This was a good week when it comes to making the art world more equitable. Two women of color were hired at major art institutions - Kanitra Fletcher as the first-ever curator of African American art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., amidst the Philip Guston retrospective controversy, while Naomi Beckwith has been hired as the deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum, three months after Nancy Spector stepped down as artistic director and chief curator amid charges of racism.
Starting her position on February 1st, 2021, Fletcher will oversee how Black art is presented at the museum. Alongside Fletcher, the NGA also recently hired Mikka Gee Conway as the National Gallery’s chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer in September; Nick Sharp as the museum’s chief digital officer; and Eric Bruce as the National Gallery’s head of visitor experience and evaluation. All these positions are aimed at advancing the National Gallery's "strategic priorities to make the museum more visitor-focused, inclusive, and equitable."
“Each of our new colleagues comes to us with deep expertise in engaging audiences and inspiring curiosity about art, history, and culture,” Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery, said in a statement to Culture Type. “Now more than ever, we must model the America that we expect and hope for. As the nation’s art museum, we must articulate and live up to our values, including excellence, empathy, diversity, inclusion, and deepening the public’s understanding of art.”
In an interview, Beckwith said her work will include bringing “greater diversity to museum collections and exhibitions.” Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director described Beckwith as "one of the outstanding leaders of today with a huge potential as well. She’s very adept at issues of identity and, particularly, multidisciplinary art. We have to think about the Guggenheim’s growth over the next few years, so it needs to be a person with enormous capacity," he added.
Kanitra Fletcher earned a BA in English Literature at Rutgers University—New Brunswick and an MA in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In her research, she focuses on avant-garde art by black American artists from the 1920s to the 1970s, but she has also published articles on contemporary art of the black diaspora as it relates to gender, labor, body politics, self-representation and racial identification.
Her previous museum experience includes the Bronx Museum of the Arts, working as an Assistant to the Director; The Museum of Modern Art, working as an Assistant to the Chief Curator; and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, working as and Assistant to the Director. She is also the curator of video art for Landmarks, the public art program of the University of Texas at Austin.
Fletcher comes to the NGA from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she rose from the rank of curatorial assistant to associate curator. While in Houston, she oversaw the presentation of such major traveling exhibitions as Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture and the U.S. version of the exhibition Historias Afro-Atlanticas, which opened in 2018 at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo as part of their acclaimed Historias series and is set to travel to the MFA Houston and the NGA in 2021-22.
In her new role at Guggenheim, which begins in early June 2021, Naomi Beckwith will oversee collections, exhibitions, publications, and curatorial programs and archives, providing an overarching intellectual vision for museum programming to be shared with diverse audiences.
Beckwith comes to the Guggenheim from Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where she has held curatorial posts since 2011. During her tenure, she organized and co-organized acclaimed exhibitions, centering on the impact of identity and multidisciplinary practices within contemporary art. These include Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen, the first survey of the artist; The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now; The Propeller Group, Keren Cytter, Leslie Hewitt, William J. O’Brien, and Jimmy Robert; The Long Dream, a survey of 70 Chicago artists organized in response to the pandemic and social unrest; Prisoner of Love, centered around Arthur Jafa’s video phenomenon Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death; the retrospective Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera; and a project with Yinka Shonibare CBE. Her previous museum experience includes working as an Associate Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she organized exhibitions such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations and 30 Seconds off an Inch. She was also part of the curatorial team behind Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, an exhibition conceived by the late curator Okwui Enwezor for the New Museum.
As Armstrong pointed out, Beckwith "will be invaluable in advancing and amplifying an inclusive range of perspectives within the Guggenheim collection and culture." Beckwith said she was looking forward to "merging our shared goals of expanding the story of art, and also working to shape a new reality for arts and culture."
More recently, museums have been facing greater scrutiny over the artists they show and people they hire. At The Met in June, staff members in a letter urged the museum’s leadership to acknowledge "the expression of a deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution," while at the Guggenheim the same month, a group of current and former workers released an open letter to the board urging them "to dismantle the systemic racism" at the museum. With people of color coming into leadership positions at major art institutions, it appears that the consciousness was raised to a new level and diversity efforts accelerated.
At the same time, the sincerity of these efforts may be questionable, or as Rodriguez-Williams, the first senior director of belonging and inclusion at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, put it - "Is this performative or is this real?" Sincere or not, these diversity efforts are certainly moving the institutions and the art world in general in the right direction.
While the art landscape has inevitably become a little more diverse, a progress is slow and a much larger shift that comes from the top is required to hammer away at entrenched institutional inequities.
Featured image: The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Image via Creative Commons.