Not Enough Color In American Art Museums

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The current furor over the Brooklyn Museum's appointment of a white woman to oversee the museum's African Art collection is not surprising or infuriating to Steven Nelson. Nelson is an African American art historian at UCLA who specializes in African art, and he says, "There are very few of us in the field."

Despite the public assumption that most African art curators in the US 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 female." So the appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna was, for Nelson, business as usual.

But some Brooklynites are pushing back. A coalition of community activist organizations, Decolonize This Place, sent a strongly worded open letter to the museum. The group urged management to rethink Windmuller-Luna's hiring, saying, "No matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age, especially on the part of a museum that prides itself on its relationships with the diverse communities of Brooklyn."

The museum, which is acknowledged to have a more diverse staff than most, responded via director Anne Pasternak: "I am writing to state unequivocally that the Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna." Pasternak noted the museum's collection of African Arts "is among the most important and extensive in the nation" and the new curator was chosen for her deep knowledge and love of the field.

Gatekeepers of a different culture

No one is debating Windmuller-Luna's qualifications (her degrees from Yale and Princeton, and previous museum appointments). They are registering frustration that white people are continually made to be gatekeepers of art from the African Diaspora.

"You know," UCLA's Steven Nelson continues, "they made two hires, and no one seems upset about the fact that they hired a white guy for photography, which in fact is a much more diverse field than African Art." What people should really be up in arms about, Nelson says, is the fact that "there were eight reasonably high-profile hires in the art world over the last couple of weeks, and that seven of those eight are white people." (One is Asian-American.) "No one batted an eye about that," he says.

For instance, Colin MacKenzie was hired to oversee the Art Institute of Chicago's extensive Asian art collection. And on Tuesday, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably the most prestigious US museum, announced the appointment of a new director, Max Hollein, who is white, male and European.

Former Met director Philippe de Montebello (also white, male, European) dismissed a group request to deliberately search for a female director in one word: "Ridiculous." Two days after Hollein's appointment was announced, Liza Oliver, a former Fellow of the museum, and current art history professor at Wellesley College, published a tart opinion piece in the New York Times: "Appointing Yet Another White, Male Director Is a Missed Opportunity for the Met."

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