“African art as a discipline deserves better.”
April 12, 2018 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Brooklyn Museum Defends Its Hiring of a White Curator of African Art [The New York Times] “A recent decision by the Brooklyn Museum to hire a white person as an African art consulting curator has prompted opposition on social media and from an anti-gentrification activist group that argues the selection perpetuated “ongoing legacies of oppression.” In response to a letter from the group that stated its concerns, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said in a statement on Friday that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position.”

• Of Art and Plunder: Why Black Curators Are Still Shut Out of the Art World—and Why It Matters [The Root]
“And the Brooklyn Museum is hardly alone in having white curators oversee African art. While the last two directors of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art have been black, the museum has had only two other black curators in its 50-year history, Edward Burke, a spokesperson for the museum, told The Root. A source who has worked for the Smithsonian for several years confided that when diversity is brought up to higher-ups, it’s “discussed for seconds” before the conversation moves on. “How can you represent us if you don’t know us?” he asked. Across a number of creative industries, black creators have become ever more prominent. But as black creators and black culture have come to the fore, the machinery around them, art’s gatekeepers—its curators, its critics, its collectors, its gallery owners—remain starkly white. And that power dynamic has consequences.”
• Why are white curators still running African art collections? [The Guardian]
“The appointment of a white person to curate African art in Brooklyn naturally incited a critical response from people of color. This is an open letter addressed to the Brooklyn Museum regarding this controversy: It is not just that people who do not represent my identity and heritage are continually chosen to curate it, it’s that I know there are curators who are part of the African diaspora who are qualified and available. During a time like this politically and culturally it is tone deaf to appoint two new curators whose identity, experience, and gaze are already overrepresented in the art world. White curators are continually given a platform and power to determine how we engage with the continent of Africa and its artifacts in museums. Black Panther withstanding, there have been many critical conversations happening in the art world regarding inclusion and representation. Especially in New York City, but particularly in Brooklyn, where gentrification is an immediate issue.”
posted by Fizz (54 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Also for anyone who hasn't seen the film, here is the Black Panther "Killmonger Intro In Museum" scene that has been referenced a few times by various articles.
posted by Fizz at 10:03 AM on April 12, 2018 [29 favorites]

came for the Killmonger comment...
posted by supermedusa at 10:07 AM on April 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

came for the Killmonger comment...
"How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?" ~ Erik Killmonger
There's no denying that it is a powerful and thought-provoking comment/quote.
posted by Fizz at 10:14 AM on April 12, 2018 [23 favorites]

I'm not much of an art expert, but it seems to me that we have (1) an occupation (art curator) in which African-Americans are severely underrepresented, to the detriment of the field--glaringly so when the art in question is African, and (2) an incredibly competent and well-qualified white woman who has made African art her life's work. I want to fix the diversity and representation problem, but I'm not really comfortable saying "You, Dr. Windmuller-Luna, should not have this job in spite of your outstanding preparation for it, because you are white." Is it not possible to pro-actively recruit a more diverse group of future art curators without shutting other experts out of jobs due to their race? Or--I ask sincerely, since this isn't my field--does the greater good require that museums just refuse to hire white people to curate art from non-white regions, regardless of their credentials?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2018 [45 favorites]

My mother worked in the curatorial profession at a major urban art museum for a decade. The pay is terrible. If my dad hadn't had a stable middle class job, we either would have been destitute or she would have had to quit for something more lucrative, like driving a city bus. It's unfortunate that the aura of cultural prestige (see also: architecture and other art-adjacent fields) doesn't pay for groceries. Most everyone I know still in the field is either the child of a magnate or on their 4th consecutive post-doc. Which is all to say that the whole economics of curation is an omnishambles. Continued efforts to defund the NEA, NEH, IMLS, and other cultural organizations will just worsen the class and racial disparities.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2018 [23 favorites]

Maybe an ideal would have her assisting or in partnership with someone. You get her expertise combined with the important expertise of someone who knows the culture in a more intimate way.

I get that funding is limited, etc., but what I'm saying is that maybe it shouldn't be.
posted by amtho at 10:36 AM on April 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Hiring representative curators is very important, but I think these articles miss the key point that donors are the lifeblood of these organizations. As long as museum fundraising continues to rely on old money white people, they're going to remain the key drivers of thought and design. Diversity initiatives need to affect fundraising too, or we're not going to see much change here.
posted by backwards compatible at 10:37 AM on April 12, 2018 [20 favorites]

I think this issue is less than straightfoward. If representation is key here, the priority would be to hire an African curator, not an American, white or black (black Americans have no more epistemological priority when it comes to Africa than white Americans do to whatever European village their ancestors came from, which is to say: none). I agree completely that priority should be given to sub-saharan African-born art curators when it comes to curating sub-Saharan African art. I have no idea how hard that is to accomplish (how many PhDs in art history with a specialty in this area who were born in sub-Saharan Africa were available for this position?)

