Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 expansion of the Museum of Modern Art integrated the glass buildings on either side of the museum so that when you are sitting towards 54th street, in the Cullman offices, in your little cubicle, like I did when I worked there as an administrative assistant from 2019 to 2021, you can see the galleries across the sculpture garden, with its visitors moving around like dolls. The museum’s see-through modernism, however, belies a different kind of opacity. When you’re sitting at your cubicle, you feel like one part of a very large machine—each floor of Cullman is occupied by a curatorial department, and additional floors in the adjacent building house conservation, marketing, development, etc. It is a machine so large that sometimes it feels like you’re in a small bedroom in a huge house, and you wouldn’t know if something happened in another bedroom or on a different floor.
One day in April of 2021, I sat in my cubicle and sorted mail. I moved small colored blocks around on my bosses’ Google calendars, memorized phone extensions, and made transfers. I made a Google doc with potential contemporary acquisitions, finalized an itinerary to China for a curator. I took a lunch break. I took notes in a meeting about getting image rights for a catalogue we were producing.
When I checked my phone, I saw on Hyperallergic that there had been a protest at the museum. Presumably, I had been there—in meetings, at my cubicle, in my little room—but I hadn’t heard the protestors. Their tenets, organized under the #StrikeMoMA banner, proposed that the museum stood for a colonialist mindset and that, on principle, it should be abolished. I felt torn between the kind of work I was doing in the office—acquiring work by artists from marginalized groups to fill historical gaps and producing programs around it—and my sympathies for the initiatives of the protest just a few stories below me. Even if I didn’t agree with all their tenets or the violent altercation that sprung up, I had not been entirely satisfied with the museum’s treatment of employees during the pandemic; nor did the continued presence of billionaire investor and Jeffrey Epstein accomplice Leon Black on the board sit well with me. From a bird’s-eye view, I imagined two versions of myself: one in a cubicle, moving little colored blocks around, and another down below, holding a picket sign.
This is a conflict that I imagine many young, activist curators are torn between: How and when do you work within legacy institutions? There is no such thing as working “outside” of the institution, if the institution is capitalism, but there are varying levels of engagement with it. Not everyone wants to do repair work; some want to build something entirely new. But often a more significant deciding factor, beyond politics, is more practical: healthcare, a living wage, parental leave. This tension—between changing the institution from the inside and protesting it from the outside—is not only a psychological conflict for young curators, often of color, but a structural feature of museums, as diversity efforts hoover in more eligible candidates with track records of socially motivated curatorial efforts. The institution is drawn toward those who can leverage their racial identity into a curatorial practice, which the institution can then leverage (or co-opt) into its brand.
While diversity of race is but one factor that distinguishes young curators, it is often celebrated as the premier marker of progress for primarily white institutions. Per a 2015 national survey, only 16 percent of those in conservation, curatorial, education, and museum leadership positions were nonwhite; three years later, that number rose to 20 percent . In 2018, Tom Finkelpearl, then New York’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said, “The whitest job in the entire cultural community in New York is curator.” But, he added, “That’s changing.” He was speaking to the New York Times about a suite of new hires and programs that were intended to remedy the longstanding absence of people of color in the field. By 2022, the year after I left MoMA, 27 percent of “intellectual leadership positions” in museums were nonwhite.
Before the 2020 uprisings in protest of George Floyd’s police murder, institutions’ stalling line was always some version of “structural change takes time.” But the protests provoked swift change, at least on the surface, when the calls for systemic justice more broadly rippled into the art world. The immediate years following the protests brought many important firsts, especially of Black-women hires at high-profile institutions. In 2021, Naomi Beckwith became director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum, two years after the institution hired its first full-time Black curator, Ashley James. That same year, the Whitney Museum announced the promotion of Adrienne Edwards to director of curatorial affairs, and the Kitchen hired writer and curator Legacy Russell as its first Black director. Isolde Brielmaier was named deputy director of the New Museum, and E. Carmen Ramos was the first woman and the first person of color to be appointed chief curator of the National Gallery of Art.
