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Can a White Curator Do Justice to African Art? – The Nation

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One of the courtyards of the New Orleans Museum of Art. (Bill Haber / AP Photo)

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The New Orleans Museum of Art generated a storm of controversy when it announced on Instagram its recent hire of Amanda M. Maples as its new curator of African art. Why? Maples is white. Responses fell along two lines: demanding shared ancestry between artworks and those who curate them, and demanding racial representation in a predominantly Black city. (New Orleans’s population is 59 percent Black.)

The ancestral argument—that Africans or African Americans are specially qualified by virtue of their heredity to speak to African art—is simply unsupportable. Besides, if it were widely accepted the notion of qualification through heredity would exclude curators from non-European backgrounds from most major museums in the United States. As for the argument that ethnic representation should be central in hiring a curator of African art, or any job—if the ancestral argument is wrong, is the racial representation argument not based on a similarly flawed foundation?

The fundamental issue involves neither racial ancestry nor racial representation. The real problem is the paucity of well-paying jobs. The idea that hiring a curator, or any professional at any elite institution, is a fundamentally political decision is false. Elite cultural institutions do bear responsibility for social injustices—including injustices that disproportionately affect marginalized populations. But treating problems of representation at elite institutions as the primary political problem merely provides cover for these institutions’ participation in exploitation. The idea of trickle-down social justice is just as bankrupt as its economic cousin. Social justice at these institutions can only be furthered by looking at the political economy of those institutions—not the racial profile of their employees.
Consider the issue of ancestry. The NOMA controversy recalls the 2018 hire of Kristin Windmuller-Luna as consulting curator of African arts at the Brooklyn Museum. Windmuller-Luna is white. Her hire also generated controversy. Writing in Frieze magazine, Chika Okeke-Agulu, historian of African art at Princeton, strongly critiqued the racialist premises underlying notions of cultural ownership:

Barry Schwabsky
Dana Kopel
Adolph Reed Jr.
To argue, as many have, that a person of color (POC), by dint of her ancestry, would naturally grasp the intricate histories, and complex aesthetics of historical African art is to misunderstand the work of the curator or scholar. It is to ignore or belittle the rigorous professional training, research, and scholarship expected of museum curators—work that comes from acquired knowledge and experience. Work that anyone, Black or white, who is so driven, capable and duly trained could aspire to. The Brooklyn Museum has defended Windmuller-Luna as qualified for the job, and they are right to do so.

Feature / Amanda Moore
Amanda Moore
Michael T. Klare
Suchitra Vijayan
Feature / Amanda Moore
Amanda Moore
Michael T. Klare
Suchitra Vijayan
You cannot qualify as understanding art by virtue of your DNA. What matters is training and scholarship, which are acquired with time and devotion. Windmuller-Luna’s gilt-edged Ivy League qualifications—Yale, Princeton, Columbia—are indisputable. No one ever suggested that Windmuller-Luna was less than fully qualified—only that her race was wrong.

Another celebrated historian of African art, Suzanne Blier of Harvard University, defends Maples’s hire along lines that repeat Okeke-Agulu’s defense of Windmuller-Luna. “Experience and training” are what “matter in this field (and others),” says Blier, who then puts the question in reverse: “Where is the outcry for more minority curators in (say) ancient, medieval, and early modern art history? Or is this only about one’s field. Are we at a moment in time when to be a scholar or curator of Italian art (say), [one] should be required to be of Italian ancestry?”

