Curators urge Guggenheim to fix culture that 'enables racism'

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Curators urge Guggenheim to fix culture that 'enables racism'
The exterior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, July 15, 2019. Curators at the Guggenheim Museum sent its leadership a letter Monday, June 22, in which they urged it to reform a culture that, they said, “enables racism.” Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A letter signed “The Curatorial Department” of the Guggenheim Museum was sent Monday to the institution’s leadership, demanding immediate, wholesale changes to what it described as “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”

“We write to express collective concern regarding our institution, which is in urgent need of reform,” said the letter addressed to Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director; Elizabeth Duggal, the senior deputy director and chief operating officer; Sarah G. Austrian, the general counsel; and Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator.

The letter comes as cultural institutions are being called to account for what critics describe as their role in perpetuating systemic racism. Amid protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd, museums are looking more seriously at issues of equity in their hiring, governance, exhibitions and acquisitions.

The letter said it was not signed with individual names because the curators feared retaliation.

In a statement, Armstrong confirmed receipt of the letter from the curators “outlining requests to change procedures to ensure more collective, transparent and accountable decision-making processes in the department.”

“Our curatorial staff is essential to the Guggenheim and we are listening,” he said in the statement. “Their effort to make change is an opportunity for us to engage in a beneficial dialogue to become a more diverse, equitable and welcoming organization for all.”

Armstrong began that dialogue with some of the museum’s 22 curators on Monday in Zoom calls after receiving the letter, a museum spokeswoman confirmed. The spokeswoman, Sarah Eaton, also confirmed that the chief curator, Spector, has decided to take a three-month sabbatical beginning July 1, though there was no indication the decision was related to the letter.

Spector declined to comment.

On Sunday, Troy Conrad Therrien, the museum’s curator of architecture and digital initiatives, sent his own letter to the museum’s leadership in which he announced his plans to step down to take responsibility for what he described as his complicity in an “institutional culture that has systematically disenfranchised many for too long.”

“It’s time for many of us who have benefited from this flawed system while holding leadership positions to make space for those who can more fully embody the equity that is no longer just necessary but urgent,” Therrien said.

The museum said it had not made a decision on Therrien’s offer to resign.

The Guggenheim, which attracts about 1.2 million visitors annually, has a $60 million budget and a $90 million endowment. Of the museum’s 276 full time staff members, 26 are black, 24 are Latino and 20 are Asian. Of the museum’s 25 trustees, 23 are white.

The curators letter calls on the museum to “put an end to the culture of favoritism, silencing, and retribution”; to review recruitment practices and guarantee the hiring of curators of color; and “to redress the museum’s primarily white, male exhibition history and collecting practices.”

The letter also calls for the museum to commission an independent investigation into its handling of last year’s Basquiat exhibition and the show’s guest curator, Chaédria LaBouvier, an art historian.

The letter followed on the heels of “An open letter to New York City’s Cultural Institutions,” on June 20 from a coalition of current and former employees — and their supporters — at the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Modern Art and other cultural institutions.

“We do not need any more surveys, affinity groups, panels, or committees and other empty attempts to conceal the racism,” the open letter said. “We write to you to express our outrage and discontent of consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people at these cultural institutions.”

The letter from the Guggenheim curators references the treatment of LaBouvier, who is Black and who was not invited to participate in the museum’s panel discussion about Basquiat with other scholars — including some she, as guest curator, had selected for the exhibition catalog.

LaBouvier nevertheless attended the panel discussion, where from the audience she accused the Guggenheim of snubbing her and undermining her curatorial role in the show, “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story.” She also told The New York Times that she was excluded from decisions on how the exhibition was presented.

A few months later, the museum hired Ashley James, the first Black full-time curator in the Guggenheim’s 80-year-history.

Earlier this month, LaBouvier posted a tweet that attracted considerable attention: “Working at the Guggenheim w/ Nancy Spector & the leadership was the most racist professional experience of my life.”

In an Essence article this month, the museum responded to LaBouvier’s accusations. “The exhibition was one of the first programmatic efforts for the museum to confront its own role in our nation’s patterns of injustice, an effort that we are continuing to work on with a critical examination of inherent bias in both the workplace and in our history.”

The statement added that LaBouvier had been “supported by the museum with the collaborative spirit with which exhibitions are made at the Guggenheim.”

But members of the curatorial staff have differed with that assessment. Appended to their letter Monday was a list of anonymous comments that had been gathered after a staff roundtable held this month by the museum’s human resources department. Several curators highlighted their concerns about LaBouvier’s treatment.

“While many of us saw our own experiences reflected in her mistreatment, we did not speak up and were complicit in our silence,” one comment said. “We cannot move forward with any credibility until we offer her a sincere, unqualified, public apology.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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