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After Controversial Hire, Activists Call for Brooklyn Museum to Form Decolonization Commission

The activist collective Decolonize This Place has released an open letter demanding that the Brooklyn Museum do more to address the controversy that has ensued after the museum hired Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as its consulting curator for African art. Specifically, the group is urging that the museum introduce a “Decolonization Commission” that would help the museum “redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture,” adding that “it could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.”

News of Windmuller-Luna’s appointment last week ignited a debate about representation in museums and the structural forces at play in art institutions. Many drew parallels between the news and a scene in the recent Black Panther film in which a black character visits a museum gallery filled with pillaged artworks from Africa. The scene also includes a white curator and was filmed in the British Museum, which recently offered to return plundered artifacts to Ethiopia as part of a long-term loan. The British Museum is one of several art institutions reckoning with—or being pressured to confront—its colonial heritage. 

The open letter, titled “Your Curatorial Crisis is an Opportunity to Decolonize” and cosigned by eleven local organizations, called for a committee that would prioritize the diversification of the museum’s curatorial staff and leadership, as well as begin the repatriation of stolen artworks to African and indigenous people. The listed responsibilities for the Decolonization Commission also include improving the working conditions for the museum’s ground staff—who are predominantly people of color—and a de-gentrification initiative.

Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African American art history at the University of California, argued that many critics of Windmuller-Luna’s appointment were missing the bigger picture. “The outrage around Brooklyn revolves around public misconceptions . . . that African art scholars and curators are largely people of color,” he told Ryan Sit of Newsweek. “Yet the field of African art history in the U.S. is largely white and female. I am one of a small handful of African Americans who specialize in African art history.” Nelson, who knows Windmuller-Luna, said that she was “richly deserving” of the position.

In an open letter published in The Guardian, Teju Adisa-Farrar criticized the museum’s decision to hire “two new curators whose identity, experience, and gaze are already overrepresented in the art world.” In addition to bringing on Windmuller-Luna, the museum also announced that Drew Sawyer, a white man, would be joining the museum as a new photography curator. “We know, especially now, that to say you could not find qualified black/African curators is inaccurate to say the least and lazy at best.” A 2015 study on the demographic makeup of art museum staff conducted by the Andrew Mellon Foundation found that 4 percent of US art curators, conservators, educators, and directors were black. 

In a statement posted on social media last week, the Brooklyn Museum said it was taking the criticism into account and defended its choice to appoint Windmuller-Luna. “As we think about ways to engage in this conversation with the care it deserves, we want to assure you that you can count on us, as ever, to continue working deeply on equity within our institution and beyond,” the statement read.

[Update:] On April 6, Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak released a statement defending the museum’s appointment. The text also contains a statement of support for Windmuller-Luna from Okwui Enwezor, who is her former professor and the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich. 

Here is Pasternak’s full statement:

In light of recent conversations, I am writing to state unequivocally that the Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts. 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 PhD in this area.

Following an extensive yearlong search, our committee, composed of members from various departments, including curatorial, education, and conservation, unanimously selected an extraordinary candidate with stellar qualifications, including extensive museum experience and numerous influential publications. 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. 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.

We were deeply dismayed when the conversation about this appointment turned to personal attacks on this individual. Many respected scholars in the field have expressed the same sentiment. As the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar, and arts leader Okwui Enwezor has said: “I regret deeply the negative press and social media around the appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna, formerly a brilliant student of mine, to the position of the Sills Consulting Curator at the Brooklyn Museum. The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst. There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better, especially since the field needs engaged young scholars in order to continue to grow and thrive. She has all of the necessary training to be an influential contributor to the field and has a deeply analytical mind. I am sure that she will be able to present the Brooklyn Museum’s world-renowned collection in a way that reflects both the historical problems surrounding early collecting and its meaning today in very complicated political times.”

We agree.

At the same time, the Brooklyn Museum recognizes that the longstanding and pervasive issues of structural racism profoundly affect the lives of people of color. 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.

As we work to meet the very real challenges of our times, we thank all our constituents for engaging with us in these important dialogues. We firmly believe the Museum can serve as a place for courageous conversations—a place of learning, a place that contributes to a better society.

Anne Pasternak
Shelby White and Leon Levy Director
Brooklyn Museum