How far have we actually moved from the ancestral argument? An Ithaka S+R study published by the Mellon Foundation praised the Brooklyn Museum in the same year Okeke-Agulu defended it for its diverse intellectual leadership. The study compared POC representation in intellectual leadership to the racial composition of the borough of Brooklyn. It measured the representation of museum professionals in leadership positions against the general population—not against the pool of professionals who had acquired the relevant expertise. In other words, while Okeke-Agulu and Blier were praising two museums for recognizing that expertise and not ethnicity is the right criterion for hiring museum professionals, the Mellon Foundation was praising the museum for not acting on the same lesson.
When we turn from African art to art in general, though, similar errors can return—even in the views of Okeke-Agulu and Blier. Beyond the lack of diversity in museum jobs, Okeke-Agulu writes, is a “much more fundamental problem”—that “art history has not done enough to diversify its student and faculty demography.”
Even if we agree that hiring curators is about expertise, there’s a problem if universities are not supplying a diverse pool of experts. And art history has—rightly—begun training a more diverse student population. Still, even an ideal distribution will change nothing about the larger facts of inequality—because it can’t and is not meant to.
The Brooklyn Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art are elite cultural institutions—in which highly trained professionals earn good salaries and gain prestige in their fields. According to data culled from a recent report, elite institutions are producing art history graduates at rates that compare well with the composition of their undergraduate student bodies and with the general population of the United States. On the other hand, given the size of the numbers involved, there’s little statistical meaning in them. The world of elite education is small, and art history’s place in that small world is smaller still.

But isn’t it right to want to see justice done in any sector of the workforce, even if it is a small one? Yes and no. If an elite institution can open opportunities more widely to underrepresented populations, that is progress. On the other hand, if we apply ourselves to fixing a problem in an exquisitely narrow, elite sector of our society solely to further racial representation in highly visible positions, then we’re doing another kind of job—providing cover for exploitation, making it invisible. If we concern ourselves only with these headline cases and not with labor practices in our cultural institutions, then our outrage serves the cause of injustice.
Underlying every diversity claim related to what the Mellon Foundation calls “leadership positions” at museums are assumptions about the power of our “leaders” to change the lives of those whom they putatively represent. This is what political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has recently described as the “racial uplift” model of social justice, in which “benefits to the upper strata trickle down by virtue of their smashing barriers and opening opportunities for others who may follow and by elevating collective aspirations through the convenient device of role modelling.”

It is time to question racial diversity in leadership as our measure of institutions’ commitment to social justice. Outrage about the racial makeup of “leadership positions” conceals wage disparity at museums and academic institutions. Moreover, correcting economic injustice is a more direct route to racial justice than high-profile hires. As the Mellon report reveals, the racial profile of intellectual leadership positions has changed from 18 percent POC to 27 percent POC between 2015 and 2022. During the same time, the much larger category of “building operations” personnel has gone from 37 percent POC to 47 percent POC.
According to the recent AAMD study, museum directors in the mid-Atlantic make a median salary of $332,600 a year; in the Southeast, $245,500 per year. The median salary for security officers/security guards in the mid-Atlantic region is just $43,200 a year; in the Southeast, $33,700 per year. Security guards at those museums, who are disproportionately POC, make roughly $21 an hour in Brooklyn, and $18 an hour in New Orleans. If you want justice, worry about janitors and guards before curators.
Workers at the Brooklyn Museum are represented by unions. Security, operations, maintenance and administrative staff are represented by AFSCME District Council 37 Local 1502. But in 2021, over 100 conservators, curators, event organizers and other workers, including those who deal most directly with the public, voted to join the Technical, Office and Professional Union, Local 2110, which is part of the United Automobile Workers. The museum has held contentious negotiations with the new union, which claims that while leadership awarded themselves pay increases last year, members of the new unionized bargaining unit have not had raises for two years; they also argue that Brooklyn Museum salaries lag behind the museum’s peers’ in growth. Local 2110’s president, Maida Rosenstein, summed up the point with unmistakable clarity: “The museum likes to cloak themselves in social justice, but I think they really don’t like unions.”
For far too many, diversity in highly visible jobs at elite institutions is the horizon of political possibility, as though progress there were, magically, progress for everyone. We say magically because no one has articulated the mechanism by which diversifying the elite helps everyone else. It’s magical—or worse—to think that giving one person a good job helps people in low-paying ones. We have made significant progress in diversifying the elite; we have failed miserably in addressing the wider, growing problem of inequality. Part of the reason is that no one in power at elite institutions shows any interest in solving it.
Todd CronanTodd Cronan is a professor of art history at Emory University. His new book Nothing Permanent: Modern Architecture in California appeared in June. He is editor in chief of nonsite.org.
Charles PalermoCharles Palermo is professor of art history at William & Mary and a founding editor of nonsite.org. He is finishing a book on photography, narrative and popular economic discourse.


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