The New Leaders in Art

By Tyrone Beason | November 15, 2021

A group of esteemed curators and directors are shaking up the art world by breaking down historical barriers for people of color.


Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen LEGACY RUSSELL PHOTO BY ANDREAS LASZIO KONRATH
Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen LEGACY RUSSELL PHOTO BY ANDREAS LASZIO KONRATH

This should be a time of celebration and vindication for curators and directors of color who’ve ascended to curatorial and director positions at some of the top museums and galleries in the U.S. in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and last year’s global protests over systemic racism.

They’re taking seats at a table that, as curator, art historian and incoming deputy director of New York’s New Museum (newmuseum.org) Isolde Brielmaier (@isolde_brielmaier) puts it, “has been predicated on our absence.” But instead of an unbridled sense of triumph, Brielmaier and many of her peers are feeling cautiously optimistic that the racial reckoning that’s led to reforms in police departments, courts, and other institutions across America can serve as a lasting transformative force in their organizations.


Isolde Brielmaier, deputy director, New Museum ISOLDE BRIELMAIER PHOTO BY QUIL LEMONS
Isolde Brielmaier, deputy director, New Museum ISOLDE BRIELMAIER PHOTO BY QUIL LEMONS

They acutely understand that the work of making historically white male-dominated museums responsive to their times—and their communities—has only begun. “This certainly is a moment of monumental transition,” says artist, curator, and Glitch Feminism author Legacy Russell (@ellerustle). “This is an opening, an opportunity, but the idea is to keep it open.” Russell is in an especially fortunate position as the new director of the avant-garde art and performance venue The Kitchen (thekitchen.org) in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The Kitchen has a well-established tradition of supporting emerging and experimental artists of different backgrounds, and fostering honest conversation about the role art institutions should play at a time when a young, digitally savvy generation has upended concepts around race, gender, the nature of art, and reality itself. “When I stepped into this job at The Kitchen, I felt sort of called to action,” says Russell, who’s the first Black director in the organization’s 51-year history. The 35-year-old feels charged with a sense of hope that other more mainstream institutions will embrace this spirit of hyperawareness and welcome.


Claudia Rankine, Guggenheim Museum board of trustees member CLAUDIA RANKINE PHOTO BY CARL TIMPONE/BFA.COM
Claudia Rankine, Guggenheim Museum board of trustees member CLAUDIA RANKINE PHOTO BY CARL TIMPONE/BFA.COM

“WHEN YOU START PUTTING PEOPLE OF COLOR IN LEADERSHIP, YOU’RE MAKING IT POSSIBLE FOR THEM NOT JUST TO HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE—BUT TO REDEFINE WHAT THE ‘TABLE’ IS.” –ISOLDE BRIELMAIER

To join the scores of arts organizations hashtagging Black Lives Matter is one thing. To embed racial, economic, and gender justice into the DNA of an institution requires leaders to follow in the mold of Thelma Golden of The Studio Museum of Harlem (studiomuseum.org), for whom giving voice and space to those who’ve been denied it is “a life’s work,” not a diversity initiative, Russell says.

That means asking some delicate but necessary questions. Who sits on boards of trustees? Is the funding model outdated? What are the downsides of relying on the artistic tastes of wealthy, largely white art donors when making acquisitions? Do shows only feature works by white or male artists? What systems are in place to nurture, retain and elevate talented staffers of color? Is the museum relevant?


Ashley James, associate curator, Guggengheim Museum PHOTO BY JOE SCHILDHORN/BFA.CO
Ashley James, associate curator, Guggenheim Museum PHOTO BY JOE SCHILDHORN/BFA.CO

“It’s about navigating all of these complicated fault lines—and making them visible—even when they feel tender and uncomfortable,” says Russell. Brielmaier says art institutions must learn to become “comfortable with discomfort” if they are to grow and change. But the reality is that museums haven’t had the option to remain passive in this time of questioning, agitation, and upheaval.

“George Floyd—may he rest in peace—ignited this,” Brielmaier says.

Miki Garcia, director of the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe (asuartmuseum.asu.edu) since 2017, says it’s more important than ever for museum leaders to take a “360 approach” to their work. That means venturing outside to learn the issues, needs, and ways of occupying space of the different communities that surround their institutions. It means fearlessly seeking out voices of discontent, and also experiencing other people’s notions of culture and creativity.


Isolde Brielmaier, Legacy Russell and Thelma Golden at The Kitchen Gala Benefit honoring Debbie Harry and Cindy Sherman on Sept. 14. PHOTO BY JOE SCHILDHORN/BFA.COM
Isolde Brielmaier, Legacy Russell and Thelma Golden at The Kitchen Gala Benefit honoring Debbie Harry and Cindy Sherman on Sept. 14. PHOTO BY JOE SCHILDHORN/BFA.COM

The ambitious current exhibit Garcia co-curated, Undoing Time, seems to be a rebuke to the ivory tower posture of many art museums. A dozen artists were invited to consult with community members and examine historical images of imprisonment during the production of new works that illustrate how cultural beliefs cemented centuries ago underpin America’s mass incarceration crisis. Exhibits like Undoing Time demonstrate how leaders who come from historically marginalized groups can help make museums feel less insulated—and more honest.

In that spirit, Ashley James (@ohashuhlee), who became The Guggenheim’s first full-time Black curator when hired in 2019, named her recent debut exhibition Off the Record. Though not part of the recent diversity initiative launched in response to recent complaints by curatorial staff of entrenched racism at the 82-year-old institution, James’ show tapped into the broader national debate over inclusion and representation.


