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Twelve New York-area anti-gentrification groups and allied organizations are calling on the Brooklyn Museum to create a “Decolonization Commission.” The call comes in the form of an open letter that was released on Tuesday after the controversial hiring of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, to be the curator of the institution’s African art collection.
Many observers in New York and beyond have been critical of the Brooklyn Museum’s hiring decision. Kimberly Selden, a New York-based media consultant, tweeted after the news broke: “People from the African Diaspora are frustrated w/ white people being gatekeepers of our narrative.”
Meanwhile, others have pointed out misconception about the curatorial field, including Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African American art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The outrage around Brooklyn revolves around public misconceptions … that African art scholars and curators are largely people of color,” he told Newsweek. “Yet the field of African art history in the US is largely white and female. I am one of a small handful of African Americans who specialize in African art history.”
The open letter, which was initiated by Decolonize This Place, is supported by the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Flower Lovers Against Corruption, Equality for Flatbush, Movement to Protect the People, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, Black Youth Project 100, Chinatown Art Brigade, Bronx Social Center, Take Back The Bronx, and Free University. The letter outlines seven points for the scope of the “Decolonization Commission” the groups envision:
1. Territorial Acknowledgement of Indigenous land occupied by its buildings and giving material effect to such an acknowledgment in curatorial practices, programming, exhibitions, and day-to-day operations.
2. The deep diversification of curatorial staff and executive leadership whereby the lived experience of oppressions — including patriarchy, white supremacy, and poverty — are valued and factored in.
3. A decolonial inventory of colonial-era objects of both African and Indigenous people with a view to settling the long-pursued claims of reparations and repatriation.
4. An upgrade of working conditions and pay of ground staff — who are disproportionately employees of color — in security, food service, and janitorial divisions.
5. The replacement of Board president David Berliner and other trustees who are real estate tycoons with a broad cross-section of artists and community organizers.
6. The undertaking of a de-gentrification initiative to examine and mitigate the museum’s role in boosting land value and rents in the borough.
7. An institutional commitment to address the issues raised by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recognition of the debate among Brooklynites about the central role played by segments of the borough’s population in the settler movement in Palestine.
This isn’t the first time anti-gentrification organizations have focused on the Brooklyn Museum. In 2015, activists demonstrated outside the institution as it hosted a real estate summit in its rental spaces. In 2016, a protest took place in the museum galleries hosting the This Place, a photography exhibition that protesters said helped normalize Israel’s occupation of Palestine, including by replacing Arabic city names in the West Bank with Hebrew versions.
Imani Henry, who is a lead organizer with Equality for Flatbush (one of the groups that initiated the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network), said he got involved because of a number of factors. “On a personal level, as a former member of the Brooklyn Museum — and at a family level at one point — I remember the 1990s and 2000s when it catered to a more working-class community and it wasn’t five-star dining,” he told Hyperallergic. “The programming felt more in touch with what was going on in the community. In this decade, the programming has started to cater to people with more wealth and the exhibitions started catering to white and middle-class people. I remember when it was majority black at many children’s event, but now I don’t feel that.”
Henry said that he felt a palpable shift at the museum after the 2015 real estate summit. He’s concerned that the museum is becoming tone-deaf to the realities of the surrounding communities. “Are they paying attention to the world and culture?” he asked. “As an art institution, are they paying attention to where art and culture is for the masses? Why did they think this would be business as usual?” He also questioned the choice of Windmuller-Luna to be the museum’s new African art curator. “I don’t know any white anti-racists who would put themselves in this position,” he told Hyperallergic. “It’s not our desire to target the Brooklyn Museum, but we want to keep talking about the issues and keep the focus on the Brooklyn Museum as complicit by their lack of leadership in their community.”
Henry added that he’s concerned because of the role of Anne Pasternak, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, as a co-chair of the infamous “Bronx Is Burning” Halloween party in 2015. Critics at the time also called that event “tone-deaf“; it featured flaming trash cans and burned-out cars as party backdrops.
