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Protesters in front of the Brooklyn Museum in May 2016 (image via @kino___eye)

The calls for a “Decolonization Commission” at the Brooklyn Museum are growing, as more anti-gentrification activist groups are demanding a response to a letter organized by Decolonize This Place and released last week. That letter — which was spurred in part by the museum’s appointment of a white woman, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, as a curator of African art — was signed by 12 groups, while the new statement includes 19 organizations as signatories.

The latest statement (included in full below) comes after the Brooklyn Museum ignored the calls by local groups to establish a “Decolonization Commission,” while characterizing statements by them and others as “personal attacks,” which do not appear in last week’s letter. The museum claims the statement issued by its director, Anne Pasternak, was not a response to the letter (though it has been perceived that way by many). In her response, Pasternak focused mostly on Windmuller-Luna’s art historical qualifications, which were not questioned by any of the groups.

The new letter calls the museum “out of touch with the communities at its own doorstep.” The signatories also suggest that structural problems at the museum are a cause for concern because the institution’s “decision to avoid any mention of the decolonial programs or the concerns about gentrification outlined in the letter suggest that the problem may lie higher in the chain of authority.”

The full text of the letter was provided to Hyperallergic this morning and appears below. Hyperallergic has contacted the Brooklyn Museum for comment and will update this story when we receive a response.

Update, 4/12/2018, 6:30pm: The Brooklyn Museum declined to comment on the latest letter from the coalition of anti-gentrification organizations.

*  *  *

Brooklyn Museum, We Await Your Response to the Call for a Decolonization Commission

Last week, we issued a letter calling for the Brooklyn Museum to use the public anger surrounding its recent curatorial hiring decision as an opportunity to participate in forming a Decolonization Commission that would address deeply rooted injustices pertaining to the museum. These would include, among other things, the colonial history of the museum’s non-western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the fact that the museum’s buildings sit on stolen land, and the museum’s role as an agent of gentrification in Brooklyn, which has been a long-standing grievance of community groups.

On Friday, the Brooklyn Museum issued its first official statement to the publicity crisis penned by director Anne Pasternak. It begins by noting that “we were deeply dismayed when the conversation about this appointment turned to personal attacks on this individual,” and goes on to affirm the leadership’s unequivocal support for the chosen candidate, who is praised for her educational credentials and “anticolonial approach to curating.” Not coincidentally, in our view, the statement was issued at the same time as the New York Times published an article on the controversy. That article directly bolstered the museum’s position while disregarding not only our call for a Decolonization Commission, but also the support and involvement of many Brooklyn community organizations, including Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN), Equality for Flatbush (E4F), and Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP).

The tone of the museum’s statement is one of confidence and closure. It gives the impression that the dispute has been put to rest by the affirmation of institutional autonomy, sealed with scholarly authority. To us, however, the statement only confirms what many suspect, that the Brooklyn Museum is out of touch with the communities at its own doorstep.

To be clear, our aim was never to judge who is better trained in African art history, but to question the structural issues highlighted by the curatorial crisis. The Brooklyn Museum’s response dodges these issues by leaning heavily on the voice of Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian-born curator who is also among the most influential figures in the global artworld. Enwezor’s voice is marshalled by the museum to confine the conversation to matters of scholarly qualification within the arts, and to defend the curatorial appointment. But with all due respect to Enwezor, the crisis currently enveloping the museum cannot be resolved by a deliberation between arts experts, regardless of their background. The controversy around the hire has now given way to public scrutiny of the foundations, the authority, and the governance of the art institution itself, and its accountability to the communities it claims to serve.

We belong to communities that are, at one and the same time, engaged in day-to-day struggles against settler-colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchal violence, police terror, mass incarceration, population displacement, deportation, economic precarity, and climate disaster. As Audre Lorde put it, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” That is why we embrace an intersectional approach and it is reflected in the proposal we have put before the museum.

The moment is long overdue for American museums to acknowledge how and why they have been built on occupied land and filled with plundered objects. Contemporary art institutions are not exempt–they can no longer disregard the well-documented evidence about the role they play in helping to elevate local rents and displace residential populations.

Of course, the Brooklyn Museum is hardly alone; the Brooklyn Academy of Music has also fuelled the engine of gentrification in downtown Brooklyn. So, too, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) conducted a curatorial search last year, and failed, once again, to generate an Indigenous hire at a time when that institution was being pressed hard, by Indigenous, African American, and anti-colonial groups, to undertake a long-overdue reexamination of its exhibits.

