Its Top Curator Gone, SFMOMA Reviews Its Record on Race

SAN FRANCISCO — The assembly was about security protocols within the time of coronavirus. There was discuss of masks, sanitizers and Plexiglas boundaries. But that isn’t what folks will keep in mind in regards to the all-staff Zoom name on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, July 7.

In its waning moments, throughout a Q. and A. a part of the decision, Gary Garrels, the museum’s longest-tenured curator, was requested about feedback attributed to him in a @changethemuseum Instagram put up in June. The put up recounted that when Mr. Garrels had earlier spoken about “acquisitions by POC artists,” he had added, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”

Mr. Garrels responded to this on July 7, saying that his feedback had been “a little bit skewed.” He then defined efforts on “broadly diversifying the collection.”

“We have put a lot of focus,” he continued, “on collecting women, Black artists, first nation, Native, L.G.B.T.Q., Latino and so on.”

He added: “I’m certainly not a believer in any kind of discrimination. And there are many white artists, many men who are making wonderful, wonderful work.”

When a workers member advised that Mr. Garrels’s remark was equal to saying, “All lives matter,” Mr. Garrels responded: “I’m sorry, I don’t agree. I think reverse discrimination — —”

What he stated after that was drowned out by gasps and somebody saying, “He didn’t say that!”

Five days later, Mr. Garrels, 63, senior curator of portray and sculpture, resigned. It is a choice that has drawn criticism from his many defenders within the artwork world, cheers from many in a museum workers that declared him an emblem of an objectionable establishment and a renewed focus on the time period “reverse discrimination.”

Used by opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the expression, stated Justin Gomer, assistant professor of American research at California State University at Long Beach, “has been one of the most effective ways to undercut efforts to achieve racial equality.” He stated, “It was popularized in the 1970s by civil rights opponents.”

Leigh Raiford, affiliate professor of African-American Studies on the University of California, Berkeley, referred to as the time period “the hollow cry of the privileged when they find themselves challenged to share power.”

And even a few of Mr. Garrels’s defenders are stunned he used it.

Kevin Beasley, a Black artist who views Mr. Garrels as a supporter, and credit him with accumulating his work for the museum, stated that when he heard Mr. Garrels’s remark he “was shocked,” and puzzled, “Is this Gary? It didn’t make sense.”

But supporters of the curator say that his use of the time period, which Mr. Garrels has apologized for, didn’t warrant his abrupt departure from a put up through which he had a file of supporting artists of colour and others. Just final yr, in a transfer he championed, the museum sold a Mark Rothko painting for $50.1 million and used the money to acquire works by women and people of color including Frank Bowling, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and Mickalene Thomas.

Credit…J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

“I am deeply saddened that Gary is viewed as having any racial prejudice toward artists,” said Komal Shah, a museum trustee who said Mr. Garrels had helped establish many young artists of color in the collection. “In my experience it simply isn’t true.”

Support came from outside the museum as well.

“Gary Garrels is not a white supremacist,” Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, said. “He has championed the voices of those who were in the margins.”

But others say Mr. Garrels did not just momentarily misspeak. Many staff members say they recalled remarks he made during a panel discussion about female artists in January in which he spoke about “parity” for women and that it would take time — and added: “The other thing I have to say is I reassured artists we will continue to collect white men. There are a lot of great women artists but also still a lot of great men out there as well.”

The next day, Mr. Garrels lost some essential support when an unsigned email to staff from “Members of the Curatorial Division” was sent, saying they “collectively” disavowed Mr. Garrels’s reverse discrimination comments. They added, “We will no longer accept such racism denial; unilateral power over systems, money and colleagues; and comments, made publicly and internally, that are offensive and reckless.”

It demanded “actions and accountability for Gary’s conduct.”

Mr. Garrels resigned the next day, apologizing to the museum staff for using “an offensive term.” He wrote, “I believe that true diversity and the fight for real and meaningful equality is the important battle of our time.” Then he said, “I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA and so I have offered my resignation.”

One museum employee of color who asked to not be named because of fears of losing a job said it felt like time for Mr. Garrels to leave.

“We were trying to make all these changes,” the employee said. “He was an obstacle to that. We were working so hard for so long and for him to make these statements, it was so disheartening.”

Mr. Garrels’s departure was part of an ongoing debate about racial equality in the staffing and the collecting at the museum, which draws close to one million visitors annually. The staff, which numbered nearly 500 before a coronavirus closure and layoffs, was 59 percent white, 16 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent Black (the remaining staffers identified with two or more races), a spokeswoman said.

Maria Jenson, executive director of SOMArts, a San Francisco organization that supports art for social change, and a former SFMOMA public partnerships manager, said the resignation was a “reflection of much larger issues.”

Since his resignation, the museum has outlined a number of steps it is taking in response to the criticism. Last week, it announced it will be hiring a director of diversity. It also promised to investigate new and old discrimination complaints, and to revise the exhibition review process to consider diversity, equity and inclusion.

Last Thursday, the museum curators, who had denounced Mr. Garrels, sent a letter to Mr. Benezra in which they said, “We write to voice our support for you and your understanding of the need for change.”

On Tuesday, the museum’s board chairman, Robert J. Fisher, sent an email to his staff in which he said the board supports Mr. Benezra, who, he wrote, “is committed to transforming SFMOMA into an anti-racist institution.”

“Our staff is hurt, exhausted and frustrated,” Mr. Fisher said. “They have been courageous in voicing their experiences of racism and inequity. We are deeply sorry for the pain and anger this has caused our wonderful team and our community.”

“We hear your calls for change,” he continued, “and are united in the commitment to respond with action.”

Some of the announced plans address demands made by No Neutral Alliance and the museum said it was trying to schedule a meeting with members of the group.

And for now, there are no more Zoom meetings. Last week, Davida Lindsay-Bell, the museum’s chief human resources officer, sent an email saying all-staff Zoom meetings would be postponed “until we resolve and improve format and logistics.”

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