Of Art and Plunder: Why Black Curators Are Still Shut Out of the Art World—and Why It Matters

Image for article titled Of Art and Plunder: Why Black Curators Are Still Shut Out of the Art World—and Why It Matters
Illustration: Chelsea Beck (GMG)

In the movie Black Panther, the first person we see Erik Killmonger confront is a white museum curator. Contemplative and curious, Killmonger gazes at a series of African artifacts—his locs, denim jacket and designer combat boots thrown into sharp relief by the female curator’s prim, blond cut and dark suit. He interrogates the white expert about the provenance—the purchase history—of the masks and statues in front of him, while she answers with a whiff of patronization, even as she incorrectly tells him the origin of one crucial artifact.


As the conversation turns and Killmonger reveals his real purpose in visiting the museum, he can’t resist asking the curator: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price for it? Or did they take them like they took everything else?”

It’s a scene that had audiences whooping in theaters—the recognition of cultural plunder—and the payback for it was incisive and satisfying. Fairly or not, that scene also leaped back into the forefront of people’s minds when news broke of the Brooklyn Museum’s latest hire for its African art wing.

Typically, news of art-museum hires, even at fairly large and influential institutions such as New York City’s Brooklyn Museum, is chatted about in small, insular circles. But the announcement that the museum had tapped 31-year-old Kristen Windmuller-Luna—a white woman—to curate its African-art wing went viral off the optics alone.

The activist group Decolonize This Place wrote an open letter in response to the hire, calling the decision “tone-deaf” and “not a good look in this day and age.” Writer Teju Adisa-Farrar, in an op-ed published in The Guardian, said that the hire was insulting, adding that the implication that there’s a lack of qualified black or African curators is “inaccurate to say the least and lazy at best.”

The backlash was vociferous enough to prompt the Brooklyn Museum to defend its decision, calling Windmuller-Luna, a Princeton Ph.D., an “extraordinary candidate with stellar qualifications.” The museum even had Windmuller-Luna’s former mentor, renowned Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, come to her defense.

“There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman,” Enwezor admonished. “African art as a discipline deserves better,” he added.


But the conversation centered on Windmuller-Luna’s hire was about far more than her individual qualifications and merits.

Curators serve an important and specific function at galleries and museums, selecting which artists to showcase, proposing exhibitions, and picking what fills the halls of museums and galleries. And the vast majority of curators are white—85 percent, according to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study (pdf).


And the Brooklyn Museum is hardly alone in having white curators oversee African art. While the last two directors of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art have been black, the museum has had only two other black curators in its 50-year history, a fact The Root confirmed after reaching out to Edward Burke, a spokesperson for the museum.

A source who has worked for the Smithsonian for several years confided that when diversity is brought up to higher-ups, it’s “discussed for seconds” before the conversation moves on.


“How can you represent us if you don’t know us?” he asked.

Across a number of creative industries, black creators have become ever more prominent. But as black creators and black culture have come to the fore, the machinery around them, art’s gatekeepers—its curators, its critics, its collectors, its gallery owners—remain starkly white. And that power dynamic has consequences.


Last year, the Ford Foundation responded to the Mellon Foundation’s dismal survey results by launching a diversity initiative that includes fellowships for black curators and curators of color. One of the recipients, Christina (because of how tight-knit and insular the art world is, only a first name that has been changed is being used to protect her from professional repercussions), noted that you don’t have to be native to a culture to study it.

“A black American woman can sit there and be a scholar on Chinese contemporary art. It doesn’t mean that you have to specialize in wherever you come from. That would be very limiting,” she said.


But, she added, the problem is that black American and Latinx curators are underrepresented across the board. So while an Afro-Latina ought to be able to curate Renaissance art, the fact is, it doesn’t happen often. The same isn’t true for white curators, whose presence can be felt in all disciplines. In art museums and galleries—which function as bastions of local and global cultures—white curators continue to control the narrative.

“It’s not just about diversity, it’s about equity,” Christina said.

“If 85 percent of those positions are held by white people, that’s when you get exhibitions that are desensitized to the communities that they serve,” she added.


What does that desensitization look like? It looks like the 1969 “Harlem on My Mind” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sought to tell the story of the historic black New York City neighborhood—without including a single painting or sculpture by a black artist.


It looks like the ongoing dispute between the British Museum and Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. For years now, the latter has asked the British Museum to return the Benin Bronzes, statues that were looted by British soldiers during a 1897 raid. The two institutions are still in the process of negotiations, with the British Museum saying that it “tries to be transparent about the ways in which objects have been collected, particularly during the colonial period,” while simultaneously defending the “great public benefit” of showcasing the plundered statues to a visitorship of 6 million people a year.