As our original letter pointed out, the details surrounding the Brooklyn Museum hire are only a gateway to the broader structural changes that New York City museums should be undertaking today. We took the occasion to lay out steps necessary to decolonize the institution. The museum’s response pointedly ignored these suggestions, focusing exclusively on its autonomous right to make appointments in the absence of undue public pressure. We believe that institutions should have that right (even though they often discreetly bend in response to demands from wealthy donors or trustees), but nothing is gained by assuming an overly defensive posture in responding to criticism. And, in this case, the decision to avoid any mention of the decolonial programs or the concerns about gentrification outlined in the letter suggest that the problem may lie higher in the chain of authority.

Again, the Brooklyn Museum is not alone in its shortcomings. For the past eighteen months, as part of a larger coalition, members of Decolonize This Place and NYC Stands with Standing Rock have been meeting with officials and curators at the AMNH about the need to revise the colonial framework of its exhibits. While the individuals on the other side of the table acknowledge the challenge and the need for an overhaul, the force of institutional inertia appears to overwhelm them. Yet, diverse institutions, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the San Diego Museum of Man in the U.S., and others throughout this country and overseas, have taken significant steps on the road to decolonization. Why is New York — with its self-image of being ahead of the cultural curve — lagging so far behind?

Instead of sidestepping our call for a Decolonization Commission, we urge the leadership at the Brooklyn Museum to respond publicly and adequately to its substance. This is how cultural progress is made — through honest dialogue and commitment to follow through. For the record, we reproduce the substantive portion of the original call below.

The Decolonization Commission, which will include local stakeholders, would explore:

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 Brooklynites’ role in the settler movement in Palestine.

Now, as we await a more satisfactory response from the Brooklyn Museum, we are encouraging those who support our open letter to contact the following individuals to exert pressure:

Anne Pasternak, Director –
anne.pasternak@brooklynmuseum.org, (718) 501-6411

Sharon Matt Atkins, Chief Curatorial Director  – Sharon.Matt.Atkins@brooklynmuseum.org, (718) 638–5000 ext. 269

Katherine Block, Board of Trustee Liaison –
Katherine.Block@Brooklynmuseum.org, 718–638–5000 ext. 178

Also, share your concerns online on social media with hashtag #decolonizebrooklynmuseum and include handle @brooklynmuseum

Signatories:

Decolonize This Place

Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN)

Flower Lovers Against Corruption (FLAC)

Equality for Flatbush (E4F)

Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP)

Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification

NYC Stands with Standing Rock

Black Youth Project 100

Eagle & Condor Community Center

Bronx Social Center

Chinatown Art Brigade

Dancing for Justice

El Salón

Free University-NYC

Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.)

Occupy Museums

People’s Cultural Plan

Take Back The Bronx

W.A.G.E.

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

19 replies on “Growing Coalition Calls Brooklyn Museum “Out of Touch” and Demands Decolonization Commission”

  1. Call a proposal to oust responsible professionals and replace them with a soviet mob by calling the process of bullying and threatened violence decolonization, and it’s acceptable.

    1. Isn’t that how White People got Rich? and used mass murder to steal other people land and God given birthright?

  2. Apparently the Decolonizers are anti-Semites and anarchists.

    7) An institutional commitment to address the issues raised by the
    Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recognition of
    Brooklynites’ role in the settler movement in Palestine.

    The facts are obvious. No reparations will be paid. No land will be turned over to an amorphous group of rabble rousers. Keep in mind, there has never been a nation of Palestine. And due to that fact, there are no Palestinians.

    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.

    The goofballs are free to seek land out at Floyd Bennett Field for a new museum that meets their standards. But, it’s not likely they’ll assemble the financing such an endeavor would require.

    1. 1. There never was a Palestine, because the British reneged on their promises to the Turk-descended Arabs that have lived there since the 16th century- https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/the-middle-east-1917-to-1973/palestine-1918-to-1948/

      2. Economic feasibility is separate from moral judgements. I mean, Jesus himself said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to find God.” Also, he’s the same poor, murdered Jesus that is the symbol of a billion person-strong religion that has lasted over 2 millennia.

      When looking at the future, it’s natural to measure it by the established rules of the present and past- which is why people so often get such projections wrong.

    2. Every time you arrogant impostor AshkeNAZI Jews from the swamps of Eurasia bare your blood dripping fangs..I think what a wonderful idea Hitler had.

  3. Well here I am, a 75 year old white guy who loves art and is about as socially liberal as anyone out there… and I congratulate the Brooklyn Museum not only for its curatorial choice but also its apparent determination to stand firm. The rest of you… get over yourselves, get on with life, and realize that gentrification and the other effects of our rapidly changing society and world need to be dealt with, not whined about. The museum is NOT a villain; it’s just one tiny cog in a giant whirling ever-changing city.