Curators of color, especially Black women, have become increasingly tasked to do nothing less than remake legacy institutions from the inside out. “Her expertise will be invaluable in advancing and amplifying an inclusive range of perspectives within the Guggenheim collection and culture,” wrote the Guggenheim of Beckwith, in a press release. And, over the last few years, this new curating corps has put up major exhibitions devoted to introducing audiences to previously overlooked or misunderstood artists of color, and creating the necessary institutional contexts and interpretive frameworks for them. A few examples among many, just in 2021: Guggenheim curator Ashley James presented twelve collection artists, most of them Black, around the theme of official narratives and their omissions in Off the Record. (James’s upcoming show, Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility, groups artists around a related theme of occlusion and semi-visibility, in literal and figurative senses). And after Gagosian named Antwaun Sargent director and curator, Sargent curated two iterations of the exhibition Social Works at the gallery that explore the “relationship between space—personal, public, institutional, and psychic—and Black social practice.”
These hires are the product of generations of protests at the museum; not so long ago, museums were outright rejecting appeals for more curators of color. Yet institutions’ statements about these hires, and the art press’s reporting on them, leaned toward a histrionic emphasis on the idea that these recent changes were unprecedented. The suggestion that institutions and their structures went unquestioned prior to 2020 betrays a willful amnesia about the central role that museums have long played as sites of protest, struggle, and—occasionally—stuttering and much-too-slow progress. Sitting at my cubicle at MoMA, I fell deeper and deeper into an internet spiral, feeling more and more unnerved by the increasing number of POC hires at major institutions. Did you want to tear down a system that has just now begun to benefit you?
A 2018 New York Times headline declared that museums were cultivating curators of color “with new urgency,” and many of the initiatives that followed the uprisings of summer 2020 were similarly coded as novel. But, for more than sixty years, artists and art workers have protested racist or misrepresentative exhibitions and hostile working conditions at museums—and, for more than 60 years, museums have met their efforts with resistance and outright rejection. Past failures to diversify the gatekeeping institutions that rule the art world suggest that the problem is about more than just who chooses what goes on the walls.
On November 17, 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement, protestors gathered at the Whitney’s doors with signs that read, “Ignored in the ’30s, ignored in the ’60s.” The museum was showing The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America, a survey exhibition that sought to challenge conventional depictions of Depression-era American art as primarily social realist. Among the eighty artists featured, not one was African American. Overlooked entirely were Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, both of whom had exhibited at the museum in the 1930s and had work in its permanent collection. Frustrated by the museum’s failings (at that point, the Whitney had never mounted a solo show by a Black artist), a group of artists and organizers, including Henri Ghent, Benny Andrews, Faith Ringgold, and Ed Taylor, formed what would come to be known as the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), and put forth a list of demands to the Whitney’s then director John I. H. Baur. They called for a major group show of Black artists organized by a Black curator; increased representation of Black artists in what were then the Whitney Annuals; and a commitment to hire Black curatorial staff, mount a minimum of five solo shows a year for Black artists in the lobby gallery, and purchase more work by Black artists.
The Whitney refused to hire a Black curator, even to work on these particular shows: they were all organized by white staffers Robert Doty and Marcia Tucker. “We have made it clear that we could not appoint a black guest curator for the Black show, the Annuals or any of our other activities,” Baur explained in a 1969 letter to the museum’s president. “We have said only that we would consider qualified Black candidates when a regular curatorial opening occurred, but that our final choice would be based on the ability and experience of all candidates.”
The museum did hold some eleven solo shows for Black artists between 1969 and 1975, as well as one group exhibition. But of those thirteen featured artists, ten were men and five were figurative painters—a reflection of the art world’s broad rejection of Black women, as well as its bias against Black artists working abstractly and in mediums less marketable than painting. Each of the shows took place in a small ground-floor gallery that, according to writer Lawrence Alloway, was colloquially known as the “n—-r room.” The BECC terminated its negotiations with the Whitney in 1975 but the group had other museums to target with its activism.
Also in 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition called “Harlem on My Mind”: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. The show did not include any Black artists, unless you count the use of the work of Black photographers Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee as wallpaper. Ignoring Lawrence, Bearden, and Ringgold—all of whom were living and working in Harlem at the time (and two of whom had works in the Met’s permanent collection)—the show instead told a story about Harlem through ephemera, like newspaper clippings and historical pictures of local leaders and residents, didactic timelines, and even recordings of street noise. Its guest curator was, of course, white. The BECC picketed the Met this time, carrying signs that read, “Harlem on Whose Mind?”