There should also be more black American art curators in general, but I would think this would be more crucial to curating American art collections, or art collections in general, than to African art per se. In any case, there is likely a supply problem, which Art History programs ought to be working to rectify. In the meantime, the Brooklyn Museum had to hire someone, and the person they hired seems eminently qualified... I dunno.

I get the outrage, but I have trouble pointing a finger here at the folks at the Brooklym Museum. I've been on faculty hiring committees with a specific priority to hire unrepresented populations and finding qualified candidates is a struggle simply because there are so few in the pipeline. We need to make an effort at all levels, but primarily starting at the high school, college and grad school levels...
posted by dis_integration at 10:39 AM on April 12, 2018 [33 favorites]

Ideally someone who represents the culture of that they're curating is optimal. But what if she really was the best applicant for the job? Should she have worked under a less qualified African American candidate for the sake of appearance?
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:41 AM on April 12, 2018

Is this real? An actual example of anti-white racism? Feels like spotting a unicorn. Agree with this entire bit from the linked article. Changes the title pull quote framing some I think.

"In its statement on Friday, the Brooklyn Museum included a reaction from Okwui Enwezor, the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar and arts leader, who called Dr. Windmuller-Luna “formerly a brilliant student of mine.”

“The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said. “There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better."

posted by anti social order at 10:52 AM on April 12, 2018 [20 favorites]

These discussions are hard, but they would be made a lot less difficult by hiring someone personally representative of the culture who also has the required skills. Are we to actually believe on the balance that the (presumably eminently qualified) chosen candidate was just that much better than any one who applied who had African heritage? And if there were even any Anfrican candidates who were close in qualifications, wouldn't hiring them not only send a message, but improve the abysmal representation of PoC in the art world? People don't get better at jobs if they're not given jobs to get better at.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:01 AM on April 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

less qualified African American candidate

it seems that the definition of "qualified" is part of what is at issue here. It's been all too easy to say that cultural competence should not be part of the list of qualifications.

But a museum, public or private, should probably not be excluding a particular demographic in Brooklyn if it wants to be the "Brooklyn museum", and it should take steps to rectify this. This probably won't be solved at the level of one particular hire, although recruitment and the problems of recruitment need to be discussed, urgently.

it's troubling to come across this phrase again and again, because too often "less qualified African American" is like a tautology in our racist society. It's always suspect. How are candidates being evaluated, are they really being evaluated for the position, or are they being evaluated on other criteria?
posted by eustatic at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2018 [19 favorites]

Of course this can backfire horribly if institutional support isn't there, witness the recent resignation of Angelique EagleWoman, who became first Indigenous dean of a Canadian law school, says efforts to bring meaningful change “thwarted” by Lakehead University.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm not really comfortable saying "You, Dr. Windmuller-Luna, should not have this job in spite of your outstanding preparation for it, because you are white."

I am. I'm extremely comfortable saying that. Like slipping on a well-worn pair of sneakers, because this buck-passing bullshit is as old as the fucking hills.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:05 AM on April 12, 2018 [27 favorites]

Sometimes I wish there were a White Nonsense Roundup for Metafilter.

First, as some of the articles point out, there *are* some "qualified" non-white candidates; and I'm guessing that a place like Brooklyn will have an easier time finding/hiring them--if the museum ever wanted to put in the effort--than, say, a museum in Montana (no offense, Montanans). So if museums aren't finding--and actively seeking--more diverse leaders/curators, we can clearly see how problem that the entire industry has been extremely slow to address. And it should be addressed. And maybe a museum in (arguably) one of the world's best art cities might decide they want to take the lead on it. Or maybe even work with people like the famous black person they rounded up to endorse their white curator to, you know, do a better job making the African art field in American less completely white and female.

Next, can we please put aside the super-disingenuous "what if the white person really was the best" line of racist argumentation that often puts aside issues that are driven by implicit bias and white supremacy, beginning with how one defines best and extending to what people think a curator should look like and what they do (hint: more of the same status quo, usually). So it's not actually about this particular woman who was hired--even with one famous black person's endorsement!-- it's about a museum continuing to be like most museums and happy to maintain the exclusionary status quo without seeming to consider at all how they are complicit in it. Again, see the failure to want to reflect about what communities these museums are serving and/or want to attract.
posted by TwoStride at 11:06 AM on April 12, 2018 [50 favorites]

From the NYT: Dr. Berns also stressed that the Brooklyn Museum job was advertised as a part-time position for a limited period. “It goes without saying that for many, this kind of employment is not practical,” she said.

