What the Brooklyn Museum Curatorial Hire Actually Shows Us

You've read all about the Brooklyn Museum this past week and if you haven't, have a look. This past Monday, the Brooklyn Museum put out a press release of its two new curatorial hires. It didn't take long for the internet to go up in flames and completely tear into the museum, filling their social media platforms (and comments sections of all related articles) with anger over the hiring. In a nutshell, no one was happy their two new hires were white and especially one of whom would be overseeing the museum's African art collection. Immediately comparisons were made to the scene in Black Panther where Michael B. Jordan's character, Erik Killmonger, enters the "Museum of Great Britain" and questions the provenance of the artifacts on display. That scene was bad ass. The hashtag #Africansforafricanart started to crop up and the Brooklyn Museum stayed silent for far too long (anything beyond 24 hours in today's tech-savvy world is truly a lifetime).

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I first found out through my Twitter feed which is about 90% museum professionals. I used to never get on Twitter but now it's my favorite place to go for intellectual discourse on museum topics, especially those concerning the marginalization of black and brown communities within the museum field. So I scrolled through my Twitter feed like on any other day except I saw tweet after tweet regarding the Brooklyn Museum's hires. If you are a museum professional of color in this field then this hire is nothing new and these discussions amongst ourselves are always complex but repetitive and tiresome.

In graduate school, I did research on the various diversity studies conducted in the field. The studies themselves were mostly blithely ignorant on the topic as evidenced by the language used. From the time those studies came out (1990s) until now, not much has changed statistically. But the latest diversity study and probably the most important right now I could probably recite from memory: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. What it says is nothing new but the data is more comprehensive than any other study has been. What it has concluded essentially is that the majority of those in the museum field are white. Finally, a study backed by a respected foundation with data that can be taken seriously by all those in power to make change stating what has been so blatantly obvious to POC. 

This discussion though now seems to have expanded beyond the museum field bubble and into mainstream discourse. So, since there are a lot of Op-Ed pieces out right now, I thought I would write one too from my own personal and professional experience in the museum field. Because although I completely understand the feeling of being further marginalized by an institution that holds our history in its possession, I think what is being overlooked is the root of this whole issue and how we should truly hold museums, like the Brooklyn Museum, accountable.

Unfortunately, this issue is complex and the solution is more nuanced than the mainstream public realizes. That is a problem in itself because that tells me that the community isn't being reached out to by the arts/humanities/museum fields enough for them to know this is a long-existing problem that should be attacked on various fronts, and most importantly, that they, the community, can be part of that change regardless of who they are or what they do. I'm happy that Black Panther put the problem of white-centered and controlled preservation of history at the forefront of everyone's minds, but now we need to arm the public with information of how it got to be this way. 

We are economically segregated. The wealth gap is wide and black and brown communities earn less on average compared to the white demographic resulting in a prioritization of how we spend our free time. This doesn't mean black and brown communities aren't interested in the ballet or visiting museums and discussing art; our communities don't even get the opportunity to think about much less engage in those cultural pursuits. I don't know about you but my parents were too busy working and paying the bills to think about spring season at the Kennedy Center (though they were able to let me go with a white friend and her family once). 

It doesn't stop there. Not only do black and brown communities spend less time in these spaces, they're also not shown the opportunities that these spaces provide for involvement, so there are less of us pursuing these fields. And of those that do, the barriers are plentiful. On top of financial barriers, the mental and emotional stress, the likely isolation and racial bias/discrimination/microaggressions all aid in keeping black and brown academics from reaching their highest potentials as true innovators, leaders, and creatives in museums. The whole damn system is an obstacle course discouraging POC from the very beginning if they even have the forethought to embark in the field.

But wait! There's another layer to this vanilla cake of privilege. Curators, in particular, are expected to have a Ph.D. to top an impressive CV filled with (unpaid) internships, fellowships, and published research. This might sound reasonable for a position of this stature and is certainly the status quo nowadays but this wasn't always so. I had a conversation with a very respected, older curator in the art world who told me he basically fell into the field after dropping out of school when he was younger. He is brilliant, yes, and he has definitely earned his place as a respected curator, but there is zero chance that could happen now, especially for a person of color. He was absolutely aghast when I told him of the expectations now and why I chose to not go that route just to have my heart broken. When did the expectation that a curator must have a Ph.D. become a requirement? 

Finally, those that hire for these highly-valued curatorial positions need to widen their perspectives on where to look. They see only what is in front of them but fail to look at the peripherals of all the related academic fields and institutions that might hold some very talented academics of color. It is entirely possible that for the curatorial role for African art at the Brooklyn Museum, not a single person of color applied. But if the museum wants to effect change and truly be inclusive, they would do more than hire in the way they've always hired because that will only result in culling the same kinds of applicants, those with privilege enough to be there. 

What I've described in the last few paragraphs is the quickest summary I could give on the institutional failure to diversify on all levels. Rest assured, it goes deeper than what I've been able to describe in one post and every level has their own individual studies that show how disenfranchised our communities have been. But I don't think the solution is to necessarily blame and fire the curator they have already hired and hire a black curator instead (as some have suggested). It would be disingenuous on the museum's behalf (imo) and could possibly tokenize that person, putting them in a tense and difficult working environment.

So what is the solution? I wish I had a solid answer. I along with many brilliant museum professionals of color I follow are doing what we can to create change in the field we love so much. It might be too late for the Brooklyn Museum as far as public relations go. They spent too long working on their response to the backlash and any decision they make now will surely draw criticism for not having done it before. But they should still do the right thing and go out to the community they serve and take the ass-whopping they deserve. 

Seeing as how what I have just described is an entire broken system working against welcoming black and brown communities in academia, all museums could be major players in helping shape black and brown leaders for various roles, including curatorial. But note that the marginalization in this field is nothing new and the Brooklyn Museum is not the only culprit. If there is one take away from all of this, it should be this: look at your own community's museum, research their staff, and hold them accountable armed with the knowledge that it is their responsibility to widen their perspective to be inclusive of the communities they serve.

More Reading Material:

TLDR

Dear Brooklyn Museum and Other Cultural Institutions - I'm Annoyed (Blavity)

The Activity Gap (The Atlantic)

Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don't Know It) (The New York Times)

An Ivy League professor on why colleges don't hire more faculty of color: 'We don't want them' (The Washington Post

The Cost of Balancing Academia and Racism (The Atlantic)

The Danger of the 'D' word: Museum and Diversity (The Incluseum

Museums Must Attract Diverse Visitors or Risk Irrelevance (The Atlantic)