‘Simply Not a Good Look’: Activists Criticize the Brooklyn Museum’s Hiring of a White African Art Curator

The group is calling on the museum to form a Decolonization Commission.

The Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images.

In response to the Brooklyn Museum’s appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, who is white, as African art curator, the activist group Decolonize This Place has written an open letter urging the institution to address the unfolding “curatorial crisis.”

“No matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age,” says the letter, which the group published on its website on Tuesday. “Especially on the part of a museum that prides itself on its relationships with the diverse communities of Brooklyn.”

Windmuller-Luna has a Ph.D. in African art history from Princeton University, is a lecturer of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, and previously taught at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While the group stops short of calling for the dismissal of Windmuller-Luna, they criticized director Anne Pasternak for the “tone-deaf decision” and called for the museum “to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission” to “account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy.”

In a series of demands, Decolonize This Place challenged the museum to diversify its curatorial staff and executive leadership, and to begin the repatriation of African artifacts in its collection. The group also calls for pay raises for its ground staff, who it says are predominantly people of color, and urged the museum to advocate for the de-gentrification of the borough it serves.

Social-media reactions have vacillated between anger and acknowledgment of Windmuller-Luna’s qualifications. “People from the African diaspora are frustrated with white people being gatekeepers of our narrative. We have yet to be afforded the same access and opportunities,” wrote one Twitter user, Kimberly Selden.

On the other hand, Princeton University African art professor Chika Okeke-Agulu defended the hiring in a blog post: “I fully support her hire, and while we must press on museums and art history schools to do more to diversify their curatorial, managerial and professorial ranks, it makes absolutely no sense to say that white people should not be hired to curate or teach African art.”

The Brooklyn Museum did not respond to a request for comment. But a Twitter update said: “As we think about ways to engage in this conversation with the care it deserves, we want to assure you that you can count on use, as ever, to continue working deeply on equity within out institution and beyond. At the Brooklyn Museum we have a diverse curatorial staff working hard to create exhibitions, public programs, and educational activities that examine the important and challenging social issues of our time. We’re continuing build pipelines for diversity in the arts through school collaborations, internships, fellowships, institutional partnerships, and more. We are committed to equity in all that we do—and we’re ever grateful for your support and honesty along the way.”

Read the full open letter below.

We don’t know all of the factors that went into the decision of Anne Pasternak and others to appoint a white woman (Kristen Windmuller-Luna) as the new chief curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s African collection. But 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. What we have heard expressed is a sense of surprise, on the one hand, that this museum of all museums would make such a tone-deaf decision, and, on the other, the realization that the decision is not a surprise at all given the pervasive structures of white supremacy in the art field. So, what will the Brooklyn Museum do now?

We expect the museum to take extraordinary measures to address the public concern surrounding this specific hiring decision, and, in doing so, to resist falling back on the default criterion of Ivy-League expertise that by its very nature is biased towards white scholars. But we also believe that the current crisis calls for a more wide-ranging, structural response. We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.

The gathering crisis cannot be confined to rectifying a single misstep in recruitment. It reflects deeper structural flaws within this museum’s culture in particular and in the field, more generally. Museum officials need to look beyond demographic diversification per se, notwithstanding the dismal rates of representation of Black people and other communities of color in higher-rank positions within cultural institutions. Ultimately, the situation calls for a decolonial approach that goes to the root and branch of the museum’s institutional culture and sense of historical mission. Why are colonial legacies still informing its fundamental operations? A time of reckoning with these legacies is long overdue, along with a willingness to embrace new modes of accountability.

The hue and cry over this hire has brought to light a major disconnect between the governance of the museum and the communities of Brooklyn whom the institution is obliged to serve. Unlike other city museums that are more unabashed in catering to the global tourist trade, the Brooklyn Museum has recently provided evidence of a desire to live up to these obligations. Last year, Rujeko Hockley and Catherine Morris of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art mounted the groundbreaking exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985. What if the spirit of this extraordinary show was extended to inform the actual structure and governance of the museum itself? The resulting changes in the institutional culture would not only be welcome in their own right, but they would also most certainly preempt any repeat of the current debacle, where the museum is expending time and energy doing damage-control around the bad optics of hiring a white woman to curate the African collection.

