Reactor

MoMA Hires Consulting Curator for Black Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 14, 2014

Still from Hennessy Youngman's Art Thoughtz episode "How to Be a Successful Black Artist" (screenshot via YouTube)

Still from Hennessy Youngman’s Art Thoughtz episode “How to Be a Successful Black Artist” (screenshot via YouTube)

This morning the Museum of Modern Art sent out a press release, as they often do, announcing a curatorial appointment. This one, however, caught my eye: underneath the headline in my inbox announcing “Darby English Named Consulting Curator at The Museum of Modern Art,” there was a dek: “Leading Scholar to Focus on MoMA’s Collection and Presentation of Art by Black Artists.”

This, I thought, is intriguing. The release goes on to explain in a bit more about what the appointment means:

He is a leading scholar of American and European art with a specialization in works made by black artists. Working closely with Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and curators across the Museum, Mr. English will contribute his expertise to the strengthening of the institution’s holdings in this area, and to the development of presentations within the collection galleries and the Museum’s exhibition program.

Darby English (image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

Darby English (image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

So, MoMA seems to be attempting something like museum affirmative action, making up for historical blind spots. An article from last spring confirms this: MoMA Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture Ann Temkin told The Art Newspaper that the museum has been “making an effort to increase the number of works by African-Americans. In the past decade, it has become a curatorial priority to look at whether our holdings are reflecting the history of art made by African-Americans.”

This is a laudable, if long overdue, effort, and the appointment of English seems right in line. But it’s also interesting because it raises questions about the way museums treat black artists and their work, which in turn expose the complications of turning a race into an artistic category. When MoMA says that English will work with curators on acquiring and showing “black artists,” what does that mean — African-American artists? Artists of the African diaspora? African artists? Any and all artists who are black? If the latter, does English really have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth?

Other institutions have tackled the problem of representation in different ways. The Newark Museum has African and American Art departments, and they place contemporary African artists in the former, contemporary African-American artists in the latter. The Brooklyn Museum also has African and American Art departments, but Contemporary Art covers black artists working today. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a Center for African American Art. And, while it’s not a museum, Swann Auction Galleries has an African-American Fine Art department.

The issue with the last approach, some would argue, is that it perpetuates a kind of ghettoization rather than real inclusion. (See: Adrian Piper’s withdrawal from the black performance-art exhibition Radical Presence.) Indeed, in the aforementioned Art Newspaper story, Elisabeth Sann, associate director at Jack Shainman Gallery, says, “Our goal is to erase the line between contemporary and African-American art.” Notably, MoMA has not created a separate department; but it’s also not hiring English as a full-time curator, only bringing him on as a consultant. I’m curious to see what he’ll accomplish, and even more so to see whether it lasts.

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  • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

    What an idiotic, reactionary “scoop.” To cast Mr. English’s appointment as “something like museum affirmative action” is insulting. I suspect this author didn’t bother to look at Mr. English’s scholarship before publishing this fluffy piece of nonsense. Why not ask what he will bring to the museum, rather than worrying rhetorically (and rather pointlessly) that he might not know everything about every artist of color ever.

    • tiffanybbrown

      Only if you think affirmative action means “hiring unqualified people based on color alone.” Here, and as practiced, however, it means “hiring based on expertise because he brings a new perspective or helps us reach new audiences.”

      It’s not about him “knowing everything about every artist of color ever.” But a legitimate question about whether it’s useful to talk about “black art” when “black” is a fuzzy racial descriptor as opposed to a genre.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Why is it insulting? Are you implying that affirmative action is a bad thing? Because I’m not. And I’m not worrying about whether he knows every single artist of color—I’m wondering, yes, rhetorically, what it means for MoMA to do this, what it signals, if it’s the best way to go about things, how it relates to how other museums have handled this issue. I think those are 100% valid questions to ask; sorry if you find them “reactionary.”

      • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

        I don’t think affirmative action is a bad thing at all — but to cast the hiring of one of the smartest, most nuanced thinkers in the field as “something like museum affirmative action,” without mentioning the content of his scholarship at all, sounds, to me, quite dismissive. I’d cast it rather as “something like the museum making an effort to bring on board one of the best thinkers on what it means to seen as a ‘black artist’ and to work under those conditions” or “something like the museum making an effort to bring on board a scholar who has been asking for over a decade how institutionalized, codified racism effects (and doesn’t) the type of artwork that artists who are seen/talked about as ‘black artists’ produce.”

        By bringing your “100% valid” questions back to the single question of whether or not English does “really have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth?,” rather than a question about how MoMA has codified racism (in its collecting/exhibiting practices) and what the museum might be doing now (rightly or wrongly) to address that fact, you again undermine English’s credibility.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          I’m sorry that you feel i undermine his credibility; that certainly wasn’t my intention. I didn’t list all of his expertise and credentials because that seemed obvious to me—obviously MoMA is hiring someone who is extremely qualified to do this job. My feeling was that people could read all about his credentials in the press release.

          As for placing the emphasis on him versus MoMA’s institutionalized racism—I do see your point. Again, I was writing from a place where the codified racism was obvious to me; I didn’t feel like I had to spell it out. And when I asked if he could really do that job, if he really had the knowledge and expertise, the implication I was trying to get across (but obviously this didn’t carry) is that I don’t know if ANYONE could do that job. It just seems like an impossible task to me. But I do understand what you’re saying.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            For all your allegedly sincere concern that MoMA’s decision to hire Dr. English might have the unintended consequence of further ghettoizing black artists within the collection, or of making “black art” into some sort of reified aesthetic category… I think that the decision to emblazon this article with the completely decontextualized, barely tangentially related still from Hennessy Youngman’s youtube video does far more harm in that regard than good. Though it is good click-bait.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            You have obviously come to this article with a clear bias for framing the conversation the way you want. Not everyone agrees with you.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            Actually, I think Hennessy Youngman’s video is actually COMPLETELY related to this discussion, but we’ll have to agree to disagree. And if you’re still calling my concern “allegedly sincere,” there’s clearly nothing else I can say that will persuade you that I’m not some nefarious, trolling writer looking to exploit race issues for click bait. Believe what you will. I appreciate your calling out my language and making me think about my writing choices.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            I’m open to the idea that Youngman’s video is related to the topic at hand, but you didn’t address that in the writing. As it stands now, the statement “How to be a $uccessful Black Arti$t” in the screen-grab serves as a headline of sorts over Dr. English’s photo in a way that I find to be uncritical. Are you trying to riff on the title of Dr. English’s book “How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness”? If so, or if not, what is the content of the critique? Where is your critique directed? I think these are fair questions. And I don’t expect for everyone to agree with me.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I brought in Hennessy’s video because it address the exact questions I’m addressing in the post—what IS black art? Is it based solely on race or on certain themes that dovetail with race? Some artists revel in a category like that; others find it limiting. I wasn’t trying to riff on the title of English’s book. As for my critique—I’m not actually critiquing any one thing here: I’m trying to raise questions about the ways we go about fixing past wrongs. I’ve always been a supporter of affirmative action, which is probably why I brought it into the post, and I think that MoMA’s move, overall, is a good one. But the monumental problems of the past create problematic situations today, like calling black contemporary art “black art” and white contemporary art just “contemporary art.” In light of the announcement about English, I wanted to survey how some institutions are attempting to deal with this problem and the ways different people and institutions have reacted.

          • Whitfield McRory Palmer

            Jillian. I think the article is very clear on the difference between black art and Black Art. I don’t think it is advocating a genre in the least. We live in a society that has yet to realize the full scope and extent of racism and there are Black artists, by way of subject matter alone, whose works are indistinguishable from white artists. So that museums can appropriately educate the viewers of art that there exists these art its, exhibition of Black artists is necessary. I don’t think that you can extrapolate from this article any advocation of a “Black Art” genre.