An inability—or a flat reluctance—to speak to provenance born of plunder is the sort of thing that alienates black people inside and outside the art world, and informs the exhaustion and outrage that met the Brooklyn Museum when it announced the hire of its new African art curator.


Whatever Windmuller-Luna’s individual gifts and virtues, many people saw in her hiring a reinforcement of the status quo—one that has perpetually locked out black people and people of color from positions of power, all while embracing the trappings of their cultural heritage.

That status quo is defined by privilege and a deep class divide. The financial barriers to entering—much less succeeding—in the art world are well-documented.


One ArtSy article from 2017 outlined the imbalanced economics of working in the art world, where the pay is often so dismal that young professionals have to rely on family members to supplement their income and living expenses. One fact buried about the Brooklyn Museum’s African art position is that it’s a part-time job—a factor that undoubtedly deterred many qualified curators. Many aspiring curators not only come from money, Christina says, but have deep connections to the art world—family members who were artists, collectors or scholars themselves.

In addition, as curator jobs have become more professionalized (Ph.D.s in art history have increasingly become the norm to even be considered for such positions), that small, scholarly network of “qualified applicants” has arguably gotten smaller, even as institutions have sought to improve their diversity numbers.


Being surrounded by colleagues raised in the art world was alienating for Christina, who notes that she still has to explain to her father what she does for a living. But apart from the class and cultural disconnect, there is also the low pay and the harassment, Christina says, mentioning a particularly bad—in her words, “unbearable”—boss she had early on.

“There’s no board of ethics in the art world. There’s no HR that you can call if you work in the gallery space. There’s no one to talk to if you’re being harassed,” she said, emphasizing that this is true specifically of smaller gallery spaces and studios, where young, aspiring art professionals often get their start. Christina added that hearing bosses and supervisors make racist or sexist comments wasn’t uncommon.


The net result is that black people and Latinx hold just 4 percent of jobs “most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums,” with white Latinx professionals holding another 3 percent, according to the Mellon Foundation.

Interestingly, a recent report from Mellon found the Brooklyn Museum, overall, to be doing much better than most of its peers.


Despite the challenges, Christina notes that for as long as these barriers have existed, people of color have fought to knock them down.


“You have people like Thelma Golden, you have people like Sandra Jackson Dumont,” she said. “There is a legacy of marginalization, but there’s also a legacy of people out there, changing institutions and trying to reverse that.”

And millennials have continued to pick up the work. She singles out Museum Hue, a collective for people of color in the arts that addresses inequity across the art world and connects people to jobs, and arts.black, a platform that centers black criticism and black artists.


“That is one of the ways [systemic inequity] is being combated, is where we’re creating our own publications, our own platforms,” Christina said.

Christina, a New York City native, says she didn’t step foot into an art gallery until she was in her 20s—an eye-opening moment that was both beautiful and infuriating.


“I saw how you mount an exhibition, where is the art kept, how do you decide what art gets to be in the collection and what doesn’t. The whole time, it was like this world I was uncovering,” she said. “But at the same time it was like, ‘OK, this was nothing like the art I saw growing up.’

“It was white walls. White people. It was very detached and separate from what I had known and perceived as art,” she said.


The blandness of those artistic spaces was suffocating, but it prompted her to keep pushing her way deeper into the art world, in large part because she firmly believes that the arts will save us. Which is why one of her goals is to open up conversations about how members of marginalized communities can be collectors of their own art—a process she’s still learning about herself.

“Many collectors—they’re white, they’re wealthy, they’re not us. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how can I develop programming ... to hold some kind of audience, some kind of forum, where we’re educating ourselves on the process of collecting,” Christina said. “We still don’t have collections. Work is still not in our hands.”


In this way, not only would our images and creations be featured in cultural landmarks, not only would we direct how audiences interact with and learn about our work, but the provenance would also bear our names.



“[T]he imbalanced economics of working in the art world . . . where the pay is often so dismal that young professionals have to rely on family members to supplement their income and living expenses.”

This is the crux of the problem. Even at the upper echelons of the field, people don’t make that much, and as a consequence, it self-selects from people who have external means. If you were able to dig into the socioeconomic positions of the people in these roles, I’m 100% confident that you would find them not only to be white, but rich. I’m talking prep school, 7 Sisters, and summers in Montauk rich.