found to be zero. One would expect the mismatch effect to generalize into the professions - that hiring based on so-called diversity priorities would result in short, unhappy tenures for the hired. Sure enough, Hyperallergic reports that
In 2020 and 2021, as critiques about the lack of support for Black culture and life in America grew, art institutions around the world responded by inviting unprecedented numbers of Black people to art leadership positions. Since then, however, there’s been a steady drain as people realize these positions are unsustainable. Some have burned out. Others were “let go.” Others willingly, or not, joined the Great Resignation.
This paragraph introduces a profoundly sad interview with a Canadian arts administrator who in 2019 was appointed as the first black curator in the 161-year history of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and resigned this past January. It ran under the headline “I Was a Museum’s Black Lives Matter Hire,” and was picked up at ArtsJournal as “Institutions Like Museums Have A Hard Time Changing Their Historically Racist Ways.”
The interview frames the situation as entirely the fault of the museum to provide support to the curator, eunice bélidor, lowercase sic. She furthermore attests that the impediments to racial minorities in the museums are structural:
My time at the Museum has strengthened my understanding of powerful barriers, and why it is that marginalized, or racialized, culture workers are quiet. The barriers are very calculated, and historical, making it difficult to rise through the ranks.… The museum helped me understand that the historical barriers are not there to be dismantled. The people inside the institutions don’t want them dismantled. So we have to go about it another way.
I’ll take Ms. bélidor at her word on that assessment, though she doesn’t describe what those barriers are, exactly. The interview reveals two facts, more or less in spite of itself. The first is that bélidor did not seek out the job and was by her own forthright admission to the museum manifestly unqualified for it.
They assured me that they wanted a fresh voice, someone on the field. We were all very clear about my lack of museum experience. I’d never worked in a museum. I explained that I would draw from my resources — the artists I had worked with. But I didn’t realize my artist relationships wouldn’t be enough. I needed relationships with galleries, with collectors, with donors. I wish someone had explained that. I didn’t ask about these different relationships because these things weren’t on my radar. I wasn’t equipped to ask the right questions. I thought, if they think I’m the ideal candidate, then I should trust them and believe that my skills were necessary for a specific reason — and someone would help me develop what I lacked.
My colleagues were always super helpful. But often I just didn’t know what I needed to ask. Or who to ask. Do I ask one person all of the questions? Or can I just ask anybody? I would ask whoever was available. Or if there was a specific issue, I would ask the person I was working with on that specific matter. But the information I was gathering was piecemeal. I knew some things thoroughly. And other things I didn’t know at all. For example, the first time I was asked to write an acquisition report, one of my colleagues sent the template and said, ‘This is how we do it.’ It was great. I didn’t have to ask, and it all made sense. But at the first acquisition committee meeting … I tried to follow my colleagues’ lead, but I was told I didn’t present correctly. I had not asked my colleague, the one who gave me the template, about the meeting because I didn’t know about the next thing I needed to know. There were many instances like that — where I felt like I was walking in the dark and my colleagues were opening a few doors for me so I could see a light in front of me. But I was never sure of where I was going.
The second is that the museum was falling over itself to be inclusive.
When I resigned, I kept hearing, ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t feel welcome — but maybe if it wasn’t during the pandemic.” But I want to be clear: Everyone was welcoming. I just don’t think the institution was equipped to have me — you know, as the first Black curator. They should have been more prepared. I didn’t leave because people weren’t welcoming…. I kept having words put in my mouth, “We’re sorry you didn’t feel welcome.” I had to say. “I’m repeating, I felt really welcomed by everyone. But the institution —’ [she sighs]. This is not an apology.
