THE DIVERSITY OF ARTISTS IN MAG's PERMANENT COLLECTION

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ACQUISITIONS

The following data shows acquisitions made only through purchase over five fiscal years, from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2021. Gifts and bequests of art are not represented. The first two charts show acquisitions by artists of color* and white artists. The second two charts show acquisitions by gender. Identifying gender and race and ethnicity for all artists has been done when known, and to the best of the museum’s knowledge.

*Races and ethnicities included under “Artists of Color”: American Indian/Alaskan Native, Black/African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern.

Number of Works Purchased By Artists of Color

Donut chart showing 46% of purchases were of works by white artists and 54% were works by artists of color

Percentage of Total Funds Spent On Acquisitions By Artists of Color

Donut chart showing that, of money spent on acquisitions, 35% went towards works by white artists and 65% towards works by artists of color.

Number of Acquisitions by Gender

Donut chart showing 31% of purchases were of works by female artists, 61% were works by male artists, and 8% were works by artists of unknown gender.

Percentage of Total Funds Spent by Gender

Donut chart showing that, of money spent on acquisitions, 79% went towards works by male artists, 19% towards works by female artists, and 2% towards works by artists of unknown gender.

A REPORT ON THE PERMANENT COLLECTION (OCTOBER 2021)

This report reflects upon the MAG’s permanent collection, including its historical development and future direction. It is intended to assist in building a framework for some of the museum’s key collecting and interpretation priorities as established by our strategic plan, specifically strategic initiatives one and two, which may be downloaded by clicking HERE.

In order to advance MAG’s strategic plan, we must:

  1. Acknowledge and make transparent the historical and structural inequities inherent in the Western museum as an institution founded in colonial, white, Eurocentric, and patriarchal systems.
  2. Develop a shared understanding between MAG staff, Board, and stakeholders for the responsible collecting, cataloging, interpretation, and installation of MAG’s cultural collections of Indigenous art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania in the context of ongoing efforts to consider the impact of colonialism and its legacies of violence and displacement implicit within museum collections.
  3. Develop an intersectional approach to the collection and related installations, exhibitions, and scholarship that embodies a shared commitment to the diverse communities of our region and city. Acquisitions, installations, and exhibitions should be inclusive and reflective of Indigenous, Black, and Latinx artists; reflect a diversity of gender identity, ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status; and encompass a non-hierarchical approach to the outdated but seemingly entrenched art-craft divide.

THE PAST

For over 100 years, MAG staff and board have worked to create a so-called encyclopedic collection, as founder Emily Sibley Watson established in 1913, “for the edification and enjoyment of the citizens of Rochester.” The museum’s collections of European and American art are the most robust, with the second floor mainly dedicated to European art, and the first floor mainly to American art.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE SECOND-FLOOR GALLERIES
(ORIGINAL 1913 BUILDING AND 1927 ADDITION)

In a traditional art historical model, MAG’s second-floor galleries begin with an ancient gallery that showcases Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian works, highlighted with a set of painted Egyptian coffins that occupy the center of the gallery. The adjacent medieval gallery includes textiles, sculpture, painting, and metalwork from early European Christendom. Newly conserved tapestries are among the highlights of the Renaissance Gallery, and the adjacent Fountain Court features Baroque paintings and sculpture, including works by Anthony van Dyck, El Greco, and Luca Giordano. The 17th-century gallery showcases Old Master painting and decorative arts from The Netherlands and Flanders; many come from the private collection of Kodak founder George Eastman. The 18th-century collection is strong in British, French, and Swiss portraiture including works by Thomas Gainsborough, Hyacinthe Rigaud, and Angelica Kauffmann, while the 19th- and early 20th-century gallery features work from the Barbizon and Hague schools. In the adjacent 19th-century gallery are masterpieces by modern painters such as Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, and Edouard Vuillard. The nearby Asian Art gallery showcases the museum’s representative collection of paintings, sculpture, and applied arts of the multiple eras and cultures of East and South Asia. A few steps away, the At the Crossroads gallery brings together a small group of works from the ancient Middle East and the Islamic world. This gallery, installed in 2008, incorporated Islamic works of art into the permanent collection display for the first time. Select works, including a Quran and an Islamic calligraphic architectural frieze from India, were acquired to better contextualize this initiative.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST-FLOOR GALLERIES (1960s AND 1980s BUILDING ADDITIONS)

The first-floor galleries begin with the American collection from the colonial period, progressing through the 19th century and into the present day. Highlights of the collection include 19th and 20th century masterpieces of American landscape and realist painting, with paintings by Asher B. Durand, Winslow Homer, and Lilly Martin Spencer; early 20th-century works of realism and modernism, including masterpieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Sloan; a major collection of sculptures by Gaston Lachaise; and late-20th century masterworks by Josef Albers, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Isamu Noguchi, and Jackson Pollock. MAG’s folk and applied arts include early Rochester-area portraits by itinerant artists, vernacular sculpture, trade signs and weathervanes, as well as a Grandma Moses landscape. Works of contemporary craft art are exhibited in cases nearby.