  4. To all of the commenters (who sound like lovely old white men with beards growing down to their ankles):

    I question how the qualifications of curators are decided. By and large, museums like this aim for degree holders from Ivy League universities, which have also produced graduates that have spearheaded and financed the economic exploitation of Africa. These same colleges often have issues with admitting students of color, especially on a graduate level. At lower tiered colleges, African studies programs are filled with white students- that can pay the tuition for such courses, in full.

    I’d wager this- the BM is not deliberately attempting to promote European supremacy, but they have way more Black cleaning staff than they have curators. They are engaged in the system, and are not making a conscious effort to fight against its very real injustices.

    Finally qualifications can mean so many things… are these curators of African history able to pronounce the words to the objects? Yes. Are they able to connect x, y, and then z? Yes. Just like a resident surgeon can pronounce “Glioblastoma is a type of astrocytoma, which forms from astrocytes.” These highly educated curators say African terms and histories with the same sort of tone- clinical, detached, objectifying. It’s the standard in knowledge for museum culture, and it really shouldn’t be all that it offers- it becomes alienating.

    If the BM really wants to be more inclusive as well as pay more respect to these objects’ material culture (in a cost effective way), why not actually invite the people from their countries of origin to talk about them, and their personal connection to those objects? Is the board afraid that they’re going to be part of Boko-Haram, or something?

    1. BM, being a bourgeois institution, has to follow bourgeois practices, like credentialism and sucking up to the rich. They don’t have much choice.

    2. Amen,.. the question is would the Royal Ontario Museum or any world class museum hire a Black foreigner or Black American to be head curator of their European Collection? You can always find a Man bites Dog story but I say 99.9% it would not happen. The way I see it Whites may dance the Watusi but WE are the WATUSIS. Thats the difference!! and the WATUSIS should look after WATUSI $hit! . I would be quite happy to let Caucazoids look after Caucasoid $hit. European Art dont mean $hit to me so I would be VERY happy cutting that deal.

    3. Sorry, I couldn’t get past your first sentence which was ageist, racist, sexist and patronizing.

      1. Sorry to offend your sensibilities, but I feel compelled to call out the racist, ageist, sexist and patronizing treatment of POC youth by the demographic of old (that is, the more moneyed and culturally powerful) white men. I embrace the right to punch up at the social forces that has held POC down. I’m calling for new perspectives and demographics to enliven the purpose of museums, to be more inclusive and frankly, better. It is a problem when the racial makeup of a museum’s BOD or staff looks almost the same as it did 40 years ago.

  5. I think its great that black people and people of colour are rising up and speaking out against white suprema$hit. We are tired of Caucazoid Neanderthals bum rushing us and telling us its ALL good. We have the same problems in Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum when they hired an Italian women over the internet as the the ROM first Africanist Curator. She had NEVER set foot in Canada before her hire. Yes this the same ROM who is world famous for its anti-black racism. The same ROM who is the poster boy amongst global museums on how NOT to do an exhibition. Its in the Heart if Africa Exhibition of some 25 years ago was legendary for its Eurocentric racist portrayals of Africans. They did not have ONE black person on the ROM staff, when the white geniuses launched there dog and pony show about Africa. Its worse in KKKanada and like our brothers and sisters in Brooklyn we are not going to take it any more. The ROM’s 10,000 piece African Art Collection belongs to Black Canadians and Blacks all over the world. Its our ancestors genius and arts works and they will not rest in peace until its back in black hands. We make no apologies for wanting our kin folk treasures back in black hands.

  6. The Brooklyn Museum as been a outstanding contributor to the community. they have supported blk artists consistently. I remember they had an photo exhibit of photos local african kings and the male african tribe doing a courtship dance to the ladies in the village. That exhibit was stunning. I remember the african artist that merged religious images with elephant dung. Kendall wiley the blk artist that painted the President portrait was there for a spell before his work made such a explosion. The museum’s free day is on one of the best days a saturday, which allows most to go for free. Unlike other museums where their free day is late at night and on a weekday. Which prevents a large section of the community from being able to participate on the free day.The Museum has hosted exhibits specifically addressing gentrification. They hosted a blk burlesque show which I didnt even know existed.I dont get this boycott for what. In the art world you pay like you weigh. Blk millionaires are not a patron to local institution in black communities. they would buy a painting but they are not donating to a museum. Whites on the other hand donate like they weigh. You want a black representation in the upper tiers then donate. Either as a collective fundraiser or petition for blk millionaires to donate large sums to the local institution. wakanda is in your own damn back yard NOT in Africa. But the people have to mine the titanium themselves…its not as easy as it looks in the movies. Decolonize minds first…gentrification happened because people (whatever color or ethnicity they maybe) that owned houses wanted to cash out big and went with the biggest bid. Gentrification is greediness. Do i think the museum help usher in gentrification. No! But did they benefit of course. Higher taxes, richer patrons, and local chain stores made firstvsaturday’s possible. for years the museum as supported the labor day parade…how much as the community contributed for this? The museum isnt perfect …..but there definitely far more worse institutions destroying and gentrifying the surrounding communitied.