But shows like We Wanted a Revolution are the exception to the rule, and the current commotion around the Africanist hire is only the latest controversy about the disjunct between the institution and the public on its doorstep. In 2016, the museum mounted the exhibition Agitprop!, devoted to radical art and activism over the past century. At the very same time, it was playing host to the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, at which leading property corporations strategized about how to best identify new frontiers of investment in the borough. The President and Chief Operating Officer of the museum is David Berliner, a top executive at Forest Ratner, notorious for the Atlantic Yards project which kicked off the intensive gentrification of downtown Brooklyn in the early 2000s. The museum also provided cover for pro-Israeli artwashing in the exhibition of the lavishly-funded This Place photography show. In fact, it was the conjunction of these two examples of artwashing that inspired the formation of Decolonize this Place, an arts-activist collective that has focused much of its energies on actions devoted to the decolonial overhaul of New York City museums.

The analysis and practice developed in these actions suggests a more comprehensive response to the clamor surrounding the museum’s curatorial hire. We believe that this moment presents an opportunity for the museum to review — and fully acknowledge — its fraught history of acquisition, exhibition, staffing, and self-presentation with a view to reconstructing its operations, both internal and public-facing. We have presented the American Museum of Natural History with a similar proposition, following the Anti-Columbus Day Tours of 2016 and 2017, and in the recent campaign to remove odious public monuments, including the Theodore Roosevelt statue that disgraces its entrance.

This decolonization process would have a time-frame, starting with the acknowledgment that the buildings sit on stolen indigenous land, that they contain thousands of objects expropriated from people of color around the world, and that the institution is governed by a group of majority-white members of the 1% actively involved in the dynamics of racialized dispossession and displacement in Brooklyn. Further steps would entail decisions about the framing of the display of its collection; who is appointed to make these decisions, and in consultation with which communities of conscience in the borough and beyond. Decolonization is never a finished process, but, once undertaken, its logic can and should unfold in ways that are transparent and just.

No doubt, museum officials will be apprehensive about this larger proposition–the leadership of the American Museum of Natural History appears to have adopted a siege mentality in response–and yet there is every reason to grasp the opportunity to embrace it. The Brooklyn Museum can turn this loss of face into a far-reaching commitment to make museological history in a borough heralded — worldwide — for its innovative initiatives and ethos of inclusion. 

In this spirit, we propose the following:

The Decolonization Commission, which will include local stakeholders, would explore:

 1) Territorial Acknowledgement of Indigenous land occupied by its buildings and giving material effect to such an acknowledgment in curatorial practices, programming, exhibitions, and day-to-day operations.

2) The deep diversification of curatorial staff and executive leadership whereby the lived experience of oppressions —  including patriarchy, white supremacy, and poverty — are valued and factored in.

3) A decolonial inventory of colonial-era objects of both African and Indigenous people with a view to settling the long-pursued claims of reparations and repatriation.

4) An upgrade of working conditions and pay of ground staff —  who are disproportionately employees of color — in security, food service, and janitorial divisions. 

5) The replacement of Board president David Berliner and other trustees who are real estate tycoons with a broad cross-section of artists and community organizers.

 6) The undertaking of a de-gentrification initiative to examine and mitigate the museum’s role in boosting land value and rents in the borough.

7) An institutional commitment to address the issues raised by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recognition of the debate among Brooklynites about the central role played by segments of the borough’s population in the settler movement in Palestine.

Initiated by:

Decolonize This Place

And supported by:

Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN)

Flower Lovers Against Corruption (FLAC)

Equality for Flatbush (E4F)

Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP)

Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification

NYC Stands with Standing Rock

Black Youth Project 100

Chinatown Art Brigade

Bronx Social Center

Take Back The Bronx

Free University

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