White Voices, Black Art: the Search for Black Curators

The news that the very white Kristen Windmuller-Luna was appointed as consulting curator of African arts at the Brooklyn Museum in New York sparked outrage. Despite her outstanding qualifications, the backlash cried ‘how could a white woman possibly have the connection to the works and understand the sentimentality behind them over a person who is part of the African diaspora?’

The act of white voices continually telling black narratives is rife in the art world. Once the story made waves across the internet, Steven Nelson, the director of U.C.L.A.’s African Studies Center summarised Kristen as simply another curator in a sea of white faces, stating, “African art history in the U.S. is primarily white and female.” But what do black art curators think about all of this?

New York-based curator Hannah Traore who works at the Museum of Modern Art explains how “There are so many important shows that would have never existed without white curators. I always say, ‘better for the show to exist in this way than in no way at all.’ That being said, if this said show is damaging to the artist or the black community because of a white curator’s insensitivity and ignorance, I would rather it not exist.”

Independent Curator and Founder and CEO of Art World Conference Dexter Wimberly describes his own thoughts on the issue. “What bothers me in regards to this debate is the same thing that bothers me during most discussions about diversity and inclusion. I think that those who have had historical, financial and social advantages due to hundreds of years of systemic racism and discrimination should acknowledge that reality and be clear that they have benefited from it both in terms of generational wealth and access to opportunities.”

“I think the question isn’t as simple as white curators curating art by black artists, it is much more nuanced,” clarifies UK- based multimedia textile artist and curator Enam Gbewonyo. She continues to say that “a black curator, unlike their white counterpart, cannot specialize in any art field that they want to, find employment and enjoy all of the privileges afforded to their white counterparts. The most pressing argument is who has the position of power and that is not the black curator. For centuries, the standard has been that all authorities on art are white and until very recently, men. It has been the determining factor in how traditional African art and all art by black artists has been framed.”  

So, white curators aren’t necessarily the problem, but the lack of black curators having equal power in the art world, and simply the lack of black curators, is. Hannah explains that the individual white curators do not bother her. “In fact, for those white curators who take the time to properly think out their exhibitions and make them as respectful as possible with as many of the represented voices included as possible, I appreciate their efforts and dedication to showing this art and these artists.” She goes on to say, “what bothers me is an art world plagued with institutional racism which results in the lack of black curators and thus a lack of shows about black and African art, curated by our own community. It doesn’t bother me that there are white curators that are interested in working with this type of art; it bothers me that they seem to have the monopoly on curating this type of art. This is a very backwards idea to me.”

Canada based curator Pamela Edmonds has a BFA and an MA in Art History and is curator and director of the Thames Art Gallery as well as being the co-founder of curatorial collective, Third Space Art Projects. She describes how she feels art by black artists is viewed. “Despite initiatives of multiculturalism in Canada and within the West, work by artists of colour is still primarily viewed as ‘educational’ or ‘ethnic.’ Most arts institutions have succeeded only in accommodating certain elements of change, without really altering their hegemonic structure.” She continues, “I am bothered by essentialism in discussions of black art and culture as it takes racial difference out of its historical, cultural and political context. As a society, obviously, we are complex people, made up of multiple cultures, references and hybrid identities. Can we or should we police people to stay within any type of boundary of what is considered “appropriate” for their race? At the end of the day, these are all social constructions that can change.”

“What I am seeing increasingly is white artists and curators championing social justice issues with equal or sometimes greater opportunities than black artists and curators,” states Pamela. “If we speak out against injustices, it seems to fall onto deaf ears or we are pigeon-holed as ‘angry.’ As black curators, working within mainstream venues can be quite isolating, we don’t often have a supportive type of organization or network of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) colleagues that we can take our grievances to!”

“I have no objections to there being white museum curators of African or African American art, any more than I’d object to there being black curators of European art,” expresses Dexter. “In my opinion, at the core of the debate is the very nature of what museums are and the historic disadvantages that many people of colour have had in obtaining the advance degrees necessary to become institutional art curators,” he concludes.

It’s one thing to have an appreciation for black art and culture, it’s another to be the chosen voice or spokesperson for black art and culture when you are white. It takes much needed and scarce arts opportunities away from black people. When asked what could be done better by art intuitions, Hannah remarks how black curators “should no longer be seen as ‘black’ curators. I find that most of the black curators at any given institution stand in for the token ‘other.’” She continues. “They curate shows about Africa and the diaspora and make museums feel better about their mostly white male-centric programming.”  She continues, “representation matters at all levels and thus museums need to engage and buy art from more black artists. If institutions want to claim to care about representation in their collections and with their shows then they must back that up with representation of curators as well.”

“There needs to be more resources put into leveling the playing field in terms of access to education and jobs. The more qualified black curators there are to choose from, the better off museums will be in making better selections,” claims Dexter. “The leadership and boards of these institutions are doing themselves a disservice by not equating diversity with strength.”

“Curating as a professional and academic practice is relatively new and there are few positions within the institutional field to vie for,” explains Pamela. “ I began studying Art History at University in Montreal in the ‘90’s and there were no Curatorial programs at my school at this time – I don’t there were any degree programs in the entire country!”

She goes on to express how important it is “that venues have diverse representation and equitable recruitment policies in place.” Policies that are “not only related to staff but also in other areas, from the board of directors to internships and volunteer placements, in order to ensure that they are fully invested in inclusive practices which trickles down to more enriched and inclusive experiences and increased diversity of their visitors.”

“Perhaps the situation will improve when larger numbers of black students opt for advanced degrees in curatorial practice and critical theory – there is strength in numbers,” suggests Pamela. “Creating more mentorship and fellowship programs for high school through to graduate students from underrepresented and minority backgrounds would also encourage the pursuit of museum/gallery careers.”

“Until black people also occupy a significant percentage of roles in the professional art world, not just as curators but in journalism, auction houses, on boards and as art fair prize judges etc… and reclaim our own voice, we cannot change how art by black artists is framed, the spaces it occupies nor how much it sells for,” says Enam. “One of the main barriers is salary, many institutional roles don’t pay very well and often initial routes in are via internships which don’t pay at all. The reality is that most black curators do not come from wealthy backgrounds and without a competitive salary package to cover living expenses and the likely debt of student loans there’s no viable option. And it isn’t just about money, it’s about who you know. “When your aunt, uncle or family friend is on the board, trust or in executive management naturally you’re more likely to get the job. I’m not sure many black curators have that network, especially not at the start of their careers.”

In reality, we live in a society that places the white voice higher and louder than the voice of a black person. White people are rewarded with opportunities, sometimes it seems, just for being white. Sure, you can be a white curator that has a particular passion and interest in black and African art but as Enam puts it “even the most learned white curator still carries with them embedded bias that manifests more often than not, and I’m talking from personal experience. There is also something to be said about the inherent understanding of the black experience that no amount of education can grant, it affords a sensitivity of understanding that again can’t be learnt.” Unfortunately, in the art world just like any other industry, a person of colour can scream about their art, activism, work and education, only for it to be heard as a whisper in a white-dominated world. Keep the white curators, but let the black ones in too.