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Brooklyn Museum responds to controversy over its new white curator of African art

Museum’s director expresses confidence in Kristen Windmuller-Luna’s ‘anticolonial’ approach

5:16 PMThe Brooklyn Museum issued a lengthy official response on Friday to the furor over the announcement of its newest curator of African art.

The controversy began March 26 when the museum tweeted that it had hired two new curators: Drew Sawyer, who will oversee photography, and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, who will direct an overhaul of the museum’s extensive collection of African art. Both Sawyer and Windmuller-Luna are white.

In response to the hirings, a coalition of Brooklyn anti-gentrification groups called on the museum to create a “decolonization commission.”

In a lengthy letter released to the press, museum director Anne Pasternak defended Windmuller-Luna against attacks that had been levied against the new curator, mostly on social media.

“The Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts,” Pasternak wrote. “The Museum’s collection of African arts is among the most important and extensive in the nation. Giving the collection the prominence it deserves, in terms of both its aesthetics and cultural value, has been one of this institution’s most pressing priorities. In order to ensure the highest level of scholarly excellence in how we preserve and present our collections of historical African arts, we knew the job required a specialist with a Ph.D. in this area.”

Some critics made a connection between the museum appointment and a scene from the wildly popular Black Panther movie. In the film, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) explains to a white curator at the British Museum that the only reason the institution holds African artifacts is because British colonizers raided the continent of its cultural and natural resources.

Pasternak pushed back on those making the comparison to Windmuller-Luna and the Brooklyn museum.

“With her anticolonial approach to curating, she has devoted her professional life to celebrating the individual identities of historical African cultures, and to communicating how those vibrant societies play powerful roles in the world at large,” Pasternak said in a statement. “Her priority at the Museum is to create dynamic, multi-vocal installations that speak to all our communities, including those of African descent, both locally and nationally. All of us at the Museum are confident that with her expertise and care, we will revitalize and transform the presentation and interpretation of our collection, and amplify our capacity to illuminate connections and shared narratives with our broad and diverse audience.”

The controversy over Windmuller-Luna’s race highlighted a few points that usually don’t draw widespread attention. Curation is a disproportionately white profession, as Kimberly Drew, an art curator, creator of the Black Contemporary Art tumblr and social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently pointed out. And the profession requires degrees that can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars without any guarantee of lucrative work.

“African art scholars in the US are overwhelmingly white and female, tweeted UCLA professor Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African-American art history who serves as director of the UCLA African Studies Center. “Given this situation and given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

Windmuller-Luna has undeniable expertise. She received her doctorate and master’s degree in art and archaeology from Princeton and her bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. Her work focuses on the early modern period of African art, architecture and Christian Ethiopia.

“Given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

It’s understandable that black museumgoers want to see themselves among the ranks of those curating black art, especially at the nation’s most visible and highly regarded institutions. But not every black person who studies art history necessarily wants to specialize in art created by black artists.

Pasternak was sensitive to this too.

“The Brooklyn Museum recognizes that the longstanding and pervasive issues of structural racism profoundly affect the lives of people of color,” she wrote. “It is right to press museums and other institutions to diversify their leadership. Museums help shape the cultural imagination and contribute to society, so we have a responsibility to bring the broadest possible range of voices into our work. Cultural institutions also need to do much more to support young people of diverse backgrounds in pursuing advanced degrees in art history and succeeding in leadership positions. Please know that every day the Brooklyn Museum is working to advance these efforts and its longstanding and widely recognized commitment to equity in all its forms, including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.”

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5:16 PMThe Brooklyn Museum issued a lengthy official response on Friday to the furor over the announcement of its newest curator of African art.

The controversy began March 26 when the museum tweeted that it had hired two new curators: Drew Sawyer, who will oversee photography, and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, who will direct an overhaul of the museum’s extensive collection of African art. Both Sawyer and Windmuller-Luna are white.

In response to the hirings, a coalition of Brooklyn anti-gentrification groups called on the museum to create a “decolonization commission.”

In a lengthy letter released to the press, museum director Anne Pasternak defended Windmuller-Luna against attacks that had been levied against the new curator, mostly on social media.

“The Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts,” Pasternak wrote. “The Museum’s collection of African arts is among the most important and extensive in the nation. Giving the collection the prominence it deserves, in terms of both its aesthetics and cultural value, has been one of this institution’s most pressing priorities. In order to ensure the highest level of scholarly excellence in how we preserve and present our collections of historical African arts, we knew the job required a specialist with a Ph.D. in this area.”

Some critics made a connection between the museum appointment and a scene from the wildly popular Black Panther movie. In the film, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) explains to a white curator at the British Museum that the only reason the institution holds African artifacts is because British colonizers raided the continent of its cultural and natural resources.

Pasternak pushed back on those making the comparison to Windmuller-Luna and the Brooklyn museum.

“With her anticolonial approach to curating, she has devoted her professional life to celebrating the individual identities of historical African cultures, and to communicating how those vibrant societies play powerful roles in the world at large,” Pasternak said in a statement. “Her priority at the Museum is to create dynamic, multi-vocal installations that speak to all our communities, including those of African descent, both locally and nationally. All of us at the Museum are confident that with her expertise and care, we will revitalize and transform the presentation and interpretation of our collection, and amplify our capacity to illuminate connections and shared narratives with our broad and diverse audience.”

The controversy over Windmuller-Luna’s race highlighted a few points that usually don’t draw widespread attention. Curation is a disproportionately white profession, as Kimberly Drew, an art curator, creator of the Black Contemporary Art tumblr and social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently pointed out. And the profession requires degrees that can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars without any guarantee of lucrative work.

“African art scholars in the US are overwhelmingly white and female, tweeted UCLA professor Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African-American art history who serves as director of the UCLA African Studies Center. “Given this situation and given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

Windmuller-Luna has undeniable expertise. She received her doctorate and master’s degree in art and archaeology from Princeton and her bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. Her work focuses on the early modern period of African art, architecture and Christian Ethiopia.

“Given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

It’s understandable that black museumgoers want to see themselves among the ranks of those curating black art, especially at the nation’s most visible and highly regarded institutions. But not every black person who studies art history necessarily wants to specialize in art created by black artists.

Pasternak was sensitive to this too.

“The Brooklyn Museum recognizes that the longstanding and pervasive issues of structural racism profoundly affect the lives of people of color,” she wrote. “It is right to press museums and other institutions to diversify their leadership. Museums help shape the cultural imagination and contribute to society, so we have a responsibility to bring the broadest possible range of voices into our work. Cultural institutions also need to do much more to support young people of diverse backgrounds in pursuing advanced degrees in art history and succeeding in leadership positions. Please know that every day the Brooklyn Museum is working to advance these efforts and its longstanding and widely recognized commitment to equity in all its forms, including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.”