The museum undoubtedly should have been more prepared, given that they knowingly courted someone without the deep art world contacts and institutional experience of a typical curatorial hire. But I question whether they could have been. When someone is so far underwater that they don’t know what they don’t know and can’t ask questions about it, it may not be possible to help them without remediation for which no one in a demanding workplace has time. bélidor came away with what I think are well-founded resentments about the museum’s “inclusivity”:
[T]heir generosity makes it even more complicated. I had a good salary but it was a golden jail. The benefits, the salary, and lifestyle were good. But at work I was miserable and devalued. This conflict can make the experience traumatic. You think, ‘I don’t deserve this. I should leave.’ But you have a good salary, and they seem proud of you — you feel a lot of love being the fresh face of the museum — and you think, why am I suffering? This is supposed to be a good thing. The trauma comes from the confusion.
This is classic mismatch effect, borne of DEAI hiring priorities that have become crucial to a two-thirds-female museum leadership, which are themselves instigated by concerns about safety and “inclusivity” that have grown to the dysfunctional proportions that typify female-dominated settings. Or, if you prefer, barriers to racialized culture workers that can be experienced but not precisely described are causing them misery even though everyone around them wants to eliminate such barriers and acts accordingly, to the point of offering them jobs that they’re not seeking. I’m not saying that only one of these explanations is correct. I’m saying that one of them is really complicated.
Excepting clear incidents of racial animosity and sexual prejudice, which ought to be condemned, much of what gets called racism and sexism in the art world are ghosts in the diversity machine, which implicitly reflects the desire of powerful women for safety, without calling attention to itself as a sexed enterprise. The machine opposes a male-dominated history of art that is no longer in effect, in many ways rightly no longer in effect.
But in the woman-dominated present of art, the machine becomes tricky to justify. Its operators do so by shifting attention to the remaining cases of male preponderance, often framed in terms of decades or centuries of history in which such domination was extreme even if it is no longer. They also link the cause of sex representation, which in most cases been remedied far past parity, with race representation, which in most cases (aside from philanthropic recipients in recent years) has not. One can see both of these maneuvers at work in the 2023 Burns Halperin Report, named for its two white, female editors. The machine is only justifiable as a movement of social justice. If it is revealed, whether additionally or instead, as an exercise of raw power and self-validation, then the credibility-injuring possibility arises that circumstances of female domination bring with them their own prejudices, injustices, and poor outcomes.
That raises the question of how one might go about fixing all this. I am in no way calling for any kind of remedial action to be undertaken on behalf of men. I am absolutely not calling for any women who enjoy some standing in the art world, or any women at all, to be removed.That said, it wouldn’t hurt anyone to search his or her soul. Certain women could stand to question their appetites for safety and agreement, just as certain men could stand to question their appetites for adventure and confrontation. Everyone could stand to apply some disinterested reasoning to the current state of affairs, which a Taoist might describe as an excess of Yin energy. While certainly an alternative to excess Yang, it is not a proper end, just as it won't do to think of oneself as the origin of the turnings of the cosmos.
Hence, among other things, “Mercury retrograde.”
Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion.
With one exception: Kaywin Feldman.
Ms. bélidor was essentially lured by MMFA into taking a job which was not right for her. She was also not right for the museum in terms of what any art museum should be about, but obviously priorities have changed rather dramatically, and not to the benefit of art per se. She was basically used so that MMFA could project a certain fashionably PC image, and the museum is absolutely responsible for that and for the outcome. In other words, this was a sociopolitical matter, not an art-based decision, and as such it shows MMFA (like many other such entities) in a very poor light. Of course, this is all my own opinion, and I am exceedingly skeptical, not to say contemptuous, of fashionista behavior in general.
Good luck with that, Franklin, no matter how accurate and well-intentioned it may be. I very much doubt you'll get any takers from the women in question. As for the eunice bélidor story, which is indeed sad, I place most if not all of the blame squarely on the museum involved. However, based on my clearly negative experience with people of both sexes in jobs for which they were either quite unqualified or unsuited or both, I have little or no sympathy for anyone who accepts, let alone seeks, such an unjustifiable and inevitably unsuccessful (or worse) mismatch. It so happens that the worst instance of that in my personal experience involved a (white) woman. Still, nice try.