The current Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas gallery brings together cultural objects created for both ceremonial and everyday use, including a major work by Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise. A unique set of problems with this gallery is at the heart of MAG’s current collection planning; it is addressed in greater detail below in 2020–2025 IN FOCUS: PROBLEMS IN MAG’S CULTURAL COLLECTIONS OF INDIGENOUS ART OF THE AMERICAS, AFRICA, AND OCEANIA.

WORKING TO REDRESS THE IMBALANCES

Like most museums founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries throughout the U.S., MAG’s collections placed the arts of Europe and upper-class America at the forefront. A product of their time, these collections were to a great extent shaped by the historical inequities created by systemic colonialism, racism, and sexism. One result is the omission or marginalization of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), women, and LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) artists.


2015–2020 IN FOCUS: IMPROVEMENTS IN CONTEMPORARY ART
The efforts made by MAG staff in recent decades to better balance the collection with women artists, BIPOC artists, and LGBTQ+ artists took on even greater urgency in 2015. That year, MAG’s strategic plan established the collections-specific objectives to strengthen the museum’s contemporary holdings and to build, balance, and interpret the collection to reflect the museum’s diverse and expanding audience as reflected in the Rochester community. Acquisitions during this period were intended not only to enhance the diversity of artists represented by race, but also by gender identity, ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status. The contemporary galleries on the first floor feature a number of these recent acquisitions. An additional contemporary collecting focus extended historical and aesthetic narratives already present in the collection. This initiative continues to be advanced by juxtaposing contemporary work with historical material in our permanent collection galleries.

Artists whose work was acquired from 2015–2020 include Nick Cave, George Condo, Beauford Delaney, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Sam Gilliam, Hung Liu, Nam June Paik, Grayson Perry, Judith Schaechter, and Mickalene Thomas. The Media Arts Watch initiative to jumpstart and develop the museum’s collection of media art added examples by Charles Atlas, Ja’Tovia Gary, Kalup Linzy, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Sondra Perry, and Bill Viola. The MAW initiative importantly also showcased two major commissions by Javier Téllez and Isaac Julien.


To become an arts institution that fairly represents our community, MAG must move from the traditional model of an “encyclopedic collection” to a 21st-century global universal museum. We must excavate and expose the structural biases that have defined the way we have collected and displayed (or failed to collect and display) the work of various people and cultures for much of our history. This includes rethinking the outdated hierarchy of what is referred to as fine art (sculpture and painting) and applied art (decorative arts and craft) in the art historical model. MAG must expose, acknowledge, and address these biases, clearly manifest in the makeup of the permanent collection of more than 13,000 objects.

MAG’s last strategic plan (2015–2020) identified the need to build, balance, and interpret MAG’s collection to reflect our diverse and expanding audience. According to the present strategic plan (2021–2025), the museum continues to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the permanent collection, and to consider the areas in which it can improve its approach to collecting, displaying, and interpreting art. Only by establishing this as an institutional priority, with the requisite dedicated financial and human resources, will the museum make significant progress in this endeavor.


2021–2025 IN FOCUS: PROBLEMS IN MAG’S CULTURAL COLLECTIONS OF INDIGENOUS ART OF THE AMERICAS, AFRICA, AND OCEANIA
For much of MAG’s history, the collections of Indigenous art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania were considered “ethnographic” or “tribal” in nature, with these collections displayed together in the same gallery since the late 1980s. As is true for many museums, grouping the art of Africa, Oceania, Ancient America, and Native America together frames these cultures through an anthropological “tribal” lens rather than the aesthetic one applied to the arts of the Western canon. This grouping of objects from disparate cultures across the globe—a museological tradition both artificial and problematic—is a consequence of the colonialist and Eurocentric ideas threaded throughout the Western art historical framework. In addition, at MAG these collections are “othered” by methods of display, interpretation, as well as their placement in the museum in a single, side gallery on the first floor adjacent to the American galleries.

Of the 149 objects on view in MAG’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas gallery (or AOA gallery), 61 were gifted to the museum and 88 were purchased, mainly between the 1940s and 1970s. This collecting effort in the mid-20th century was made with the goal of building an encyclopedic collection from which the history of art and artistic civilizations could be taught. What has resulted are limited and fairly static collections that retain the assumptions, limitations, and omissions of the traditional Western art historical model. The classification of objects as utilitarian because they are used in either ritual practices or in everyday life has historically detracted from their significance as artworks that develop out of robust and powerful artistic traditions. There are ways to discuss the ritual use of these objects that also link them to broader artistic traditions and movements, placing them in wider visual arts contexts.

The static quality of the collections of Indigenous art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania creates a false sense of stalled cultures, presenting a seeming disunity between Indigenous people and modernity. This is further reinforced by MAG’s expansive American and European collections, which have grown over the years owing to dedicated curatorial expertise and financial resources. MAG is committed to interrogating and addressing these issues and prioritizing solutions. A dedication of staff and financial resources, more robust contextualization, repatriation efforts, putting historical objects in conversation with each other in new ways and with contemporary artworks, as well as rethinking the placement of objects within the museum, can better represent the artworks and the cultures in which they were created.