I bet that's a huge part of it. To be able to take on a job like this -- and to have gotten the "impractical" degrees behind it, probably with unpaid internships -- involves risks that are much easier for white people to take.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:08 AM on April 12, 2018 [58 favorites]

Yeah I don't see the difficulty of basically enacting affirmative action here. And yes, this kinda even includes prioritizing nth-generation non-white Americans, meaning in this case any "Black American".

It's kind of white and offensive to raise "epistemic priority" and then ignore the epistemics of the local community, of the professional community, of the museum donors/sponsors, and most of all the psychocultural, racist erasure that an nth-generation person should be treated as a "default American" in this situation. I mean, that is exactly the legacy of racism and colonialism, the notion that people's historical connections can be severed and neutralized.
posted by polymodus at 11:09 AM on April 12, 2018 [17 favorites]

The Root article refers to a set of Mellon Foundation studies on museum diversity. In the profile of the Brooklyn Museum, they write:
In 2015, Ithaka S+R, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) set out to quantify with demographic data an issue that has been an increasing concern within and beyond the arts community: the lack of representative diversity in professional museum roles. Through the survey we found that 28 percent of museum staff were people of color (POC).

However, in the intellectual leadership positions, identified as educators, curators, conservators, and senior administrators, POC composed only 16 percent. Most of the racial/ethnic diversity within museums existed in facilities and security positions, indicating that aggregate statistics mask substantial differences across job types. When we looked specifically at the Brooklyn Museum, which employed 395 people in 2015, the total staff was 40 percent POC.

In roles we categorized as intellectual leadership, POC occupied 42 percent of the positions—a figure approaching the diversity of the borough, which is 48 percent POC. When we asked Arnold Lehman, director of the museum from 1998 to 2015, why the Brooklyn Museum was more diverse in these intellectual leadership positions, he noted that it hadn’t always been that way. During his tenure he had prioritized diversity in hiring and surrounded himself over time with staff who shared that value.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 11:21 AM on April 12, 2018 [14 favorites]

There's no denying that it is a powerful and thought-provoking comment/quote

Fizz, I feel that way about the whole scene. its incredibly powerful and an awesome moment of reclamation (in fantasy if not (yet) reality).
posted by supermedusa at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

it's troubling to come across this phrase again and again, because too often "less qualified African American" is like a tautology in our racist society.

I think you know what I meant in that context, it's clear enough. You don't need to twist it into some other meaning.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2018

representative of the culture

The culture of...Africa?

Africa has lots of cultures. And I bet the art on display represents many of them, across time, so many that framing this in terms of cultural connection to the culture that produced the art itself is kind of accidentally ceding ground to implicitly racist arguments.

It almost seems like the Brooklyn Museum insists on treating this art as though is it has no relationship to the world it exists in or the museum it currently inhabits. Like it’s comfortably dead and distant from its origins, so that it has no inconveniently potent meaning in the modern world.

And that’s just so very, so obviously, wrong. The meaning and significance of art changes with time, and it changes with the perspectives of the people who engage with it. To argue that the meaning of a piece of art taken from Africa and exhibited in a country with a history defined by its habit of taking people from Africa is independent of that context...I mean, I feel like the only way you can make that argument is if you’ve never seen those extra layers of meaning that context and history can give to an exhibition. So probably you are white.

The art is alive. It lives in the context of its own history, and the context of the society where it’s put on display. To get that right, you need a curator who can see all those layers of meaning.

(Edited to add words so a sentence made actual sense.)
posted by schadenfrau at 11:27 AM on April 12, 2018 [17 favorites]

The art is alive. It lives in the context of its own history, and the context of the society where it’s put on display. To get that right, you need a curator who can see all those layers of meaning.

Which would be who?
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:32 AM on April 12, 2018

less qualified African American

further on this, 'less qualified' always means that the candidate has had less approval and experience from and via institutions of knowledge. which brings up further questions like can you safely make the claim that African-American students have had a fair and equal chance of being allowed entry into these institutions? historically? that their wealth and their access to resources that would allow them entry to these institutions has been fair? historically? that these institutions have allowed African-Americans to be members in their fold at proportional rates? historically? and so on and so forth

anytime the claim of 'less qualified African-American' or really any person of color comes up, it's a phrase that signals 'I don't really understand what it means when oppression is systemic and pervasive.' a sufficient systems analysis is never limited to the proximate or microcosmic examples of the individuals involved; and to ignore a wider point of view is to believe that the actions and examples being set down now are not historical, that they have no impact on society at large, that they will not be testaments to our descendants of who we are now and what values we still cling to
posted by runt at 11:34 AM on April 12, 2018 [37 favorites]

To provide a little bit of context to the bigger picture: I spent about fifteen years working at museums in different administrative roles; I'm about to finish an M.A. in art history, and have been looking at trying to get back into the museum curatorial track.

