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.
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.