Artist Mark Grotjahn Declines Museum Honor Over Diversity Concerns

The art world suffers from a lack of diversity.

Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.

The “save the date” invitations were in the mail when the news struck. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles had already sent out invites to their May gala when the presumptive honoree, artist Mark Grotjahn, announced he would no longer accept the award. The last three honorees were all straight, white male artists: Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari. So in a move to encourage more diversity, Grotjahn — also a straight, white male artist — declined the prestigious MOCA honor.

While Grotjahn has not talked to the press about his decision to reject the honor, the Los Angeles Times published an email sent by the artist to the MOCA board co-chair Maurice Marciano. “Since the day you extended your invitation to me, our country and the world have changed in ways that were difficult to anticipate,” writes Grotjahn, who had agreed to the honor last year. “There is a new urgency to change the power dynamic and we have an opportunity to do so.”

Grotjahn isn’t the only artist rethinking his relationship to the museum. Even more recently, artist Lari Pittman resigned from his seat on MOCA’s board. Pittman, who is a gay, Latino man, says his requests for more diversity within the institution have fallen on deaf ears. Pittman, who alleges he and other board members weren’t consulted about the museum’s choice of honoree, has cited a lack of inclusiveness as the main reason for his departure. Other regional institutions have honored diverse artists recently, including the Hammer Museum, which honored black filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s commemoration of artist Mark Bradford, who is black and gay.

For most museums, their annual gala is typically the largest fundraising event they host each year. The Met’s 2017 gala brought in $12 million, and MOCA’s own gala is a big ticket affair, with prices ranging from $2,500 for individuals and $10,000 for a table. While MOCA’s gala first debuted in 2001, the practice of honoring individual artists is relatively new, beginning with John Baldessari in 2015. According to Deborah Vankin at L.A. Times, museums are relying on bigger names to ensure a sold-out crowd.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There is a new urgency to change the power dynamic and we have an opportunity to do so[/quote]

Yet, the question of who to honor at the annual gala isn’t a new one. Artnet News reported recently that photographer Catherine Opie, whose work often focuses on portraiture in the S&M community, was initially chosen as the 2017 honoree but the museum ultimately honored Koons instead. While the museum declined to comment on what prompted the switch, the L.A. Times reports the decision was influenced in part by Koons’ philanthropy to the museum, tallying $5 million over five years.

While the art world is often seen as a bastion of progressive ideals, it suffers from a lack of diversity both on gallery walls as well as in boardrooms and backrooms. A 2014 study by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that women hold less than half of the art museum directorships, and when they do, they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts.

A 2015 report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was only slightly more optimistic. The study found that “progress is likely to be swifter and easier on gender equality than on minority representation” as women increasingly filled positions in curatorial, conservation, and educational roles, creating a future pipeline for museum leadership.

However, the report was less sanguine when it came to increasing racial diversity in museum staffs. The research found that staff from historically underrepresented minorities was level at around 27%. The study concluded promotion protocols that emphasized diversity weren’t enough if there wasn’t also an overall increase in the percentage of historically underrepresented minorities on museum staff.

The lack of diversity in the art world is fodder for institutional critiques, not just by artists such as Grotjahn, but also artists such as Micol Hebron. Launched in 2013, “Gallery Tally” is a collaborative art project led by Hebron that tracks women’s representation in art galleries. After putting out a call for artists to illustrate the male-to-female ratios at commercial galleries, Gallery Tally was born.

Nearly five years later, over 2,000 artists have submitted posters surveying gender inequality in New York and Los Angeles galleries. Not surprisingly, the numbers still weigh heavily in men’s favor, according to Hebron, with most gallery rosters averaging 70% male. For Hebron, who applauds the stance both Grotjahn and Pittman have taken, Grotjahn’s refusal to accept the honor could have gone further. “I would have loved to have seen him reject it outright when they first offered it to him,” she explains. “He also could have insisted that they give a show to a woman of color. He doesn't need the exposure or the validation (and value increase) that an exhibition will afford him at this point.”

Artists aren’t the only ones calling for greater diversity. Policymakers are also starting to take notice. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio took the unusual step of requiring New York’s cultural institutions to increase diversity among their staff and leadership or risk losing some of their city funding. Beginning this fall, the 33 museums and arts groups located on city property will submit diversity, inclusion, and equity plans in order to receive municipal funding.

Meanwhile, MOCA has said it will reconsider its plans for the gala and expects to make further announcements in a few weeks. When GOOD asked about the controversy, a spokesperson for the museum declined to comment.

The museum is still planning a Mark Grotjahn retrospective in 2020.

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