And it's fucking *brutal*. You need at least an M.A. to get into the curatorial game, and even then you're at a disadvantage against people with Ph.D.s. I know that every program is different, but my M.A. program skewed overwhelmingly white. The people running the program desperately wanted to diversify it, but in the end they could only admit the people who applied, and the only people who applied were people who had the resources to chase a very non-lucrative graduate degree.

So there's two levels of grad school filter right upfront. Then there's a career ladder, just like anywhere else. Entry-level curatorial jobs (often structured as fellowships) don't pay for shit; two that I've looked at lately both paid about $30k a year, and that's in Minneapolis, which isn't a cheap place to live but also isn't nearly as expensive as other places you might be trying to climb the ladder. And remember, you're making that shitty money after finishing some form of grad school.

So I agree with everyone saying that the structure of the system is such that you can't really play the game unless you come from wealth or have a partner who can support you. And structural economic problems baked into the American system mean that most of the pipeline are going to be white. I think there's a really good argument for something along the lines of an affirmative action program at the level of museums' hiring practices, but I guess my bigger point is that the problem exists way upstream and the ideal would be to fix things there, too, in addition to at the hiring point.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 11:36 AM on April 12, 2018 [53 favorites]

And if there were even any Anfrican candidates who were close in qualifications, wouldn't hiring them not only send a message, but improve the abysmal representation of PoC in the art world?

I agree 100%. Just looking at Princeton's Art History department list of recent PhDs, I would hope they approached this guy and asked him if he was interested, and if he had any candidates in mind. And also that they asked other African experts in this area for candidate recommendations. If they didn't do that, then they failed in the duty I think they, and all of us, have, to improve the representation of poc and other underrepresented groups in any arena where we have the power to do so. If they really failed to do that work, then they should be ashamed.
posted by dis_integration at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Which would be who?

At the very least someone who would know enough about the cultural context to know that maybe black americans might have a different experience of the art and its exhibition than white americans, why that is, and what those experiences might be

Which does not appear to be anyone at the British Museum at present
posted by schadenfrau at 11:40 AM on April 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

"(black Americans have no more epistemological priority when it comes to Africa than white Americans do to whatever European village their ancestors came from, which is to say: none)"

Bull. SHIT.

White Americans do not have the same history of their, well, history being stolen from them. So I as a white person can roll into a "European" art gallery and find art made by people who I know shared culture with my ancestors. I know I have great-grandparents who came from Ireland and where and why, and Sicily and where and why and England and WHEN and why and so on. It's not the whole of the continent of Europe for me.

But my black former roommate? She only kind of knows that she had ancestors who were brought here and kind of from where and it is not a complete picture. If she goes to an art museum focusing on art from cultures she may have connections to, you damn well better believe it's a -better- experience for her if the curator shares her experiences, and in america, that means -a Black American-.

I get a laser pointer. She gets a flashlight.

Someone from an African country will not have the same understanding of what it means to have come from ancestors who were stolen, sold and whose cultures were stripped from them.. They may not have the same understanding of what it means to not know where your ancestors came from exactly. Africa is a big big big place. An art curator from Morocco and an art curator from Zambia are going to have different takes on art and culture and Africa.

But an art curator from here? They're going to get it. They're going to understand "I don't know where my family came from but this speaks to me." or "I don't know a lot about my family before my great-grandparents but my grandmother used to doodle this design on paper" or "Oh, my great-grandfather sang this song, I never knew where it came from"

(Furthermore it is racist to mono-culture Africans, Africa is a big place, and if you would not expect someone from Italy to be able to curate Finnish art, don't expect someone from one part of Africa to curate art from anywhere else)

You CAN. NOT compare the experiences of white Americans whose ancestors came from Europe to black Americans whose ancestors came from Africa because the narrative is radically different and if a museum's goal is to show, educate and promote art from African cultures to Americans, then yes, a Black American has priority.
posted by FritoKAL at 11:56 AM on April 12, 2018 [45 favorites]

Dr. Berns also stressed that the Brooklyn Museum job was advertised as a part-time position for a limited period. “It goes without saying that for many, this kind of employment is not practical,” she said.

This is kind of the problem with the whole nonprofit-industrial-complex. A part time temporary position is not one that’s fiscally possible for many people, especially people who don’t historically have a lot of wealth behind them.
posted by corb at 11:56 AM on April 12, 2018 [21 favorites]

In the Canadian high arctic near the Kane Basin there's an archaeological site found by Peter Schledermann (described in the May 1981 National Geographic and his book Voices in Stone). Excavation of the site started, but was then halted as the Canadian govt and newly formed territory of Nunavut agreed that further work on the site required representation by the Inuit to have a valid and meaningful interpretation of the site.
posted by parki at 12:00 PM on April 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

> schadenfrau:
"It almost seems like the Brooklyn Museum insists on treating this art as though is it has no relationship to the world it exists in or the museum it currently inhabits."