Amrit Trewn, the organizing co-chair of BYP100 NYC, echoed Henry’s comments and emphasized that the museum’s Target First Saturdays have often been a safe haven for black and brown communities. During our conversation, he questioned whether that commitment to black and brown communities was changing, noting that members of his community were concerned about an increased police presence at the March edition of the event.
Trewn emphasized that the letter isn’t intended as a critique of one person. “Our letter goes into a number of ways they can pursue change,” he said. “What I found important in this letter is we’re asking for a shift in the culture of the institution. This is an opportunity not to shame one person but to levy decolonial demands on a museum and invite them to say what they stand for.”
He said he’s been impressed with some of the curatorial programming, including the Legacy of Lynching and We Wanted a Revolution exhibitions last year. But, he added that “while these are exceptional events” they don’t appear to have “informed the fabric of the museum.”
“It’s not only about who is holding the seat of power but what their commitments are and what they’re doing from there. It’s not about representation inclusion, but radical inclusion,” Trewn said. “We’re not saying we don’t want a white woman, but we want someone with a commitment to communities.”
Hyperallergic contacted the Brooklyn Museum for comment on Tuesday, April 3, and was told a statement would be provided by today — though a museum spokesperson specified that the statement would not be considered a response to the open letter. We will update this post with the statement when we receive it.
UPDATE, Friday, April 6, 1:38pm EDT: The Brooklyn Museum has released a statement from their director, Anne Pasternak, and it’s reproduced in full here:
In light of recent conversations, I am writing to state unequivocally that the Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts. The Museum’s collection of African arts is among the most important and extensive in the nation. Giving the collection the prominence it deserves, in terms of both its aesthetics and cultural value, has been one of this institution’s most pressing priorities. In order to ensure the highest level of scholarly excellence in how we preserve and present our collections of historical African arts, we knew the job required a specialist with a PhD in this area.
Following an extensive yearlong search, our committee, composed of members from various departments, including curatorial, education, and conservation, unanimously selected an extraordinary candidate with stellar qualifications, including extensive museum experience and numerous influential publications. With her anticolonial approach to curating, she has devoted her professional life to celebrating the individual identities of historical African cultures, and to communicating how those vibrant societies play powerful roles in the world at large. Her priority at the Museum is to create dynamic, multi-vocal installations that speak to all our communities, including those of African descent, both locally and nationally. All of us at the Museum are confident that with her expertise and care, we will revitalize and transform the presentation and interpretation of our collection, and amplify our capacity to illuminate connections and shared narratives with our broad and diverse audience.
We were deeply dismayed when the conversation about this appointment turned to personal attacks on this individual. Many respected scholars in the field have expressed the same sentiment. As the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar, and arts leader Okwui Enwezor has said: “I regret deeply the negative press and social media around the appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna, formerly a brilliant student of mine, to the position of the Sills Consulting Curator at the Brooklyn Museum. The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst. There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better, especially since the field needs engaged young scholars in order to continue to grow and thrive. She has all of the necessary training to be an influential contributor to the field and has a deeply analytical mind. I am sure that she will be able to present the Brooklyn Museum’s world-renowned collection in a way that reflects both the historical problems surrounding early collecting and its meaning today in very complicated political times.”
At the same time, the Brooklyn Museum recognizes that the longstanding and pervasive issues of structural racism profoundly affect the lives of people of color. It is right to press museums and other institutions to diversify their leadership. Museums help shape the cultural imagination and contribute to society, so we have a responsibility to bring the broadest possible range of voices into our work. Cultural institutions also need to do much more to support young people of diverse backgrounds in pursuing advanced degrees in art history and succeeding in leadership positions. Please know that every day the Brooklyn Museum is working to advance these efforts and its longstanding and widely recognized commitment to equity in all its forms, including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
As we work to meet the very real challenges of our times, we thank all our constituents for engaging with us in these important dialogues. We firmly believe the Museum can serve as a place for courageous conversations—a place of learning, a place that contributes to a better society.
Shelby White and Leon Levy Director