Data Proves the NYC Art Scene Is Whiter Than a Loaf of Wonder Bread

Jul 07, 2014 at 9:12 AM ET

As New Yorkers flock to the Whitney to salivate over yet another retrospective about a pompous white guy, the just-opened biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design includes a project that statistically confirms what any culturally-attuned person has known all along: The New York City art scene is as white as a country club in Greenwich, Connecticut. According to Census Report, a data project compiled by BFAMFAPhD—a collective concerned with “the impact of debt, rent, and precarity [sic] on the lives of creative people”—the city’s art world is 200 percent whiter than the rest of its population.

Led by the artists Vicky Virgin (an interdisciplinary artist and demographic analyst) and Julian Boilen (a creative technologist), BFAMFAPhD drew on data from the US Census Bureau’s 2010–2012 American Community Survey to examine the demographics of and burdens faced by artists working and living in New York City. Predictably, their findings do not paint a pretty picture. While the city’s population is only 33 percent white (non-hispanic), 74 percent of its art school graduates and 74 percent of those who make a living as artists are white. In other words, New York, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, is shamefully homologous when it comes to art.

Diversity isn’t the only issue. Artists are also pinching pennies far more than other professionals. According to Census Report, 85 percent of the artists living in New York City have to work non-arts-related day jobs, and of the few people with art degrees who can make their living as artists, their annual median earnings only amount to $25,000, half of that of other occupations. Because of this, 7.7% of practicing White artists, 13.3% of practicing Black artists, and 11.4% of practicing hispanic artists are living below the poverty line.

It probably doesn’t help than many art school graduates are also saddled with loan debt. “With elite art schools charging $120,000 for an art degree, and with tuition rising at public universities, both artists and culture are under threat,” writes BFAMFAPhD in an introduction to the report on their website. “If education and freedom of expression are human rights necessary for a democratic society, we must support artists who self-organize alternative institutions for art education while we struggle to retain the remaining institutions that provide free and low cost art education in this country.”

Nowhere is this elitism and white-washing more obvious than on the white walls of the city’s prominent art galleries. Of the 11 artists currently showing at David Zwirner’s group show, “Paintings on Paper,” Stanley Whitney, an African American painter, is the only non-white participant. At Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery, all seven artists whose works are currently on display are both white and male. And at Tonya Bonakdar’s group show, “The Bigger Picture,” which is a retrospective of the gallery’s most important works, all 19 artists whose work is on display are white.

And even if the occasional minority does make it onto the sacred walls of a major New York gallery, it’s not like the payoff is that great. “Experience and data indicate that few of us will get invited into elite racist and sexist institutions, and that even if we do, we will not receive enough financial capital…to repay our student loans or produce our work,” BFAMFAPhD writes. “Knowing this, we consider elite invitations with caution while building art worlds that we want to see.”