European Art History’s Audience

Before I left for New York Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem ask me: “Just as a curiosity – if you ever do visit the Frick Gallery in NY, make a mental note of how many non whites you see there. I have this sinking feeling that western art history/art appreciation is a “white folks club” to a certain degree and I am hoping to be proved wrong.”

There are some problems that I faced in considering the race audience for European Art History in the USA.

Firstly I did this by casual observation rather than a proper survey with a comparison the visitor numbers to the general population. Observation is not a good way to determine how people identify themselves racially. I generally don’t like to do it; it feels too close to racism and I wouldn’t have done it if Hasan hadn’t suggested that I do it.

Secondly art history visitors are more to do with gender, education and class rather than race. So a proper survey would not only consider the percentage of racial groups in education levels and income.

Thirdly, how different are the visitors for European art history compared to the visitors for non-European art history and contemporary art. I did notice that there was a slight difference but the audience for contemporary art but not for Asian, Islamic, Inuit, Haitian or Amerindian art.

Given these problems the answer is still obvious. The black face in an art gallery is most often the gallery attendant. The overwhelming numbers of visitors at the Frick Collection in New York or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are European with a few Asians and a couple of African Americans. This is the same case for exhibitions of non-European art history and this makes me thinking that this is more of an issue of education, specifically a liberal arts education, as well as income levels. To understand a painting in the Frick Collection you need to know both who Thomas Moore and Hans Holbein were and how they featured in English history. And it is education that is reason why a black face in any art gallery is with generally a school group.

Art history in America is largely a “white folks club”. Not that it intends to be, this is not a matter of content. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has Islamic and Chinese art in the collection. (Another place where you are likely to see a person of African origin a European art gallery is in the art, rather than amongst the viewers. This is more common than you might expect.) I am somewhat relieved that on the whole Europeans have learnt to appreciate the many cultures that they have conquered, colonised and pillaged.

The audience for modern or contemporary art is a little bit more racially broader there are more Asians, a few more Africans and a very few Arabs. With contemporary art you don’t require a specific knowledge of history or a liberal arts education. But the racial group that was most noticeably absent from any of the galleries that I visited in the USA were Indians.

Thanks to Hasan Niyazi for suggesting that I consider this issue.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

6 responses to “European Art History’s Audience

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    I had the same experience at the Louvre, but regarding myself, not other visitors. I have spent endless hours over the years, examining European art from medieval to pre-Impressionism. I didn’t even realise there were other galleries in the Louvre eg Near Eastern or Egyptian.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I haven’t spent as many hours in the Louvre but I must admit that I haven’t ventured outside of the European art section either.

    • Isobel

      The recently opened Islamic arts section gives a pretty good overview and displays what I presume isn’t being shipped off to Abu Dhabi. It’s also significantly less busy than every other area. I’d definitely check it out when you’re there next!

    • Mark Holsworth

      I must do that – I’m really getting into Islamic miniature paintings, most recently I saw Harvard’s Art Gallery great collection of Islamic miniatures. I also like to avoid the crowded areas of the major art galleries.

  • Jeff

    Are you saying that racial groups that are absent from galleries *should* wish to understand paintings in the Frick Collection? It seems to me that any demographic study of visitorship needs to have a clear focus on what it’s trying to achieve, why, and for whom. There’s probably a whole literature on this in Museum Studies journals. Hans Haacke’s study in 1972 is bound to have been widely discussed in it.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Good points Jeff, and thanks for pointing out Hans Haacke’s old study – I must try and read some discussion of that. Can’t really do that at the moment because I’m in Korea trying to come to grips with Korean art history.

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