          • danny

            Yes, there may possibly be differences in some or many Black artists and white artists and MoMA is making strides to educate viewers about that, but if there is a need to do so for black artists, why not also do this for white artists and educate viewers about what makes white art unique? Oh wait, that would be unnecessary wouldn’t it? There currently is no curator at MoMA for white artists or women artists. Taking it into consideration from this perspective, it becomes clear why this might be an issue that Jillian is articulating.

          • Whitfield McRory Palmer

            Please explain to me the uniqueness of white art.

          • danny

            I was hoping you would enlighten me and explain the uniqueness of white art since you believe there is a need to have this categorization of black artists (African, African American, Afro Caribbean, Afro Latin American..etc.) and a curator to be instrumental in that categorization. If there is this need, there should also be a need for white artists. There is no common dialogue between contemporary black artists, even those who make work that discuss race. Carrie Mae Weem’s work illustrates different ideas from Kara Walker’s cutouts. Mark Bradford’s collages convey different themes than Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, or Rashad Newsome’s video installations. There is no way to really categorize artists in this way because they happen to be black and fit into the conversation of contemporary art. And to clarify, I don’t believe there is a uniqueness to white art because even beginning to articulate that would be ridiculous, just as it is ridiculous to do so for black artists. This is the point I believe Jillian is raising which is absolutely worth merit.

          • Whitfield McRory Palmer

            You should really check your reading comprehension skills. I said very clearly that I don’t believe in creating a genre of Black Art. I said exhibiting works by Black Artists is one thing that could be done to give exposure to Black Artists. Nothing more.

          • danny

            ” We live in a society that has yet to realize the full scope and extent
            of racism and there are Black artists, by way of subject matter alone,
            whose works are indistinguishable from white artists. So that museums
            can appropriately educate the viewers of art that there exists these art
            its, exhibition of Black artists is necessary.”

            Since I should do so…please explain what exactly you are advocating in that statement. The MoMA does already exhibit black artists, what are you talking about? Have you been there? Black artists do have exposure at the MoMA. This curator is being appointed to categorize and help curate works of many black artists who might not have anything to do with the other, which is unnecessary. There is no such thing as “black art”. Are you capable of comprehending that?

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I feel the need to step in here and say: MoMA does not show nearly enough black artists or give them enough exposure. I am all for the museum hiring English as a consulting curator to this effect, and I don’t think the position is unnecessary at all. I am simply asking questions about what it means and how it will play out.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            Jillian — not that one should take advice from anonymous commenters, but… perhaps address this issue by writing another article? One in which you spell out with more care what precisely you think MoMA’s decision to hire English might mean. Your headline “MoMA Hires Consulting Curator for Black Art” makes a conflation between “works of art by black artists” and “black art” that, I think, set a very detrimental tone for this article and ensuing debate. Don’t bury in the comment section your option that: “I am all for the museum hiring English as a consulting curator to this effect, and I don’t think the position is unnecessary at all.” Make it the text. It’s important… and points to the difference between “Black Art” and “works of art by black artists” that your article elides.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            While I appreciate your suggestion to write another post and will certainly take it into account, I’m don’t think that the issues here stem from that difference, which seems to me to be mainly an issue of semantics here, and one that comes up only with respect to the title.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            The difference between works of art by black artists and something called “Black Art” that D. English is supposedly a curator “for” is so much more than an issue of semantics. If you want to discuss more off the message board, let me know. Consider the difference:

            “MoMA Hires Consulting Curator for Black Art”

            “MoMA Hires Consulting Curator to Address the Underrepresentation of Black Artists”

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I think what you’ve written are actually two different things, and the latter is far more interpretive, though likely true. And while I do see the difference you’re pointing out, between “black art” and “work by black artists,” we use “black art” here solely as shorthand in the title. It’s not in the body of the piece.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            But it’s a “shorthand” that has the effect of setting up the straw-man that then becomes the entire content of the controversy you’ve set up (the notion that MoMA’s decision to bring on English has the effect of establishing “Black Art” as a reified aesthetic category that can then be ghettoized). And it feels particularly tone-deaf because English’s scholarship has done so much to disassemble the category of “Black Art” as the way to see works of art by black artists.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I really do hear what you’re saying about English’s scholarship, and I definitely definitely want to read his book. But—and this is where you and I differ—I don’t think either that or the shorthand of our title outright disqualifies the questions I’m asking. I don’t think they’re straw men; I think, rather, that they’re extremely complicated (and this post is only a very short mention of them).

