A New Era for a Modern Museum: The Guggenheim Names Naomi Beckwith Its New Deputy Director and Chief Curator

Illustration for article titled A New Era for a Modern Museum: The Guggenheim Names Naomi Beckwith Its New Deputy Director and Chief Curator
Photo: Nathan Keay for MCA Chicago, Heather Shimmin (Shutterstock)

For 84 years, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has represented the vanguard of modern art, an early champion of artists today, its nautilus shell-inspired structure houses artworks from generations of the world’s most visionary and experimental artists. Yet like many fine arts museums, for decades, the Guggenheim’s iconic spiral of galleries have proved a primarily Eurocentric domain in both artists and infrastructure.

As such, the museum made headlines in 2019 when (The Root 100 honoree) Chaédria LaBouvier became the first Black woman to conceive and curate a solo exhibition (Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story); a milestone unfortunately marred by LaBouvier’s claims that the museum had withheld resources and opportunities, culminating in her exclusion from a panel about the highly successful show. Weeks later, the Guggenheim announced its first Black full-time curator, Ashley James, former assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, where The Root 100 2020 honoree oversaw 2018's highly acclaimed exhibit Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. 

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James was 84th on our 2020 list of luminaries; 83rd was the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith, who made art world history on Thursday afternoon when the Guggenheim announced her its new deputy director and Jennifer and David Stockman chief curator.

Per a release provided to The Root:

In this role, Beckwith will oversee collections, exhibitions, publications, and curatorial programs and archives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and provide strategic direction within the international network of affiliate museums for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
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An integral part of the Guggenheim’s senior leadership, Beckwith will provide an overarching intellectual vision for museum programming to be shared with diverse audiences, including local, international, and digital constituents, and in alignment with the museum’s objectives of increased accessibility and inclusion. She will oversee the creation and implementation of the exhibition program in New York and will articulate long-range collection strategies for the growth of all Guggenheim museums. She will advise on all global arts initiatives, will actively partner with the curatorial teams at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and will collaborate on the development of collection and programmatic strategies for the future museum in Abu Dhabi.

Beckwith succeeds Nancy Spector, who stepped down as artistic director and chief curator of the Guggenheim last fall. This, after charges of discriminatory practices leveled in a June 2020 letter signed by “the Curatorial Department.” As reported by the New York Times, the letter called for an independent investigation into its treatment of LaBouvier (which ultimately found no evidence of racial discrimination, but compelled Spector’s resignation). It also implored the museum “to ‘put an end to the culture of favoritism, silencing, and retribution’; to review recruitment practices and guarantee the hiring of curators of color; and ‘to redress the museum’s primarily white, male exhibition history and collecting practices.’”

On its face, Beckwith’s appointment might seem a remedial response. However, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation Richard Armstrong maintains “it’s not about any of that...It’s about the future of the institution.”

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“What’s promising is that our staff and our board have committed to that kind of change,” Armstrong told the Times. “So it’s not Naomi alone; it’s Naomi in concert with a large group of people.”

“I would not have taken this position if I did not feel the museum wasn’t doing that healing work, which they are,” added Beckwith, who will begin her new role in early June. “What I heard clearly from Richard is they are doing the work themselves. They’re simply looking for a partner in that.”

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A graduate of Northwestern University with a master’s degree with distinction from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Beckwith was formerly associate curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where where she organized exhibitions such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations and 30 Seconds off an Inch. After joining the MCA in 2011, she mounted and collaborated on acclaimed exhibitions such as Howardena Pindell’s first-ever survey, What Remains to Be Seen, and The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Among her many accolades, fellowships and editorial credits, Beckwith has also been the developmental force behind solo exhibitions and projects with The Propeller Group, Keren Cytter, Leslie Hewitt, William J. O’Brien, Jimmy Robert and Yinka Shonibare CBE, among others.

In 2020, Beckwith edited the exhibition catalogue for Nigerian-born British fashion designer and art curator Duro Olowu’s  Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, an eclectic multimedia exhibit. The show catalogue was recognized by the New York Times as a Best Art Book of 2020. She subsequently curated The Long Dream, an exhibit-in-progress named for Richard Wright’s 1958 novel of the same name, featuring “70 Chicago artists organized in response to the pandemic and social unrest.” Beckwith also served on the jury for the Guggenheim-administered 2020 Hugo Boss Prize, awarded to Deana Lawson, the first photographer to win the prize (also a Black woman).

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“With her highly regarded accomplishments, scholarship that contributes to building a revised canon of art history, and creative projects that connect artists of today with growing audiences, Naomi Beckwith will be a catalytic leader for our outstanding curatorial team,” said Armstrong in a statement. “We warmly welcome Naomi. Her expertise will be invaluable in advancing and amplifying an inclusive range of perspectives within the Guggenheim collection and culture. We look forward to working with her to develop avenues for new research and programming, and to create powerful and meaningful ways to deepen engagement with modern and contemporary art.”

“One cannot overstate the iconicity and consequence of the Guggenheim Museum—yet, refusing to rest on its laurels, it readily presents projects that disrupt art history’s mythologies,” said Beckwith. “I’m excited to join the Guggenheim and its passionate team at a pivotal moment. I look forward to merging our shared goals of expanding the story of art, and also working to shape a new reality for arts and culture.”

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Correction: Friday, 1/15/21 at 7:50 pm, E.T.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Beckwith was the co-curator of the MCA exhibit Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago. Olowu was, in fact, the sole curator, while Beckwith was the editor of the accompanying catalogue. The article has been amended to reflect this.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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DISCUSSION

Yet like many fine arts museums, for decades, the Guggenheim’s iconic spiral of galleries have proved a primarily Eurocentric domain in both artists and infrastructure.

“Eurocentric” in the case of the Guggenheim and modern art in general meaning “expelled from Europe for being too Jewish.”