    1. Gentrification has mostly to do with printing money and giving it to rich people. There is not much a museum can do about this, although I’d certainly be interested in people’s ideas.. Even though privileged with Whiteness, I’m at the short end of the gentrification stick.

      1. The Brooklyn Museum is a Beaux Arts masterpiece built over a hundred years ago by a community that appreciated art, that is, Brooklyn gentry. The middle-class and the poor for all that time appreciated its collections just as much. So did my immigrant family.

        When I was a kid, that area wasn’t “gentrified”; it was safe, clean, and quiet. If it is being re-gentrified, good. It’s going back to the way it was.

        1. Yeah the Good old days when criminal white trash like your relatives Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz ran Brooklyn with racist Crooked Irish NYPD KKKops. Actually not much has changed in that respect. You were POOR but your white skin made you feel rich in AmeriKKKa. No matter how bad things got at least you were NOT a Nigg.er in AmeriKKKa eH? You had hope .You could always get government subsidize mortgage denied to Nigg.ers and move out to the Suburbs. You could always get that Job the Nigg..er could not. You could always go to Brooklyn Museum and see ALL the wonderful things White people did – Black African Art did not exist back then.. Nigg.ers only started making Art in the 1960’s and 1970’s eh Homie? There were to busy pickin cotton to think about making art or visiting a museum. To busy been terrrorized by an Irish or Italian THUG NYPD KKKop to worry about who is curating art of any kind at Brooklyn Museum. Oh the Good ole days when white trash had ALL the best jobs and the Mafia ran the numbers racket down in Harlem and Nigg..ers knew their place.

  7. Better if the communities rose to the Brooklyn Museum’s priceless collections — as did past generations of native Brooklynites and immigrants to our borough — rather than demand that the museum cater to them. As it is, the Brooklyn Musrum has been trying now for some decades to reflect the preferences of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.

    But hip-hop can go just so far.

    If the communities want all the curators to be of their own sort, then it behooves them to rear up real scholars.

    1. LOL.. We dont give a rats @$$ about your European Art Shit. it was us Black Homo Sapiens (100% Humans- See Genomic Sequencing).
      who dragged you Caucazoid Neanderthals out of the Dark- White Ages. vis-a-vis the Renaissance and taught you about art- so no lessons to learn from a mutant savage from caves and bogs of The Visigoths. You should educate your ignorant white self and investigate ancient Sculptures of Benin and Zimbabwe Stone Art and then come back and tell me about Blacks RISING up to white standards. When you were living in caves and swamps of Europe eating raw meat we were making great works of art in Kemet- Egypt, Nubia, Kush, Jerusalem – Land of Judah, Abyssinia, Zimbabwe , Benin, and even the Black OLMECS in North America. You still like to eat your meat dripping with blood, you are still a Neanderthal savage with a thin veneer of civility masking your TRUE beast nature .

      The black man has no lessons to learn from the likes of you and your kin. We want to learn from people with dignity and honour, people we respect. Not people who shamelessly steal our art forms from Jazz to Rock N Roll to Hip Hop then turn around an belittle the same people they emulate and rip off. You come from generations of white trash with NO SHAME or HONOUR Snowflake thats your problem and No fancy museum built with blood money of enslaved black people will give you these attributes. As for rearing up REAL scholars wasn’t it your kin folk who made it illegal for black folks to read for centuries?? Was’nt it your kin folk that prevented black folks from going to colleges and universities for 400 years in AmeriKKKa? . Was’nt it your peeps that made sure that black kids went to worse schools with the most racist white teachers who did not give a dam about them?

      Your white ignorance and arrogance can go just so far.., Your TIME will soon come to end Snowflake!!… Donald Drumpf and his MERRY band of white idiots only take you so far homie!!

  8. I confess, I did not expect to find much of substance in this protest, but I was positively surprised. Points 1), 2), 3) and 4) are worth lending serious attention. Points 5) and onwards, alas, are market forces that not even the Brooklyn Museum, or the President, could arrest.

    I’ll say this as a preamble: I do feel bad for the new hire, whose appointment has now been made the Trojan Horse for this movement. That said, I think this new curator was more the straw that broke the camel’s back. She shouldn’t take the animus personally (but like any human being, she probably will).

    The valid points to me concern the plunder of objects and the litigation to which they might be subject. Coming back from the UK, it is always sobering to take into account how much of British collections are pure plunder. What’s in the Brooklyn collections may never be repatriated, but the museumgoer looking at the object should know that there are people who are or were fighting to hae it returned to its original setting.

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