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            I’m looking forward to reading the followup article after you’ve read the book… I think you’ll come back with a different set of questions about what it means for MoMA to bring English on as a consulting curator…

          • Whitfield McRory Palmer

            I said in every one of my posts that I don’t believe there is or should be a genre called black art. Can you comprehend that???

        • Michael Blum

          nowhere in the above piece does it appear that the author is doubting the credentials or scholarship of English — the critic’s hesitation seems to have to do not only, obviously, with the history of museum practices (and thus about the possible equivocalness of a compensatory appointment, which, as she mentioned, isn’t even a full-time one), but also with the future of “African art” in institutions (museums, in “art history”) — i.e., which Africa: all possible ones bracketed and suspended in a single corner? i think these questions are invaluable and necessary moving forward

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            English’s appointment has nothing to do with the future of “African art” at MoMA. From the press release: “He is a leading scholar of American and European art with a specialization in works made by black artists. “

    • Gustavus Betts

      I totally agree with you.

  • Jonathan Jarmes

    “When MoMA says that English will work with curators on acquiring and showing “black artists,” what does that mean — African-American artists? Artists of the African diaspora? African artists? Any and all artists who are black? If the latter, does English really have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth?”

    Yes, by being an expert in his field, a well respected art historian whose the Director of a major art history research institute (Williams), a former professor at University of Chicago, not to mention a the holder of a doctorate from the top visual studies graduate program in the country, yes I should say he does “have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth.” But you didn’t mention any of his professional background in this. Did you even know? He’s also certainly more qualified to speak about any of this than you are, Jillian. The use of the term “affirmative action” for the scholarship Dr. English will be undertaking is insidious and insulting.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I did know his background. Asking the questions I did is NOT questioning how qualified he is to do this job—of course he’s qualified to do it. I’m questioning the job itself, the actual role that MoMA has created. And, as I asked above, how is the use of the term “affirmative action” insidious and insulting? As someone who sees affirmative action as a positive thing, I’m not getting your extremely negative and offended implications.

      • danny

        I’m glad these points were raised Jillian. Why is there a need to create a separate section for black artists? What does MoMA mean in terms of black artists? Why is there this need to categorize and lump African and African American artists into the cultural landscape of contemporary art? I see that there is an awareness that black artists should be acknowledged but do they need to be separate? And do they need to belong together? Are there cultural differences to consider in African versus African American art? I think so.

        I applaud MoMA for it’s long overdue need to include and acknowledge the contributions and involvement of African and African American artists but this categorization of a race in that acknowledgement is something of concern. Is race the same as something to categorize as a style or medium or period. My eyebrow would also be raised if MoMA chose to do this with women artists. Do we need to also categorize women and their contribution to contemporary art as well?

        • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

          What’s your take, then, on the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum? (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/)

          • danny

            The Sackler Center for Feminist Art is dedicated to women who make work in support of or influenced Feminism. Feminism is a genre that is rooted in women’s rights and concerns pertaining to a very particular movement. This is not the same as the art of women. This center is not categorizing women who happen to make art. It would be absurd to categorize women who are artists in general. Artists who are also women address many different concerns. Agnes Martin is not Georgia O’keeffe is not Helen Frankenthaler is not Dorthea Tanning. Black art too in the same sense is very broad and addresses themes, concepts, and dialogues that may or may not have anything in common. The MoMA is applauded in bringing forth the awareness that black artists also belong in the discussion but black art is not, or should not, at least I believe, be a genre. Appointing a curator to orchestrate this “genre” is something to scrutinize.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            It’s entirely unclear to me where you’re getting the idea that MoMA has appointed English to “orchestrate” the “genre” of black art — what would that even mean?