Unless the study I quoted above is pure baloney, this does not appear to be true.
But [Director of the museum from 1998-2015] Lehman’s perspective is that committing resources toward diversifying staff makes the institution more sustainable in the long term. He described what he sees as a likely scenario, wherein cultural institutions will no longer attract as much corporate support as they once enjoyed and will eventually need to rely more heavily on individual, municipal, and philanthropic funds: “They are going to look at their institutions, not just museums, but symphonies and theater companies, and they are going to say, ‘Let’s look at your board and staff and program. We’re a city that’s 60 percent made of people of color, and what are you doing? What world are you living in?’”



While [current Director] Pasternak is able to promote employees with nontraditional credentials to important leadership roles, managing the expectations of donors can be quite different. Pasternak acknowledged that at times there have been conflicts between the museum’s financial goals and its commitment to social justice. In one case she lost three donors over programming that included an event honoring the famous Black Power activist Angela Davis, depicted We Wanted a Revolution. When asked how museum directors can bridge these gaps and initiate conversations that may be uncomfortable, she explained, “Sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness not permission. Sometimes you put a seed out there and let it bloom later,” adding that you can’t invite board members who don’t support the museum’s mission, no matter how generous. In spite of the donor issues, the museum moved forward with the Angela Davis event.


Nontraditional Paths

One of the ways leadership influences staff diversity is in the determination of relevant credentials for hiring and promotion. In some cases the museum has looked for candidates with nontraditional backgrounds, such as the current director of education, Adjoa Jones de Almeida. Rather than museum education, her background is in community organizing. In our interview she quoted Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), a seminal book in the field of critical pedagogy that uses Marxist class analysis to promote a model of education emphasizing praxis. She believes that “it’s unlikely I would be in this position, given my time in the field, anywhere else. The interest in social justice is unique among encyclopedic museums.” She indicated that her view of pedagogy in the arts would be considered radical by most but that “my understanding of museum education makes sense here.”

Jones de Almeida described some challenges she has experienced in trying to raise awareness about the lack of minorities in art museums, saying the common refrain in the sector was that it was just “angry people of color bringing up this point over and over again.” The data from the Mellon Foundation’s 2015 museum demographic survey legitimized the issue to those who had previously been dismissive. She now teaches the survey results to her fellows and interns. Because of Pasternak’s willingness to promote someone with a nontraditional background, staff entering the field are being made aware of diversity issues at the start of their careers.
There are plenty of specifics available about the state of diversity at the Brooklyn museum, efforts and barriers, and comparisons to the rest of the museum world.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 12:11 PM on April 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

In case my previous comment wasn’t clear: if you want to competently curate an exhibition on African Art in America, I think you probably need an African-American curator.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:19 PM on April 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Adding a little more from personal experience: one of the best art museum curators I've ever known was a Native American Art curator who was an enrolled member of the A’aninin tribe and had basically learned curation and art history as he was growing up; his father was a pioneering Native art historian (in both senses; he was a Native American and he specialized in Native American art). I think everyone involved thought this was a great case someone inside a community curating that community's art.

After he left that museum to go work at the Smithsonian, he was replaced by a white woman, a Ph.D. who'd done her research living on the Navajo reservation. She has an advisory board of members of the local Ojibwe and Dakota communities, and she consults with them frequently; she's also really, really humble about listening to members of the community, and accepting what they say when they tell her she's wrong.

I think she also does a great job. I think it'd be awesome and fitting if the next person in that spot was native (in fact, I know a specific Lakota woman who should be the next person to have that spot), but I do think this is a good example of the right way to approach this kind of curatorial situation if you're white.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 12:38 PM on April 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

[A few comments removed. I don't think a from-first-principles argument about competing definitions of racism-as-systemic-and-power-driven vs. racism-as-any-race-based-prejudice is going to improve this thread a bunch, but in any case we definitely are not going to start down that road from a "there's no difference between {two scenarios where there are massive cultural contextual differences}" assertion as the starting point.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:44 PM on April 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

One more comment and then I'll shut up: another thing did occur to me. When you're moving through and out of art history grad school, you end up having to specialize, or at least choose some areas of deep focus. And what you specialize in limits what you can do after you graduate; if you focus on the Italian Renaissance, you aren't going to get a job curating a Modernist collection, ferinstance. So there's a definite interplay between what kind of art you study and what kind of job you can have afterwards.

