The Big Idea: A Racial Reckoning
It was a rocky year for the art world. The pandemic forced museums and galleries to close for months on end. Long-planned exhibitions were delayed. Revenues from ticket sales, galas and membership dues were lost. When museums did reopen, they operated with reduced attendance.
But the novel coronavirus was only one culprit in the institutions’ illness. As the death of George Floyd ushered in Black Lives Matter protests in cities large and small, night after night, pent-up frustrations over racial inequality in virtually every facet of American life erupted. And the great art museums, which fancy themselves bastions of progressive values, were no exception.
Many museums have recently made strides in diversifying their exhibition programs and collections. (In this space last year, we applauded those efforts.) But paradoxically, staff members charged that institutional racism kept their leadership ranks disproportionately white and frequently poisoned the workplace.
This time, outrage began to have an impact, as prominent figures fell from grace. At the Guggenheim Museum, a guest curator accused chief curator Nancy Spector of treating her in a racist manner. Current and former staff complained of systemic racism at the museum, which did not hire a full-time Black curator until 2019, 60 years after its founding. Though a law firm hired by the Guggenheim cleared Spector, she resigned, and was replaced with the first Black person to hold the position, rising star Naomi Beckwith.
At a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staff meeting, longtime senior curator Gary Garrels was defending the continued consideration of white male artists when he cited the need to avoid “reverse discrimination.” Ironically, Garrels championed making the collection more inclusive and had acquired pieces by Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, among other artists of color, with the proceeds from the sale of a Rothko. But an uproar ensued over his use of the loaded term, which is associated with foes of the civil-rights movement, and Garrels, too, resigned.
Virtually no institution was unscathed. Directors at museums in Cleveland and Detroit left under clouds, though a powerful curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art held on to his job after deriding those in favor of removing white-supremacist monuments as “revolutionary zealots”—on Juneteenth, no less.
The gaffe that perhaps best illustrated museums’ often lackluster attempts at progress occurred at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which planned an exhibition about protest art. But its method of collecting examples—from charity sales meant for the Black community, rather than with customary fees—infuriated the artists as a tone-deaf continuation of institutional degradation of Black artists. At least the museum was consistent: It asked neither for artists’ permission to display their works nor for their input before promptly canceling the show.