            I think you’re arguing against a strawman here.

          • Daniel Fleming

            “It’s entirely unclear to me where you’re getting the idea that MoMA has appointed English to “orchestrate” the “genre” of black art — what would that even mean?”

            That’s the entire point of the article. It’s great they are hiring someone to address the issue of a lack of a “black art”…the article is wondering how he will actually take part, what he will do and what the effect will be.

            If it results in the integration of ignored but needed artists into the canon then I think everyone is in favor of that…if it results in a kind of “otherness” about the artists that are now included, it doesn’t solve anything.

            The fact you think a feminist art museum is the same as a “Female artist museum” proves just how easily the art’s focus can be confused with the who the artist is and how that misunderstanding can make reaction to the work inaccurate. That would be a bad thing… The question is how MoMA and English get around that issue and, I think, the writer is simply pointing out that if they don’t do it right, it won’t help the situation.

          • Guest

            You really need to revisit what I wrote, as well as what the author wrote because you’re clearly way off. The MoMA is not hiring English to address the issue of “black art”. They are hiring English because they believe black art is a thing, but is it? That is the point Jillian I believe is addressing. Re-read her comments: “I brought in Hennessy’s video because it address the exact questions I’m addressing in the post—what IS black art?”. I am in agreement here. What is black art? Does it really exist. There are black artists who make work about the black experience but that is broad. Should race be something inclusive into the conversation fo contemporary art, or art in general?

            Also I never implied that the feminist art museum is the same as a “female art museum”. What are you talking about? The point I made was that it was not the same. Did you read what I wrote? Also what does Revisit that, as well as the article to fully grasp what the author is articulating.

            One more thing…what does THIS mean? “The fact you think a feminist art museum is the same as a “Female artist
            museum” proves just how easily the art’s focus can be confused with the
            who the artist is and how that misunderstanding can make reaction to
            the work inaccurate.” – I cannot make any sense of that statement or understand what it has to do with what I wrote for that matter.

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            (@danny – I believe he was responding to me)

          • Daniel Fleming

            I think we are all a little confused then.

            “guest” says “The MoMA is not hiring English to address the issue of “black art”. They are hiring English because they believe black art is a thing, but is it?”

            “disqus…” says “He is coming on as someone particularly well equipped to think critically about how the museum has, historically, treated (and ignored) ART by black artists.”

            So is it both? Neither? One or the other? Is the article asking which is happening as well?

            as for the feminist thing, “danny” asked “should we categorize female artists?” and you both responded “Yes, take a look at the Sackler feminist art museum” as if a feminist art museum is somehow categorizing female artists (at least that’s how I read your responses)…it’s categorizing artwork about feminism, not the artist that did them. A black artist does not necessarily make “black art” just as a female does not necessarily make feminist art….and that misunderstanding will very much effect how a viewer sees the artwork, which we should be trying to avoid.

            Anyway, it’s pretty apparent that it’s a confusing hire in the sense that it’s unclear how he will contribute without categorizing the artists too generally…is that bad? not necessarily. I don’t think that means we can’t question if it will work or not though…

          • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

            “That’s the entire point of the article. It’s great they are hiring someone to address the issue of a lack of a “black art”…the article is wondering how he will actually take part, what he will do and what the effect will be.”

            NO, no no! English is not coming on to “to address the issue of a lack of a ‘black art’.” That notion is precisely the problem here, and the problem with the sloppy way this article is written. He is coming on as someone particularly well equipped to think critically about how the museum has, historically, treated (and ignored) ART by black artists. Very different.

            And I in no way conflated “feminist” and “female.” I was responding to Danny’s rhetorical question: “Do we need to also categorize women and their contribution to contemporary art as well?” with a resounding yes. I should have clarified: I don’t think we need the museum itself to “categorize” women… that category is already quite operative in the world. We DO need the museum to carve space to recognize the art of those categorized, out in the world, as women… precisely because those artists categorized as women have throughout history gotten the short end of the stick… and still do. In a parallel way (though by no means exactly the same), we need the museum to carve space to recognize the contribution of artists who are categorized–out in the world–as black… and to address the ways in which race has been (and continues to be) an actively determinant factor in the production and reception of their art.

