Gary Garrels, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Longtime Chief Curator, Resigns Amid Staff Uproar

Garrels, one of the country's most prominent curators, said that not collecting the work of white men would amount to "reverse discrimination."

Gary Garrels in 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by STEFANIE KEENAN/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Gary Garrels, the senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has resigned following an uproar from employees over his comments at a recent staff meeting.

Garrels, who worked at SFMOMA from 1993 to 2000 and then again beginning in 2008, is one of the most prominent curators in the country, and certainly the most high-ranking museum official to leave their post amid the current reckoning over racial justice and systemic inequality.

Earlier this week, Garrels was confronted by an employee at an all-staff Zoom meeting about previous comments he had made regarding the museum’s collecting priorities. (In a widely shared Instagram post on the account @changethemuseum, an employee recounted that the senior curator, who is white, ended a presentation about new acquisitions by artists of color by saying, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”)

At the meeting, Garrels said that the museum could not avoid collecting the work of white men, which would amount to “reverse discrimination.” Soon afterward, a group of former employees who have been advocating for change at the museum created a petition calling for his resignation, which had been signed by 180 people as of publication time.

“Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable,” the petition’s authors wrote. “Considering his lengthy tenure at this institution, we ask just how long have his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity directed his position curating the content of the museum?”

In his email to staff on Saturday, Garrels said, “I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you. I realized almost as soon as I used the term ‘reverse discrimination’ that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff.”

Referencing the earlier comments described in the Instagram post, Garrels said he wanted to make clear “that I do not believe I have ever said that it is important to collect the art of white men. I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men.”

Garrels continued that “true diversity and the fight for real equality is the important battle of our time” and that he would “contribute… in any way that I can to reach that goal.” Nevertheless, he said, “I realize in the current climate, I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA.”

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

Garrels’s resignation was accepted by both the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, and its board of trustees. A spokesperson was unable to comment on whether leadership requested his resignation or if Garrels had been the subject of any formal complaints prior to the staff meeting.

The curator’s resignation comes at an extremely tumultuous moment for the museum. Since the shutdown, it has laid off or reduced the hours of more than 30 percent of its staff. But it has also been the subject of aggressive criticism regarding its treatment of employees, particularly those of color, and its handling of issues of race and equity.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu's HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMoMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu’s HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMOMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

Garrels is the fourth employee to leave the museum this month in the midst of this internal turmoil. Nan Keeton, deputy director for external relations, left the museum on July 2 by mutual agreement after she was involved in the widely reported censorship of a critical comment on Instagram from a former employee, Taylor Brandon, about SFMOMA’s treatment of Black staff members. The museum’s recruitment staffing manager and its director of HR have also resigned.

Garells recently became the target of criticism after it emerged that he (as well as the museum’s director) had received no-interest home loans from the museum, which some saw as emblematic of its unequal treatment of employees. (Garells’s loan was worth $500,000.)

During his tenure at SFMOMA, Garrels organized early museum shows by Glenn Ligon, Doris Salcedo, and Kara Walker, as well as retrospectives of the work of Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner, and Sol LeWitt. But his lasting legacy at SFMOMA may be tied to two very different initiatives: the museum’s extended loan deal of the Fisher Collection and its decision, last year, to auction off a painting by Mark Rothko for $50.1 million in order to create a dedicated fund to acquire work by female artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ+ artists. Works that have been acquired using the fund include pieces by Rebecca Belmore, Forrest Bess, Frank Bowling, Leonora Carrington, Lygia Clark, and Norman Lewis.

The “Pop, Minimalism, and Figurative” galleries at SFMOMA. Courtesy of Ben Davis.

The “Pop, Minimalism, and Figurative” galleries at SFMOMA. Courtesy of Ben Davis.

The debate surrounding the Fisher Collection has been reignited in light of discussions about a lack of representation in SFMOMA’s collection in particular, and in Modern and contemporary art museums more broadly. In 2009, Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher agreed to lend their collection of 1,100 works to the museum for 100 years. As part of the deal, the museum agreed to organize Fisher-only displays once a decade and to keep three-quarters of the works on show at all times in designated galleries as Fisher works. But the collection contains very few works by women or artists of color, creating a structural dominance of white men in the museum’s galleries.

“There are few curators over the course of SFMOMA’s 85-year history who have made as profound a contribution to the museum and our community as Gary Garrels,” Benezra, the museum’s director, said in a statement. “I cannot thank Gary enough for his exceptional work on behalf of SFMOMA.”

Garrels’s last day at the museum will be July 31. Sarah Roberts, the museum’s head of painting and sculpture, will serve as interim chief of the department.

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