I think we can all agree that it's extremely desirable that white art history students study African-American art (or African art, or art from any community that isn't white men).* I mean, if that doesn't happen, you functionally have an art history system where white students study white artists and everything else exists on the margins as a handful of nonwhite students study the work of their cultures, and nobody wants that. But in a world where white students are encouraged to study African art, the mechanics of the art world *require* that they have at least a chance of employment in that field. I don't think this is an argument against an institutional preference for hiring curators from nonwhite communities to cover that community's art; but I do think it's a very solid argument against an absolutist position that no white person should ever hold such a position.

*for what it's worth, I had kind of a soft specialization in art of the African diaspora, but I, personally, wouldn't be comfortable taking a run at a theoretical position of Curator of African American Art. But that's just me, definitely not a blanket position.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 12:55 PM on April 12, 2018 [31 favorites]

So here's the question I have, why is it, in one of the more diverse cities in American, in a neighborhood like Brooklyn, can you not find young people of color who want to go into the museum world?

This thread points out one of the big failings of the system.

"While studying art & art history at Brooklyn college, I applied to different internship at the museum. I would either get rejection letters or wouldn't hear back from anyone. This frustrated me because I had no idea why I couldn't get an opportunity at my neighborhood museum...
Then I decided to go to the museum dressed for an interview with my resume & spoke to someone at visitor services, a brotha & a familiar face. I knew he would listen to my concern. I began telling him (mostly rambling) that I needed to speak to someone about an opportunity"

Short answer, it's not because there aren't people of color who are interested in arts and museums, it's because we (as white people and as institutions) continue to not consider them for positions. I guarantee there are qualified individuals for the Brooklyn position that didn't go to an Ivy League school or don't have all the bells and whistles of privilege.

It's an issue we have in the library world and one of those perennial discussions that we have and are unwilling to make any real effort to solve.
posted by teleri025 at 1:03 PM on April 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm not sure about whether or not she is best qualified as a curator, but as an artist, this new installation at the Brooklyn Museum is a great commentary on the play of race, sex, appropriation, education, and social safety nets within America. Provocative!
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:11 PM on April 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

But in a world where white students are encouraged to study African art, the mechanics of the art world *require* that they have at least a chance of employment in that field; but I do think it's a very solid argument against an absolutist position that no white person should ever hold such a position.

I think this is a strong argument in a world where the effects of systemic racism weren't so strongly disfavoring people of color, particularly black folks, and very much particularly in the world of art

it's never a good rule to delineate anything absolutely by race or ethnicity, especially if you're an institution of power. but the argument here is that the practice of keeping people of a certain race or ethnicity out of these institutions of power is already in effect and has, more or less, been in effect for centuries now, both overtly so and subversively

so while I, like you, personally would not draw such absolute lines, there is a very strong, reparations-focused argument for going beyond just affirmative action. this is where many folks who are more directly suffering from the effects of past discrimination are coming from
posted by runt at 2:41 PM on April 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

In a perfect world, we’d have White curators working with African art, African-American curators working with Chinese art, Chinese-American curators working with Renaissance European art, African curators working with Modern American art, and Carribean curators working with ancient Egyptian art. Students of all backgrounds would be supported to study whatever speaks to them loudest, and there would be jobs to support them in their passions.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:59 PM on April 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

On reread: To be clear, I'm not am artist - the board for the museum is acting as an artist by their selection.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:31 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

In addition to all of the barriers to entry to pursuing graduate study in art history (which the phlegmatic king has summarized pretty thoroughly), I think it bears pointing out that working as a curator, with museum collections, has additional barriers to entry stacked on top of those that make it the pursuit of the most mind-bogglingly fortunate subset of people in what is already a socioeconomically homogeneous professional community. The pipeline described above is what gets people the degrees that are now the minimum educational requirement for this kind of work, but in order to land a high-profile curatorial job, you also have to demonstrate that you have worked with collections of art, preferably in a museum setting. Those opportunities tend to be concentrated in areas with extraordinarily high costs of living, and the kinds of positions that allow a person to get a foot in the door and gain that kind of firsthand experience are often in the form of part-time or limited-term work or unpaid internships that might not even be possible to pursue at the same time that you're pursuing your graduate education, or (if you have financial support) unfunded Master's degree programs in something like museum or curatorial studies. It's layers of [un-/undercompensated labor in art institutions] upon [socioeconomic obstacles to graduate study in the humanities].
posted by Anita Bath at 4:30 PM on April 12, 2018 [14 favorites]

I think most African art exhibits should be curated by people with connections to Africa, but I'm not comfortable with saying that all African art exhibits everywhere must be curated by black people. It's unreasonable and prevents an entire group of people from accessing a profession.

I think there should be more women politicians, too, but I don't get mad at every single individual male politician.

It seems to me that the greater issue is that curating an art museum at this level requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in education at expensive private schools, and will never pay anywhere near enough to pay back loans on that amount, so it's limited to children of the very rich. (Myself, I couldn't imagine doing any job where the primary qualification was that I had rich parents, but clearly not everyone self-selects in that way.)

