A Look at the Work of the Guggenheim-Departed Nancy Spector

October 13, 2020

Last week, Nancy Spector, the highest-ranking curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York, departed after more than 30 years at the institution. In the official press release from the museum, it was stated that Spector, who was the Artistic Director and the Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, and is on the Executive Cabinet of the Guggenheim Foundation, left "to pursue other curatorial endeavors and to finish her doctoral dissertation."

However, Spector's resignation comes in the wake of mounting pressure from a group of current and former workers known as A Better Guggenheim, which recently called for the removal of the museum’s top three executives — Spector; Director Richard Armstrong; and Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Duggal, as well as a report by the museum investigating accusations of racism made by curator Chaédria LaBouvier.

In June 2020, the group released an open letter to the board urging them "to dismantle the systemic racism" at the museum. The letter pointed out to the treatment of LaBouvier, the first Black curator to mount an exhibition at the Guggenheim in its 80-year history, which was described as "disrespectful and publicly hostile." LaBouvier curated the 2019 exhibition Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story, after which she accused Spector of excluding her from key aspects of the exhibition planning and taking credit for her work.

Along with the release detailing Spector's resignation, the Guggenheim has shared a statement on the results of an independent investigation into La Bouvier's allegations, stating that there was "no evidence that Ms. LaBouvier was subject to adverse treatment on the basis of her race." However, the board acknowledged "the museum’s lack of diversity in staff, programming and outreach," promising to "continue to move forward expeditiously with our Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion Action Plan to help ensure our institution becomes a more equitable place." 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photograph by David Heald. © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Nancy Spector at the Guggenheim

First appointed a Guggenheim curator in 1989, Nancy Spector has played a seminal role in conceptualizing and overseeing the creative programming for the museum and its affiliates around the world for over 30 years. Director Richard Armstrong said she "has provided leadership and strategic vision for collections, exhibitions and public programs across all aspects of the Foundation and all the museums in our international constellation," while William L. Mack, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said that she "has over and again shown herself a rare visionary, much to the benefit of the museum."

During her tenure at the museum, Spector curated a number of paradigm-shattering exhibitions, including Rebecca Horn: The Inferno-Paradiso-Switch in 1992; Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1995; Robert Rauschenberg: Performance as part of the artist’s Guggenheim retrospective in 1997; Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle in 2002-03; Richard Prince: Spiritual America in 2007; Louise Bourgeois in 2008; Tino Sehgal in 2010; Maurizio Cattelan: All in 2011-12; Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms in 2012-13; a 2017 presentation of Cattelan’s golden toilet sculpture America; and Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection in 2019, featuring works by Cai Guo Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems.

In addition to shaping the museum's calendar, she was also an active and successful fundraiser for the museum through major curatorial endeavors, such as the Panza Collection Initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and corporate collaborations such as the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Arts Initiative, YouTube Play, and the BMW Guggenheim Lab. She also conceived and oversaw the Guggenheim’s prestigious, biannual Hugo Boss Prize that is awarded for excellence in contemporary art.

In 1997, Spector was adjunct curator of the Venice Biennale and a co-curator of the first Berlin Biennale in 1998. As the U.S. Commissioner for the 2007 Venice Biennale, she presented an exhibition of work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. She briefly joined the Brooklyn Museum in April 2016 as Deputy Director and Chief Curator, launching the 10- exhibition program Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism, and spearheaded the cross-collection, long-term exhibition, Infinite Blue.

Spector is a recipient of the Peter Norton Family Foundation Curators Award and five International Art Critics Association Awards. In 2014, she was named one of the top 25 most important women in the art world by Artnet and was included in Forbes' 40 Women To Watch Over 40 list. 

"Basquiat’s 'Defacement'" at the Guggenheim

The Controversy

In 2019, independent curator Chaédria LaBouvier was brought into the Guggenheim to organize an exhibition focused on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work about the police killing of the artist Michael Stewart. This engagement included many firsts. LaBouvier was the first Black curator, first Black woman and the first curator of Cuban descent to organize a show for the Guggenheim, as well as the first Black author of a Guggenheim catalog and the youngest independent curator at the venerated institution.

However, on Twitter, LaBouivier described this as "the most racist professional experience" of her life. In an interview for ESSENCE, she explained that Spector and others allegedly "erased my labor on all fronts —  financial labor, emotional labor, and professional labor." As one of the examples, she pointed out to the catalog that she authored, in which Guggenheim, for some reason, listed three other co-authors, including Spector.

In an aforementioned open letter, A Better Guggenheim stated that the curator "encountered institutional racism in a multitude of forms leading up to, during, and following the exhibition’s run, ranging from exclusion from key aspects of exhibition planning to the spread of derogatory rumors among the staff by leadership." They added that LaBouvier's experience was not isolated, describing the museum's Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion initiative as inadequate, resulting in "a museum culture that refuses to take accountability for the violence and injustice inflicted upon its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) constituents." In the wake of the letter, Spector went on a three-month sabbatical on July 1st.

Amidst the accusations, the museum hired Kramer Levin to conduct an independent investigation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the exhibit, concluding there were no evidence to support LaBouvier's claim. In a statement, the museum explained that the investigation included the reviewing of more than 15,000 documents and conducting a broad range of interviews with current and former Guggenheim employees. On Twitter, LaBouvier wrote that she was not interviewed for the investigation, while a Guggenheim spokesperson told the New York Times that LaBouvier did not respond to requests to be interviewed. A Better Guggenheim said in a statement that it was "clear the investigation was not as thorough as this matter required."

Neither the Guggenheim nor Spector would discuss the terms of her departure, making it unclear whether she resigned by choice or was forced out. Commenting on the investigation in the museum’s release, Spector said she was pleased that its results "confirmed what I have known from the start – which is that I did not treat the guest curator of 'Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story' adversely on the basis of race." She added:

As I pursue new challenges, including completing my doctoral dissertation, I am humbled by the accolades I have received from colleagues around the globe. I am confident that the Guggenheim is stronger than ever before, and incredibly well-positioned to emerge successfully from the challenges presented by 2020. 

Featured image: Nancy Spector. Photo by Inez and Vinoodh. Courtesy Guggenheim.