Elsewhere in the city, curators who had been shut out of major museums founded their own exhibition spaces. In 1974, the artist and filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant opened Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery to show the work of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous artists. At the time, it was the first and only Black-owned and Black-operated gallery in New York, and until it closed in 1986, it showed experimental and performance-based work by many now-famous Black artists like Senga Nengudi, David Hammons, and Lorraine O’Grady. In October 2022, MoMA opened a large survey show about JAM, the significance and perhaps bitter irony of which was not lost on Bryant. “I kept thinking about those years on 57th Street where we were literally four blocks away,” she told Artnet last fall. “There was no way to cultivate the interest of folks from the museum.”
Meanwhile, art collectives continued to challenge the lack of minority representation in museums. “These galleries show no more than 10% women artists or none at all,” the anonymous group the Guerilla Girls point out in its iconic 1985 posters, which list Pace, Leo Castelli, Marian Goodman, and others. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” read another of its slogans. In 1991, the Asian American arts-activist group Godzilla sent an open letter to David Ross, then the director of the Whitney, objecting to the lack of Asian American artists in the museum’s Biennial as well as in its collections, exhibitions, and executive boards. The letter argued that the public’s understanding of art was limited by the viewpoints of an institution’s curators, and that the museum hadn’t caught up with demographic shifts. Ross conceded that “people tend to order what’s on the menu.”
Even as minority representation in exhibitions began to grow, staff curatorial hires were still few and far between. In May 1990 , the New Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem opened the collaborative exhibition The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, which they advertised as “fully multicultural.” But its primary curators were still white. The 1993 Whitney Biennial was overseen by three white curators and one Black curator, Thelma Golden, who had been hired in 1988 to develop programming for the museum’s satellite space on the first floor of tobacco company Philip Morris’s headquarters. The show’s diversity—of race, gender, and sexuality—was impressive for the time, and the work reflected that. A photomural by the artist Pat Ward Williams, featuring five young Black men staring at the camera and spray-painted with the words “WHAT YOU LOOKN AT,” hung facing the street. Artist Daniel Joseph Martinez’s admissions tags read, “I Can’t. Imagine. Ever Wanting. To Be. White.”
White critics panned the ’93 Biennial in most of the major outlets, with almost comically angry reviews. “I hate the show,” wrote Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times. Writing in the Village Voice, Peter Schjeldahl declared that it “really may have been the worst ever.” In the New York Observer, Hilton Kramer went out of his way to note that Black curator Thelma Golden’s inclusion reflected an “awful logic.” Roberta Smith, also writing for the Times, was a rare outlier. She called the show a “watershed,” although she faulted it for being less about “the art of our time than about the times themselves.” In reaction, it seemed, the next several iterations of the Biennial backed away from the radicalism of the ’93 exhibition: the ’95 edition featured predominantly white male artists. At the time, Artforum wrote that the appointment of Klaus Kertess as that year’s Biennial curator “confirmed that instead of a multiculti blitzkrieg we would be presented with a show of ‘sensibility’”—a “painting show.” Nevertheless, the ’93 Biennial did seem to reflect broader cultural currents and institutional shifts: around that time, major New York museums were hiring several curators of color, including members of Godzilla (like Eugenie Tsai at the Whitney in 1998), and Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1987.
Although the Whitney responded to the 1993 backlash with a conservative follow-up that foregrounded paintings by white men, it now celebrates the 1993 exhibition as a touchstone. In 2010, the Whitney Biennial featured a majority of women artists for the first time; in 2011, it mounted a retrospective of the Black artist Glenn Ligon. The 2017 and 2019 biennials were the most racially diverse biennials for their time, despite the protests surrounding them against corrupt board members. The 2022 Biennial, Quiet as It’s kept, which borrowed its title from Toni Morrison, re-included five artists from the ’93 Biennial. In the New York Times, Holland Cotter described the show as “reflective” and “adult-thinking” in a review that also hearkened back to 1993: “In a sense, the political spirit of this border-conscious, history-telling Biennial, and like-minded ones that have preceded it, have sprung from a single declarative eight-word sentence—‘I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White’—which, controversially, was printed on metal admission tags made for the 1993 edition.”
The 2022 JAM show at MoMA reflected a similar impulse: cannibalizing artists and an artistic community the museum had long ignored. The press release that accompanied the show boasted that its “ambitious project not only historicizes JAM’s importance, but also underscores its relevance in the present.” But as Alex Greenberger pointed out in ARTnews, contrary to “‘the art world,’ a nebulous bit of jargon that’s meant to refer to the wealthy conglomerate of artists, collectors, dealers, and curators who move in the same circles,” Just Above Midtown “was its own self-sustaining art world.” Finally given the MoMA stamp of approval, JAM’s indelible contributions to the history and community of art have been assimilated into the mainstream. While this kind of historical revisionism has become most prevalent in the last three years, it had already been gaining steam through the Obama years and after the 2016 US presidential election, and in response, in the increasing prevalence of identity politics in art-world discourse. If, historically, institutions rejected efforts to diversify—their curatorial staffs as much as their collections—it seems that now they are (re-)embracing it.
