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- African-American painter
One afternoon in late October, Christine Y. Kim, a curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, methodically scans the gallery floor with her iPhone, providing an impromptu virtual tour of the new exhibition she’s hanging. The show, “Black American Portraits,” is designed as a tribute to the late curator David Driskell’s landmark 1976 LACMA exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” and a complement to the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, currently on view at the museum as part of their cross-country tour. “Can you see this one?” Kim says, angling the lens, accidentally catching herself via front-facing camera. A Kerry James Marshall painting zooms into view. She lingers on a photograph by Deana Lawson. Museum staff mull about, installing the works on hand, with brown paper cutouts as stand-ins for those that have yet to arrive.
This kind of digital mediation with art has become de rigueur during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the cataclysms of the past 20 months and a national reckoning over race have necessitated a wholesale rethinking of how art is commodified, curated, and experienced. The art world, traditionally a bastion of high-cultural power, has had its curtain lifted, revealing the stitches and the seams that have been holding it all together. “It brought to the fore how much the social landscape informs or extends discourse in the art world and that such events aren’t happening only in a political or activist bubble, but are part of the complex American story,” says Nicola Vassell, a veteran of New York’s influential early 2000s Deitch Projects gallery, where Wiley launched his career. Vassell opened her own eponymous space in the city’s high-wattage gallery district in Chelsea this past May with a show by photographer Ming Smith. “We are at a unique crossroads of reimagining the present and history as something more multifaceted than the conqueror relishing conquest.”
There has never been a singular art world, but rather many constellations and microcosms with disparate power centers and subcultural spheres of financial influence. Too many museums have also not represented the communities they claim to serve; their history as projects of coloniality and racial exploitation is difficult to shake. But Kim and Vassell are part of a vanguard of curators and directors intent on reconfiguring museums and galleries in a more equitable, inclusive way.
Kim, who came to LACMA in 2009 after nearly a decade at the Studio Museum in Harlem, was recently named curator at large for North American art at the Tate Modern museum in the U.K. As institutions grapple with finding their way forward, Kim says that, among other things, she would like to see the recruitment of less formally trained artists and greater transparency from board members, trustees, and others in positions of power. “More artists from underrepresented communities, more examination of complex social issues, more representation of artists who are or have been imprisoned,” she says, ticking off her post-pandemic wish list. “More of everything.”
There is little desire to “return to normal.” According to the Artnet Price Database, a comprehensive archive of auction results over the past three decades, of the $180 billion of art sold on the global auction market between 2008 and 2018, only $2.2 billion, or 1.2 percent, was by Black American artists—and one artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, accounted for $1.7 billion of that total. Latinx people make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, but the nation’s institutions have been slow to recognize their cultural contributions. A 1994 internal study at the Smithsonian Institution described the exclusion as “willful” and “systematic”; in December 2020, after decades of lobbying, Congress finally approved the creation of a national Latinx museum in Washington, D.C. And artists of color are still far less likely to have their work acquired by museums for their permanent collections.
This past summer, the New York–based critic and curator Antwaun Sargent, who was appointed a director at the behemoth Gagosian gallery last winter, unveiled “Social Works,” an expansive group show at Gagosian’s Chelsea flagship that explored the relationship between space and social practice and featured the works of Black creators such as Theaster Gates, Lauren Halsey, and Sir David Adjaye. “Everything happening now and in the last year is great, but it’s still unbelievably lopsided,” Sargent says. “A correction would require you to collect only Black art for the next 400 years to make this right—exclusively. The absurdity of that shows you the absurdity of this present predicament.”
Naomi Beckwith was named deputy director and chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation last January, coming over from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Like Kim, she spent time early in her career at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Beckwith was also among the advisors for “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” an exhibition at New York’s New Museum in early 2021. Conceived by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, it was a timely meditation on the country’s racial past and present. “This is the first time that calls for change inside museum institutions are as broad-based and urgent as the calls for greater social justice in our world,” Beckwith says. “But everyone—from artists to each museum employee, from directors to trustees—has now heard the call and will have to make decisions based on that. We are in a critical, vulnerable moment as institutions and these are the moments that call for the most care and foresight on how we’re going to restore trust with our artists, our audiences, and with each other. But I’m most hopeful that there is a sense of alignment between where museums need to go and where the world needs to go and there’s no turning back from here.”
“I think the pandemic, the 2020 election, and the fight for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were a huge cause for pause and an impactful ‘reset,’ ” says Isolde Brielmaier, who was appointed deputy director at the New Museum in July and also serves as curator at large at the International Center for Photography. Brielmaier’s career includes more than two decades of institutional, academic, and private-sector experience, as well as work with artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Carrie Mae Weems, and Tyler Mitchell. “There was the feeling that the world was not working at its best,” she says. “And many of us have known this for a very long time. I think there is a sense–on the part of galleries, museums, and so on–that we cannot continue business as usual, because it does not work and will not propel us into a meaningful, inclusive, innovative, sustainable, forward-thinking future. People have to embrace change, systems must be overhauled and re-built, culture must shift, and day-to-day work must and will be undeniably different.”
“It’s complicated, but most salient is the number of people entering spaces where they have actual decision-making power, influence, and autonomy, where there have not been Black people and POC before,” says Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, who, as a director at Chelsea’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents Marshall, Weems, and Mitchell, has been party to a sea change in New York galleries. “It’s about people being moved into positions where they can have a real impact.”
It’s a shift that Brooklyn-based artist Rashid Johnson, whose multi disciplinary work resides in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, LACMA, MCA Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, says is vital. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen the adoption of a lot of Black artist practitioners into a more mainstream narrative,” he says. “The thing that was lacking was representation at the level of senior leadership. With sufficient changes at the top, we will never have to question whether Black artists will be given voices and spaces within cultural institutions.”
For Susanna V. Temkin, a curator at Spanish Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio, which has maintained its close ties to the city’s diverse Latinx and Caribbean populations, fostering a strong sense of community is also crucial. This year, El Museo held its first-ever triennial, “Estamos Bien,” a survey featuring more than 40 Latinx artists from the U.S. and Puerto Rico. “More than anything, I’m enthusiastic and made hopeful by the sheer talent of so many Latinx artists working today,” Temkin says. “I’m also encouraged by what I am feeling as a new willingness to collaborate between institutions and peers across the art field.”
Pre-pandemic, there were already changes afoot in the art world: a greater recognition of the power of the young and media-savvy; the melding of high art and influencer; an ongoing critique of whose taste matters anyway. It’s also impossible not to wonder if what we are witnessing now is akin to the “glass cliff” phenomenon observed in tech and other industries, in which minoritized employees are promoted into leadership positions in times of crisis. But for art’s nominal gatekeepers, greater transparency could mean a new level of accountability.
“I am cautiously optimistic as far as the long-term project and the many ways there can be visibility,” says Rujeko Hockley, an associate curator at the Whitney (and another Studio Museum alum). Hockley, with co-curator Jane Panetta, oversaw the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which in part examined the subjects of race, gender, equity, and history. “Different generations have pushed for artists to be more fully represented through exhibitions and acquisitions. Looking at almost any museum in the country, you can see that there have been real strides in those spaces. But there is much more on the curatorial and educational front that needs to shift,” she says. “It behooves us to think of what kind of museums we would like to have.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands December 7.
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