The Brooklyn Museum recently announced a new curator of African Art, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a Princeton- and Yale-educated specialist in the field. This elicited some outrage in the museum community and the local Brooklyn community, especially in light of the recent depiction of the condescending white African Art curator in the recent film, Black Panther. Common questions include: “How can it be that the Brooklyn Museum could not find a qualified Black scholar for the position”, and “how hard did they look?”
In reporting on this issue, The New York Times found several museum professionals in the field of African Art who confirmed that it can be difficult to source appropriately diverse candidate pools for these positions.
“Steven Nelson, the director of U.C.L.A.’s African Studies Center, agreed, saying on Friday that he was “one of a very small number of African-American specialists in the field.” Art history as a whole has done “a very poor job of recruiting a diverse pool,” he said, adding that “African art history in the U.S. is primarily white and female.”
This matches much of what is already understood about the museum world and indeed college and graduate school candidate pools generally skew white. It is worth noting that Windmuller-Luna’s position was announced in tandem with another curatorial hire in Photography, Drew Sawyer, a white man.
Of course, it is not wrong for a white person to work in a subject that is about non-white art or other issues, but any opportunity to examine hiring practices and candidate pipelines is useful, and the Brooklyn Museum has been the subject of protests by Decolonize This Place and other anti-gentrification groups concerned about the Brooklyn Museum’s transition to catering to a whiter, wealthier visitorship, which corresponds to changes in the neighborhoods around the museum in the past 20 years. There are further concerns in the community about museum director, Anne Pasternak, who headed up a 2015 Halloween Party at the museum with the theme “The Bronx is Burning”, a reference to a rash of fires in the Bronx due to severe underfunding of critical services in the borough in the mid1970s.
In a neighborhood with its own history of racial strife and struggles with gentrification, with neighborhood organizations asking for the Brooklyn Museum to engage with them on these issues, it seems that the Brooklyn Museum could minimize public blow back when making announcements like this by taking actions to demonstrate their intentions to be a good community actor for all, not just the white sections of Crown Heights and surrounds. Community advisory panels, creating opportunities specifically for scholars of color, and good faith engagement when problems arise are only a few of the ways to build a better relationship with the Brooklyn community. However, the real issue at hand here is a structural one: Educational, economic, and hiring bias work together at every level of the process, reducing the pipeline of available students of color bound for higher education, reducing the amount of students of color accepted to elite organizations, and reducing the amount of people of color who make it through the resume review and interview processes. For the Brooklyn Museum to fail to acknowledge these structural issues means they are choosing complicity in a broken system rather than engaged action to create a better museum.