the Current fury over Brooklyn Museum’s nomination of a white woman overseeing the museum’s collection of African art is neither surprising nor infuriating for Steven Nelson. Nelson is an African-American art historian at UCLA who specializes in African art, and he says, “We are very few in the field.
Despite the public assumption that most curators of African art in the United States are of African descent, Nelson points out, “in the United States, the field is largely made up of white people – and most of those people are women”. So the Kristen Windmuller-Luna nomination was, for Nelson, business as usual.
But some Brooklyn residents are pushing back. A coalition of community activist organizations, Decolonize This Place, sent a strongly worded open letter at the Museum. The group urged management to rethink the hiring of Windmuller-Luna, saying: ‘No matter how you analyze it, the appointment just doesn’t look good in our time, especially from a museum which prides itself on its connections to the diverse communities of Brooklyn.”
The museum, which is known to have a more diverse staff than most, responded via director Anne Pasternak: “I am writing to state unequivocally that the Brooklyn Museum supports our nomination of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna.” Pasternak noted that the museum’s collection of African arts “is among the largest and most extensive in the country” and that the new curator was chosen for her extensive knowledge and love of the field.
Guardians of another culture
No one is debating Windmuller-Luna’s qualifications (his degrees from Yale and Princeton, and his previous museum appointments). They register a frustration that white people are continually made to be guardians of the art of the African diaspora.
“You know,” continues UCLA’s Steven Nelson, “they did two hires, and nobody seems upset that they hired a white guy for photography, which is actually a much more diverse field than photography. African art.” What people should really to be angry about, Nelson says, is the fact that “there have been eight fairly high-profile hires in the art world over the past two weeks, and seven of those eight are white people.” (One is Asian American.) “Nobody cared,” he says.
For example, Colin Mackenzie was hired to oversee the extensive collection of Chinese art at the Art Institute of Chicago. And on Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, arguably the most prestigious American museum, announced the appointment of a new director, Max Hollein, who is white, masculine and European.
Former Met director Philippe de Montebello (also white, male, European) rejected a request from the group to deliberately seek out a female director with one word: “Ridiculous”. Two days after Hollein’s appointment was announced, Liza Oliver, a former member of the museum and current professor of art history at Wellesley College, published a tangy opinion piece in The New York Times: “Appointing another white, male director is a missed opportunity for the Met.”
Non-diversity, a systemic problem for most museums
In 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported a survey to assess ethnic and gender diversity among museums across the country. The results were shocking: According to the survey, 84 percent of the nation’s museum staff (curators, educators, senior curators and administrators) were non-Hispanic white; blacks were 4%, Asian Americans 6%. Native Hawaiians and Native Americans? Zero.
Women fared better, making up nearly 60% of professional museum staff. A significant number of non-white employees tended to work in jobs such as security, human resources, facilities, and finance.
Some critics say the lack of people of color in the museum world is a systemic problem that is long overdue. “As a discipline, art history has failed to attract a diverse group of people interested not only in African art, but in all fields,” says Nelson of UCLA. He adds that encouraging interest in artistic careers must begin in high school and college.
Removing barriers to entry
Part of the problem is certainly economic. Internships in galleries and museums often give young people a coveted foot in the door of their future career. These jobs may be prestigious, but they don’t pay much. (Some pay nothing.) Like internships in the publishing, film and television industries, and talent agencies, the steady stream of interns tends to come from young people who have financial support other than their salary. Those who must work to help pay for tuition may have to forgo an arts internship, no matter how passionately interested they are in the field.
Nelson himself remembers turning down an internship he wanted because he couldn’t afford it.
So priming the pump to bring more people of color into the arts career pipeline is an important part of the solution, one that museums may need to lend a hand in if they want to see a diverse workforce. In 2013, Mellon awarded a grant of $2.07 million to five major museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The grant funded curatorial scholarships for undergraduate students and was designed, in the words of the foundation, “to open up the museum as a potential workplace for students from historically underrepresented minorities and to d ‘other undergraduates who are committed to diversifying our cultural organizations’.
If museums are to last through the 21st century and beyond, it is essential that they reflect the diversity of the world outside their doors. Museum leaders are aware of this and have begun to look for ways for their institutions to survive and thrive. An effort was a Mellon Funded Case Study Series, produced in collaboration with the Association of Art Museum Directors, which selected eight museums that have successfully encouraged diversity, equity and inclusion. Five case studies have been published; three will be released at a later date. This is to show what these museums have done to diversify, hoping that others will be encouraged to follow suit.
The Brooklyn Museum is one of eight listed. It faces the same challenges as other museumsand a more immediate one: as the neighborhoods around it become increasingly gentrified, the Brooklyn Museum will have to decide not only how to accommodate more affluent newcomers, but how to continue to serve the more economically marginalized communities who were there before.
Part of the anger over Kristen Windmuller-Luna’s nomination appears to be tied to the anxiety of many black and brown Brooklynites that their presence will be far less relevant than it once was. It’s painful for many black Brooklynites; Brooklyn was often seen as the Black Mecca, the cultural center of greater New York’s African diaspora. (It’s where, for example, millions of people flock to the Eastern Parkway each Labor Day in the West Indies Day Parade.)
“I remember the 1990s and 2000s when (the museum) catered to a more working-class community,” Imani Henry told the Hyperallergic blog. Henry works with Equality for Flatbush, one of many groups involved in trying to slow the pace of gentrification. “The programming felt much more in touch with what was happening in the community.”
Henry said that while children’s events a decade ago were predominantly black, that is no longer the case. He believes the museum has gentrified to reflect the wealth of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Imani Henry doesn’t oppose Kristen Windmuller-Luna because of her ethnicity, he told Hyperallergic. “We’re not saying we don’t want a white woman, but we want someone who is committed to communities.”
By this, Henry means everything the communities for which the museum was designed: newly arrived owners of beautiful brownstone homes and luxury condos. And certainly families living in less chic neighborhoods, who also want to continue to feel that the museum belongs to them too.