Where does that leave a young curator of color who wants health care, yet also wants to change the institution? When I worked at MoMA, in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, enacting institutional change narrowed to the minutiae of diversifying permanent collections by finding “hidden” histories. Filling historical gaps was often a primary aim. MoMA’s 2019 permanent-collection reinstallation prompted a major reconsideration of the museum’s famously canonical displays, and not just the teleological march of modern art from Cézanne to the present. Much of the work of the rehang was already done by the time I arrived, but I learned ambiently about the preparation. Sometime before the reopening, the painting and sculpture department, for example, sold a Fernand Léger painting to buy a work by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral, as well as other “pioneering women modernists,” per the department’s chief curator Ann Temkin. The museum also embraced provocative anachronistic contrasts, breaking their former, near-Aristotelian unity of time: most notably, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon now hangs alongside explicit images of Black violence (Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, 1967)—as well as the alienation of immigration (Louise Bourgeois’s Quarantania, I, 1947–53).
My arrival in 2019 also coincided with a string of new curatorial hires with fancy endowed positions who would usher in this new era: in 2018, Michelle Kuo was hired as the Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture after her tenure as editor in chief of Artforum (she became my boss). The department also hired Smooth Nzewi, an artist and specialist in African art, in March 2019, and Beverly Adams in the month after, as Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art. There was the feeling of a tectonic change when I was there, and under Kuo’s guidance, I participated in the process through which curatorial staff propose artworks for acquisition—first to each other, then to a department-specific committee of trustees and board members, who then vote on whether or not to acquire the work. An acquisition I worked on personally was that of a 1957 work by Tsuruko Yamazaki, a key member of the Japanese Gutai movement. My job entailed doing research on the artist and her oeuvre to try to understand if it made sense as the work for MoMA to acquire. With Nzewi, Adams, and the other junior staff, we created independent meetings to research acquisitions from understudied movements. Even as we sought out diversity, we were limited by what was available for sale in galleries and private collections, or what could be coaxed out of an estate.
But even with our most valiant research efforts, I was unnerved that our range was so limited to our social circles. What a curator sees and selects is conditioned by their social network and tends to replicate the class milieu that they are most fluent within: the artists with whom you studied at Yale’s or Columbia’s MFA programs, the friends you run into at biennials. (You might say that people tend to “order what’s on the menu.”)
At MoMA, I met more senior curators whose peripatetic lifestyles were seen as an antidote to this kind of social hermeticism. But I was also put off by the kind of lifestyle it demanded; you became something like a human Rolodex. I felt pressure to be constantly looking at a lot of art—at openings, at gallery dinners, on Instagram—to select, at least theoretically, the very finest specimens for potential acquisition. Although the collective nature of the process partially tempers individual preference, museum acquisition is far from objective. A curator of color could assert themselves in this complex process by, say, proposing more artists of color, but they’ll have to come to a consensus with their peers to actually acquire something. The forces involved are beyond any one person’s control.
The disconnect between representation and power persists. Though the emphasis on identity politics has changed the way museums look, it hasn’t really changed the way they work. Consider the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which was curated by two women, one of whom is Black, and by representational standards was an absolute triumph, with record-high percentages of women and artists of color. But that same show is better remembered as “The Tear Gas Biennial,” thanks to protestors who rightly demanded that Warren B. Kanders resign from the museum’s board. Kanders is CEO of Safariland, which produces tear-gas canisters that have been used against protestors in Ferguson, against Palestinians, against migrants at the US-Mexico border, and at other sites of state violence. Even as curatorial and artistic endeavors become more diverse, museum boards—key decision-makers in questions of museum finance and investments—are still primarily white and wealthy. Or consider that even as the Whitney Biennial and other institutions become demographically more diverse, unionization negotiations for fairer wages and better health care—at the Whitney, the New Museum, the Philadelphia Museum, to name just a few museums—are ongoing and embattled. If, in the late 1960s, the BECC advocated primarily for representation and curatorial authorship, it’s now time to focus on what happens after some of those terms are met: on trying to make sure that, despite resistance to structural change, museums become more just, accessible institutions that don’t simply use diverse art or curators to check social-justice boxes.