          • danny

            You really need to revisit what I wrote, as well as what the author
            wrote because you’re clearly way off. The MoMA is not hiring English to address the issue of “black art”. They are hiring English because they believe black art is a thing, but is it? That is the point Jillian I
            believe is addressing. Re-read her comments: “I brought in Hennessy’s video because it address the exact questions I’m addressing in the post—what IS black art?”. I am in agreement here. What is black art? Does it really exist. There are black artists who make work about the black experience but that is very broad. Should race be something inclusive into the conversation fo contemporary art, or art in general?

            Also I never implied that the feminist art museum is the same as a
            “female art museum”. What are you talking about? The point I made was that it was not the same. Did you read what I wrote? Please revisit that, as well as the article to fully grasp what the author is
            articulating.

            One more thing…what does THIS mean? “The fact you think a feminist art museum is the same as a “Female artist
            museum” proves just how easily the art’s focus can be confused with the who the artist is and how that misunderstanding can make reaction to the work inaccurate.” – I cannot make any sense of that statement or understand what it has to do with what I wrote for that matter.

        • disqus_GwJzwWuRvP

          “Do we need to also categorize women and their contribution to contemporary art as well?”

          Yes. Yes, we do. The Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum is a case and point. Read Anne Wagner’s book “Three Artists (Three Women)”

          Also — there isn’t a separate section for black artists being created at MoMA.

  • J. Cutler

    Anyone keeping up on contemporary art in the past decade knows about D. English’s great work – no question about that (curating, writing, etc.). There is, however, an important issue w/ the somewhat vague title and purview MoMA has given the position as well as ghetto-izing, and hedging the final integration of African American and Africa artists into (respectively) American, Modern, and Contemporary art spheres broadly. Brooklyn Mus.’s done pretty well (exhibit.-wise in recent years) with diversity within its broad curatorial area distinctions mentioned in the article.

  • Girl Please

    “There currently is no curator at MoMA for white artists”

    You have GOT to be kidding. Who are the artists primarily being shown at MoMA? Who are the artists primarily held in the permanent collection at MoMA? Who are the artists who comprise the art historical canon that institutions such as MoMA hold up in the highest esteem?
    Pay attention. This is why institutions employ specialists such as English to bridge the pretty obvious gaps in their collecting and exhibition practices.

    • lentil

      Did you even actually read the comment that was made by that person? That comment was made in reference to black art as a genre. The curator being chosen is to address this issue of “black art”. That statement was in regards to that. The person is saying there currently is no curator for “white art” because white art is not categorized in this same fashion. That seems to be the debate of this article and I suggest you read the article more thoroughly to understand the discussion…..

      • Girl Please

        Actually, I read quite well. Thank you for that dose of condescension. “Black art” vs. art made by black artists: curators have areas of research specialization, and English is interested in works made by black/diasporic artists, not this magical category of “black art.” Let me break it down to you with a timely example: Donnelle Woolford is making “black art.” “Black art” is vernacular. Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, David Hammons are artists who happen to be black that may or may not be making works addressing their experiences as black people. Spare me the play of semantics and get off your internet high horse, troll.

  • Human Bg

    deep…

  • Bob Ragland

    Black art, or art made by artists who happen to be black. Dang! Here we go again. Geeze!
    I make the work and I ain’t gonna be in the black box. I happen to be an artist of color.
    I have a steady art life , by merit of my work. I am a working class non starving artist in Denver.
    By the Way see the art of Dean Mitchell. We both like the color green as in money.

    • lentil

      It’s wonderful that you feel it’s that simple but this discussion, in my opinion, shows just how complex race can be in the art world. Valid points seem to be made here about “black art” vs. art made by black artists. If you see no validity in this argument, especially as an artist of color, I’m not sure you are examining your own world critically enough.

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