You could imagine art museums starting a program to systematically hire diverse candidates from local state schools and bringing in voices from the community to contribute their perspectives. It would probably take more than one medium-sized art museum to change the entire system though.
posted by miyabo at 9:11 PM on April 12, 2018

It seems like what's going on here is the inadequacy of the reformist/consumer-driven discourse about curatorship, and that's a classic case of how it fails everywhere.

-There is a general consensus that it would be desirable to have more curators of color, but there is no mechanism to make this happen; there is also hostility to the idea on the part of donors and people with actual money.

-There is no mechanism to grapple with the materiality of racism. Situations like this one become referendums on how we feel about the idea of having curators of color, or professors of color, or research scientists of color.

- Kind of like polymodus was implying upthread, we are still in the paradigm of "race is this thing we escape from or transcend", where it's impossible to come out and say, "not only is it morally desirable to have curators of color, but we should affirmatively seek to hire curators of color specifically because they are curators of color.

"We" (for some value of "progressive politically engaged people") have ended up shying away from affirmative stuff about race, because we've been dealing with this very American "equal and opposite" discourse that goes "if you're allowed to say that anti-racism is actively good, I should be allowed my equal and opposite opinion that racism is good". Rather than being able to say, "we should affirmatively consider race, and it is never legit to be racist", we've gotten pulled into this "we should avoid talking about race and aim for abstract notions of equality".

How is this for a proposal? If we ever get an actual progressive government, a social democratic government, whatever, let's have affirmative action again. At the state level, let's create requirements and mechanisms for institutions to affirmatively fund and hire people of color. Obviously this won't be perfect and will require a great deal of policy-writing so that it is truly fair to multiracial people, includes indigenous people, takes class into account, etc etc. And obviously any progressive government worth its salt would dramatically expand educational and employment access for everyone. But we know that structural racism is such that we need programs that are affirmatively targeted toward race - fixing things "for everyone" skews toward fixing them for white people if specific steps aren't taken.

What if we had an expanded NEA, for instance, which provided fellowships to underrepresented people? What if there were federal funding streams available for museums specifically for hiring curators of color, so that hiring curators of color was actually an economic positive for a museum and museums could tell racist donors to go screw? What if there were requirements that museums receiving federal funding had to have a plan to [whatever kind of hiring diversity makes sense in the particular field/region]? What if these plans really had teeth?

I mean, obviously this is a hard problem, but if we're going to have a state at all, why not use its coercive power? Otherwise we're left begging the 1% to let us have nice things, or competing for the decreasing dollars of the 99%, right?
posted by Frowner at 4:17 AM on April 13, 2018 [14 favorites]

"Someone from an African country will not have the same understanding of what it means to have come from ancestors who were stolen, sold and whose cultures were stripped from them.. They may not have the same understanding of what it means to not know where your ancestors came from exactly."
Imposing foreign African American narratives onto African cultures is no less imperialist than imposing foreign White American narratives, and reflects a colonialist impulse with precious few differences.

As countries in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to gain more economic, political, cultural, and academic sovereignty in spite of the West's best efforts, Americans are going to have access to more than just American perspectives on Africa and this is going to be an incredibly good thing. Africa is a gigantic place filled with 1.2 billion people whose perspectives on the art they are making now, as well as the art stolen from ancestors they have tangible connections to, are a hell of a lot more relevant to those pieces than the perspectives of 40 million Americans no matter how comparatively wealthy they might be. Justice for the African art in the Brooklyn Museum won't make it just a backdrop for a different American story, but will place it in the context of a real place inhabited by real people with cultures that are theirs who still exist.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:23 AM on April 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

I sort of feel like the very fact that she accepted this position is disqualifying.
posted by yaymukund at 4:39 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lol all the white people in this thread being like “maybe they couldn’t find upper middle class black curators in Brooklyn / who could afford to live in Brooklyn.” Have you been here? This describes like 10% of the borough on any given day. I assure you there are even black people here with degrees from Ivy’s.
posted by dame at 4:41 AM on April 13, 2018 [17 favorites]

We expect the museum to take extraordinary measures to address the public concern surrounding this specific hiring decision, and, in doing so, to resist falling back on the default criterion of Ivy-League expertise that by its very nature is biased towards white scholars. But we also believe that the current crisis calls for a more wide-ranging, structural response. We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.

