Two years ago I walked through the National Gallery of Art’s then-recently re-opened West Building American art galleries and noticed something strange: I’d walked into a remarkably narrow slice of American art. The NGA’s presentation of America’s art history started in the colonial period and went up to roughly Marsden Hartley — and its hanging included almost only white men. In 2009, 167 artworks were on view in the NGA’s American galleries. One hundred and sixty-five of them were made by white men. One was made by a black man, Joshua Johnson’s The Westwood Children (c. 1807, above) and there was a card indicating where a Harriet Hosmer was supposed to go. (I never did see that Hosmer installed and the registrar’s card was eventually removed.) One painting was unattributed.
Two years later, nothing’s changed. On a recent afternoon, I updated the count: There were 169 works on view in the NGA’s American galleries. All 169 were made by men. The fantastic Johnson was still on view, as was the unattributed painting. (There are artworks by American people of color and American women in the museum’s East Building modern and contemporary galleries.)
Two years ago I pointed out that there’s no art historical reason for the National Gallery of Art to present such an exclusive, country-club-style history of American art. Furthermore, the NGA is our National Gallery. Its operations and the maintenance on its buildings are substantially funded by the American taxpayers, including $111 million for operations in FY 2011, plus another $48 million for restoration and renovation of buildings. We deserve better.
Related: This 2009 post details some artists the NGA has excluded. Also, last year the Thomas Cole National Historic Site presented “Remember the Ladies,” a commercial dealer/gallery-affiliated exhibition of little-discussed women artists of the Hudson River School.