Sunday, October 24, 2021

Does the Ethnicity of the Artist or the Sitter Matter?

I have earth shattering news today … the world has changed! The last place you usually find that happening is in our art museums.

I learned a new term reading my art blogs … at least it was new to me. That is BIPOC, i.e., artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color … The topic of this particular article in Artnet News was that museums are becoming more “woke” and listening to the public outcry to acquire art by BIPOC artists and portraits of BIPOC subjects.

Don’t know about you but to think that way never dawned on me … Should it have? When I go to a museum and like a painting, I will look at the label to learn the name of the artist and never think what race they are. I sometimes think of it in 20th and 21st century art because of the subject matter or style so I become convinced that the artist must be a Black or Hispanic, but when I look up that individual, I am often wrong.

I totally understand that every group wishes to be recognized but at the same time don’t they want to be recognized as great artists and not great (fill in your ethnicity) artists? From a personal point of view, I would feel if I were referred to as a great Jewish artist, I would think does that mean I am a great artist considering that I am a Jew?

In the article I was reading Brian Boucher, a well know writer on the arts, praised the Metropolitan Museum for its bold, trail-blazing purchase of Diego Velazquez’ (1599-1660)painting of person less exalted than the subjects of his royal commissions- Juan de Pareja, an enslaved artist’s assistant of mixed blood.

I didn’t remember reading anything of the sort at the time, so I looked up what the New York Times had to say. John Canaday, chief art critic for the Times wrote about the acquisition, May 13, 1971. Why?... because of the price, $5,500,000, then a record for any work at auction. He also mentioned the deal the Museum made with the art dealers, Wildenstein to acquire the picture for them. The Met defended the expenditure in a news conference where the President of the Board, Douglas Dillon, and the Director, Thomas Hoving, assured the public that the funds had been given years before specifically for acquiring works of art. Canaday also mentioned the conservation and cleaning of the painting by Hubert von Sonnenberg, that had revealed the unexpected subtlety of the colors and also that the edge of the canvas had been folded under so the painting was even larger than had been thought. In the article the work was identified as “Velazquez’s portrait of his Moorish assistant, Juan de Pareja” without another word about the subject’s race. Here is a photo of the period showing Hoving, Dillon and Juan!

Of course, our museums should acquire works by Black, Hispanics, Asian, Native American and every other ethnicity you can think of within the framework of the institution’s collecting mission, but they should not do it just for the sake of doing so but rather because the work is of great quality by an artist that they believe in and that their audience will/should appreciate.

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