Oh wow, please read the letter by Decolonize Brooklyn Museum if you haven't already. It's fantastic. It describes the sort of accountability we should be asking of all our racist institutions, from tech companies to government organizations.
posted by yaymukund at 5:04 AM on April 13, 2018 [10 favorites]

Oh yeah that letter is so good and really points out the specific local issues around the response.
posted by dame at 5:41 AM on April 13, 2018

Dame, that was my point. The very fact that there is a museum in Brooklyn that has a professional staff of mostly white folks is proof that institutional racism is real and a true problem.
posted by teleri025 at 7:13 AM on April 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Timely: New Orleans Museum of Art is looking for a Curator of African Art. If you know anyone who should take a crack at it, send 'em this link.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 7:29 AM on April 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The better indication of institutional racism is the demographic makeup of academic programs. At the undergraduate level the statistics for degrees in Art History, Criticism, & Conservation are 70% white and 2.5% black. At the PhD level (via a 2003 survey, can't find more recent), it's 94% white and 1% black. You know, rather than Brooklyn Museum's Educators, Curators, Conservators, and Senior Administrators being 58% white and 42% non-white (14% black).

I don't doubt that problems extend beyond the "pipeline," but it would be nice if discussion could be grounded in what the BM is and isn't doing. Otherwise the FPP might as well have been "Institutional racism: discuss."

Is there nothing interesting in the Mellon studies I quoted, for better or worse? Or in Target First Saturdays? Or the much-decried "Bronx Is Burning" party? Or in Steven Nelson's comments? Or in Stephanie Cunningham (BM's audience engagement specialist teleri025 linked to) and her work with Museum Hue?
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 9:18 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thinking about some of Frowner's suggestions - the most significant federal underwriting that most museums receive is in the form of tax exemptions for the museums themselves and the different nonprofit foundations that fund their activities or oversee day-to-day operations. Positive federal funding, in comparison, is a rounding error.* Making those tax exemptions dependent upon the kinds of measures that people have described here would be more immediately impactful (I can almost hear the howling now) and wouldn't require reallocations of existing funding. And, as a bonus, making tax-exempt status dependent upon affirmative hiring measures would have an enormous impact on the the rest of the nonprofit industrial complex, too!

*For comparison, in 2017, the operating expenses of the Getty (see page 140; note that those numbers are in thousands) and the Met (see page 78) were each about twice the NEA's entire operating budget ($150 million).
posted by Anita Bath at 9:32 AM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

If we're going to seriously talk about decolonizing arts institutions, we really need to look at what decolonizing funding practices would look like.

The vast majority of funding goes to the largest institutions.

From an article about a study on this in Philanthropy News Digest:
"In 2016, for instance, the 2 percent of U.S. arts groups with budgets of at least $5 million received 58 percent of total gifts, grants, and donations, an increase of 5 percentage points over the past decade. The report also found that the 8 percent of arts organizations with budgets between $1 million and $5 million received 21 percent of total funding, while the 90 percent with budgets under $1 million — about a quarter of which focus on African, Asian, Latin American, Native American, and Middle Eastern art forms and cultural traditions — shared the remaining 21 percent, a decline of 4 percentage points."
There are a lot of reasons for this. Some are mentioned in the article and are correlated issues around institutional racism. Most funding sources are not designed for smaller organizations. There's a level of work that goes both into the grant writing process and the metric keeping process that keeps smaller organizations, including organizations of color, completely out of the funding cycle. If your organization is volunteer led or only has one employee, often times the amount of work that goes into writing and tracking a grant is not worth the effort. If an organization is larger, they have people on staff who only do this work. For example, an arts organization that I work with made the decision not to seek funding from a specific funder because they require an audit and the cost of an audit would be more than the funding than they would receive. That isn't a consideration for larger organizations. They have the capacity for an audit and that leads to more available funds. There are real reasons why people want audits and metrics in funding -- so they can prove to their donors or taxpayers that the money is well-spent -- but it also perpetuates a larger inequality in the funding stream. At the time, an independent audit would cost the organization $5,000 and they were on a budget of less than $50,000 a year. That takes a large chunk of money from program expenses as well.

Most organizations are not part of a non-profit industrial complex. It's your local heritage museum. It's the tiny culture specific theatre or dance company. The folks running these places are doing it while being vastly underpaid and often working multiple other jobs. Which also feeds into the other issues around equity and institutional racism brought up earlier in this thread.

If we're really looking at decolonizing arts funding (and I think we should), then we also need to take a look what organizations are receiving arts funding and why. It isn't just racist donors who only donate to culturally white organizations. It's an entire system that is built on inequality. I've said this elsewhere -- I don't know what equality looks like within the arts world without equality in the entire world.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 10:32 AM on April 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

NPR gives an overview of this case and the attendant problems, and I found it notable that What people should really be up in arms about, Nelson says, is the fact that "there were eight reasonably high-profile hires in the art world over the last couple of weeks, and that seven of those eight are white people." (One is Asian-American.) "No one batted an eye about that," he says.
posted by TwoStride at 10:06 PM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

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