I left the museum in 2021 to work as an independent curator. Outside of the museum, I’ve felt uneasy about leveraging my identity into a brand.
I often draw on my Asian American and queer identities, and I’ve been asked to curate shows on that basis, even on topics I know nothing about. There’s no less of a risk of being pigeonholed outside of a large institution than within one. But working apart from major museums has allowed me to explore my identity in ways that go beyond matching it to those of artists I’m showing. It has helped me reengage with my true aims of curating, beyond righting historical wrongs or rearranging paintings in a mostly static collection, and toward forging deep relationships with artists and art-making communities. That is to say, curating for the art, not for the museum. My hope is to meld a more personal or artistic vision, which I see as the best of the freelance model, with the rigorous historical approach that defines institutional curation. I’m no longer sure whether curating is the right term for this, and I’m not alone. Some of my peers have instead begun to call what we do “organizing.”
I don’t imagine that I will never work in a large institution again. It’s just not realistic, pragmatically. I still appreciate the work that’s done there. I will likely shuttle in and out of museums for the rest of my life. But I now have a better sense of the mechanics of an institution’s “willful amnesia.” It cycles through staff members very quickly, who move on for better opportunities; external stimuli like social-justice movements put pressure and accountability demands that generate new milestones, but then sustaining that accountability is tiring. Diversity brings in crowds, and thus revenue, but it is not always in fashion, so long as power rests with whiteness. The George Floyd uprisings marked a watershed not only because they were significant for museums but also because they were significant for the world more broadly. At my most optimistic, I feel hopeful that the conversations initiated in their wake are here to stay. But their aims cannot be completed solely on the level of curation. The malaise that I felt working in a large institution, curating my little shows about artists of color and queer artists and so on, was that much larger, deeper problems were afoot: the lack of diversity of board members, their less than savory investments, and museums’ resistance to unionization efforts for fairer wages. Somehow, being paid to uplift marginalized voices at a large institution, I felt that I was participating in a kind of art-washing process, and being poorly paid for it to begin with.
It became important to me to situate a kind of activist curatorial work outside of the narrative of unprecedented racial reckoning proffered by museums and the art press. I see this ethos reflected in work I’ve done in Chinatown since 2017, connecting to long-running historical initiatives. A particular revelation for me has been the discovery of the Asian American Arts Centre, which was established in 1974, several decades before the more famous Godzilla, the activist Asian American artist group founded in 1990 that included Eugenie Tsai, Byron Kim, and Margo Machida. While Godzilla protested big New York institutions, AAAC focused its efforts on Chinatown and exhibiting Asian American artists, and for that reason they’ve remained all but left out of mainstream art-historical narratives. I met the group’s co-founder, Bob Lee, through a nonprofit called Think!Chinatown, and together we put on an exhibition of works from his collection at Pearl River Mart, a variety retail store that has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1971. Working with co-curators Lisa Yin Zhang and Jayne Cole, we Command-taped a selection of photographs, sculptures, and paintings drawn from more than three hundred works that had been languishing in a storage locker in the basement of a building on Stanton Street, where Bob works with the occasional intern. The store’s gallery—established recently to act as a community-gathering space—is not large, tucked behind cases of incense and waving cats, but at the opening an intergenerational crowd filed in to look at works by friends and elders like the late Corky Lee, photojournalist of Chinatown activism; and Fay Chiang, poet and formerly the executive director of the ’70s Asian American art collective Basement Workshop. I met artists like Nina Kuo, who was a part of JAM’s original exhibitions and lived in Chinatown for many years but whom I had never seen before at openings. I saw that there were many overlapping art worlds beyond the glitzy, white-box galleries that were starting to stake out space downtown. This is an approach that’s more reflective of JAM’s—which served as a community space, hosting Sunday brunches and Saturday play sessions where mothers brought their children—than MoMA’s.
Compared to the glassine architecture of MoMA’s offices, the spaces of Chinatown are often smaller and more provisional. The ceiling of Pearl River Mart’s gallery is so low that I almost have to bow my head when I enter; the walls of its “white box” are made of the foamy kind of drywall that makes it easy to pin things up but shows little holes from past projects. From a bird’s-eye view, I imagine a version of myself here, in Chinatown, under fluorescent lights and tenement architecture, but now also elsewhere, perforated to the outside world through the porousness of this holey white box.