Antwaun Sargent, director and curator, Gagosian PHOTO BY SANSHO SCOTT /BFA.COM
Antwaun Sargent, director, and curator, Gagosian PHOTO BY SANSHO SCOTT /BFA.COM

Featuring more than a dozen contemporary artists, it included works that contained altered government documents, newspapers, photos, and other “objective” material, all designed to reveal the racial biases that corrupt the telling—and analysis—of history.

As one of the nation’s biggest galleries, Gagosian (gagosian.com) also seemed to take heed of the times when it hired the 32-year-old writer Antwaun Sargent (@sirsargent) as a director and curator earlier this year. Author of The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, a celebration of the Black presence in contemporary fashion, Sargent has promised to focus on lifting up underrepresented artists and exploring different ways of connecting art to communities.


Kehinde Wiley and Antwaun Sargent PHOTO BY SANSHO SCOTT/BFA.COM
Kehinde Wiley and Antwaun Sargent PHOTO BY SANSHO SCOTT/BFA.COM

Even with promising developments such as the appointment of poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine (claudiarankine.com) as The Guggenheim’s second-ever Black female trustee in October, the growing presence of curators and directors of color, and more work by artists from nonwhite backgrounds appearing on gallery walls, American museums have an immense amount of ground to make up to show they’re serious about looking more like society as a whole.

People of color held only 16% of the leadership positions at U.S. art museums, according to a study by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015. In 2019, researchers from Williams College and the University of California, Los Angeles studied 18 major U.S. art museums and found that works by white artists made up 85.4% of their collections and that 87.4% of them were by men. Just 1.2% of their collections were works by Black artists, and works by Latinos represented just 2.8%.


Kelli Morgan PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS
Kelli Morgan PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS

Garcia says, on one hand, she’s thrilled that a younger generation of social-justice activists has called out institutions, both governmental and cultural, and pressured them to give meaning to their declarations about equity, inclusion, and fairness. “But I’m dismayed that this is the only form of accountability,” Garcia says. “It’s not until museums are shamed or called out that they react. It’s as if Black and brown people are supposed to be grateful, and they don’t understand why we’re cynical.”

Recognizing the need to follow up recruitment efforts with retention programs, the Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation recently launched a mentorship and networking initiative for emerging curators of color in the U.S. and around the world, to help them cope with “isolationism, racism, inequity and lack of access that are far too often the experience for BIPOC curators.” The program’s curatorial adviser, Kelli Morgan, resigned in protest from the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields in 2020. Her departure sparked an outpouring of anger among colleagues and on social media over the challenges people of color face on the job even as their appointments are trumpeted as a sign of progress. Morgan says she received a death threat after resigning and going public with her criticism of what she came to see as an out-of-touch, racist leadership at Newfields that treated diversity as window dressing. The experience threw her into a career crisis. How could she go on working in a field that seemed unwilling to examine itself and adapt to the times?


Morgan and Justin Brown PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS
Morgan and Justin Brown PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS

She felt like throwing all of her art catalogs into the garbage and walking away from museums altogether. “I no longer believe that museums can be reformed—they have to be dismantled,” Morgan says. “Colonialism and imperialism are their foundation. Nothing truly collective and healthy can emerge from that.” Morgan’s voice brightens as she talks about her recent decision to take a job leading the inaugural curatorial studies program at Tufts University in Boston. She’ll still be an agent of change for museums—by molding the next generation of curators.

“Nobody’s teaching how to deal with racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic institutions,” Morgan says. “Now, I’ll pivot. I’ll retrain current professionals and new ones with strategies for identifying, challenging, and subverting the patriarchy.” In a way, it’s unfair to expect leaders of color to shoulder the primary responsibility of speaking truth to a white power structure that has for centuries defined what museums do, controlled hiring, funded collections, and shows, and determined what should, and shouldn’t, be considered “art.”

But what’s the alternative?

“I have to take the risk of being ‘that person’ who says things which white directors in the last year haven’t been called on to say,” says Garcia. “They have a choice. I don’t have a choice.” At the same time, she says, “I just can’t imagine me sitting back at this moment.”


Morgan at a community meal. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS
Morgan at a community meal. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS

Brielmaier believes this period of accountability and increased transparency can, in the end, lead to genuine transformation, as long as leaders of color continue to assert their presence, intellect, and creativity. “We’ve always been here,” Brielmaier says. “But when you start putting people of color in leadership and give them the voice and influence to really change culture, you’re making it possible for them not just to have a seat at the table but to redefine what the ‘table’ is.”

“I NO LONGER BELIEVE THAT MUSEUMS CAN BE REFORMED—THEY HAVE TO BE DISMANTLED.” –KELLI MORGAN

American society has been profoundly shaken—by a deadly pandemic, by protests against legacies of injustice, by the retrograde politics of populists and nationalists, by mass migrations and demographic change. In the coming years, the U.S. will look less and less like the white citizens who have historically held power, acted as arbiters of culture, and chosen the art that’s preserved for posterity. It will look more and more like the current generation of women of color who are helping to reimagine their art institutions and take inclusion to the next level.

Days before taking the helm at The Kitchen, Russell wrote an open letter to her peers that looks ahead but also looks back. She muses about following in the tracks of gallerist, filmmaker, and activist Linda Goode Bryant and other leaders and thinkers in the 1970s who encouraged scrutiny of what was then, as now, “a largely siloed and segregated” art world. They were yearning for a time in which contemporary artists of color were embraced, in which they were valued for breaking molds, defying expectations, crossing disciplines, and creating in ways previously unimagined. “There’s no reason that time can’t be now,” Russell says.

“Opening our doors to the future of risky, radical, rigorous alternatives,” she wrote in her letter, “our hope is to keep investing in pathways of discovery away from the center, toward the ecstatic edges that keep us dreaming, building, exploring, experimenting.

“We’ll meet you there.”

Photography by: (Images credited above)