Black Curators In American Art Museums, A Complicated Reality

October 3, 2021

In 2015, the Mellon Foundation conducted its first study of the staff at American art museums.

Its findings on racial diversity were grim: Only 2 percent of curators were Black. Three years later, when Mellon followed up, the needle had moved ever so slightly to 4 percent, marking an increase of 21 Black curators across the country. By this time, museums had already been under intense pressure to better represent diverse communities, making the lack of Black curators to help guide that change from within even more glaring.

Then George Floyd’s murder last year galvanized the nation, setting off a series of public demonstrations against racial injustice, which migrated from the streets to corporations, schools and museums. Some of the most prominent names in contemporary art, including Gary Garrels at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Nancy Spector at the Guggenheim Museum, left under racially charged clouds. People of color working in museums across the country issued open letters detailing their toxic work environments and accusing institutions of oppressing Black culture in order to protect the status quo. Museums may have begun showing more Black art, says Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but these programming initiatives were surface-level, demonstrating only “the visage of change and diversity, which is artifice,” while not being “about the acquisition of the works, not about really changing the composition of the institution.”

y the end of last summer, museums expressed their commitment to inclusive hiring practices, installed diversity officers to support those hires and set aside money to diversify collections and exhibitions. Philanthropic organizations stepped up with funding for diverse staffing, often through fellowship positions. On top of that, several major museums made high-profile appointments of Black curators to leadership positions, including Naomi Beckwith as deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim, Rhea L. Combs as director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian, and, just last month, Isolde Brielmaier as deputy director of the New Museum.

But the museums are now left to figure out how to ultimately support these new hires and to create, as Oliver puts it, “a deeper infrastructure, for not just the moment but for moving forward.”

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