Yet another management figure at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has resigned amid roiling controversy among the museum's staff over race and representation.
SFMOMA has been having a reckoning in recent weeks along with myriad other cultural institutions around the nation after a former staff member, and subsequently current staff members and associated artists, have called out what they see as racial injustice in the museum's workplace, and censorship in a dialogue about this topic.
Last week we saw SFMOMA deputy director of external relations Nan Keeton resign, or "mutually part ways" with the museum, following charges that she deleted an Instagram comment on one of the museum's posts that was calling out systemic racism. The comment by former staff member Taylor Brandon, in which she criticized the museum's use of a Black artist's work to represent itself amid Black Lives Matter protests, set off heated discussion and debate. Keeton defended her deletion of the comment, but many others included a collective of artists of color stepped forward to condemn the act of censorship.
Additionally, SFMOMA's recruitment staffing manager and its director of human resources have also resigned in recent weeks.
Now, as Artnet News reports, a much more senior figure at the museum has also resigned amid an uproar. Gary Garrels, the longtime chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, has resigned after allegedly making an offhand comment during a staff meeting that many viewed as racially insensitive and flip.
Reportedly, during the all-hands Zoom meeting last week, Garrels was giving a presentation on new acquisitions of artwork by artists of color, and he remarked, "Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists." He then referred to avoiding the acquisition of work by white male artists as "reverse discrimination."
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At the SFMOMA staff meeting this week, Senior Curator Gary Garrels was asked to respond to his documented earlier comments about collecting white male artists. His response included violent language claiming “reverse racism.” Gary must be removed from his job, effective immediately. @SFMOMA, Gary’s words are in direct conflict with your stated mission. If you are committed to anti-racist work, the choice is clear. Link to sign a letter in support of Gary’s removal in our bio.
This led to a petition being started by a group of former museum employees which demanded Garrels resignation, calling it "non-negotiable." "Considering his lengthy tenure at this institution, we ask just how long have his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity directed his position curating the content of the museum?"
Garrels, who has been with the museum since 1993, issued a statement of apology saying, "I realized almost as soon as I used the term ‘reverse discrimination’ that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff." He added, "I do not believe I have ever said that it is important to collect the art of white men. I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men."
Garrels has responded to criticism in the past of the decision to accept an agreement with Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher to take on their 1,100-piece collection of modern art, which is dominated in large part by white male painters of the mid-20th Century. He was, as Artnet notes, instrumental in the decision to auction off a single Mark Rothko painting from the museum's holdings last year in order to create an acquisition fund for new works by artists of color, women, and LGBTQ artists.
The initial set of 11 acquisitions, announced in June 2019, included works by Rebecca Belmore, Forrest Bess, Frank Bowling, Leonora Carrington, Lygia Clark, Norman Lewis, Barry McGee, Kay Sage, Alma Thomas, and Mickalene Thomas.
Nonetheless the museum continues to grapple with charges that its agreement with the Fisher Foundation has hamstrung the institution for the next century into devoting a huge portion of the museum to their non-diverse collection.
In a farewell statement to Garrels, SFMOMA Executive Director Neal Benezra said, "There are few curators over the course of SFMOMA’s 85-year history who have made as profound a contribution to the museum and our community as Gary Garrels. I cannot thank Gary enough for his exceptional work on behalf of SFMOMA."
Image: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons