Saturday, April 21, 2018

Brooklyn Museum Hiring Fracas

The Brooklyn Museum recently hired a white woman to be its curator of African Art. Some people didn't like this hiring decision, to put it mildly. 

A recent decision by the Brooklyn Museum to hire a white person as an African art consulting curator has prompted opposition on social media and from an anti-gentrification activist group that argues the selection perpetuated “ongoing legacies of oppression.” In response to a letter from the group that stated its concerns, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said in a statement on Friday that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position. “We were deeply dismayed when the conversation about this appointment turned to personal attacks on this individual,” Ms. Pasternak said. 

She also extolled the expertise of Dr. Windmuller-Luna, calling her an “extraordinary candidate with stellar qualifications.” Dr. Windmuller-Luna, 31, has Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Princeton, and a bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. Her appointment to the Brooklyn Museum was announced late last month.

In its letter earlier this week, the activist group Decolonize This Place called the museum’s selection of Dr. Windmuller-Luna “tone-deaf” and said that “no matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age.”

“Seriously, @brooklynmuseum? There goes the neighborhood for good,” opined Philadelphia journalist Ernest Owens on Twitter.


When I was in college I took a number of elective courses on English history of the early Middle Ages, Norse and Celtic mythology, and late medieval European and West Asian military tactics and strategy. It just so happens that I have fervent interest in that sort of thing as is probably obvious if you've read this blog for any length of time. 

Usually I was the only Black person in those classes. It's been a while but fortunately I don't seem to remember anyone challenging me as to what was I doing there and why was I taking a spot that should have gone to a white person. To be fair some of those classes were pretty small; the professors or teaching assistants were probably just happy to have the minimum number of students necessary to avoid having the course cancelled. 

Still there are Black people involved in all sorts of arts, disciplines, and sports that weren't originally designed for, created by, or currently associated with black people. This includes things like ballet, opera singing, classical music orchestral or string quartet performance, ice hockey, curling, astrophysics, and so on. Often black people so involved do run into ignorant racist whites who are surprised and threatened by their interest or competence and urge the Black individuals to seek a more fitting, that is to say "Black" area of performance or achievement. That is wrong. If a white person got upset because a Black historian was leading discussions of 19th century Mormon migration or because a Black philosopher was deconstructing Sartre and Beauvoir we would hopefully recognize that if race is the white person's only sticking point, then that is indeed an invalid and yes bigoted, objection. 

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, people have interest and talent in fields that aren't defined by their race. It's just the way it is. A sizable proportion of the "blackest" classic soul songs, up to and including some by Aretha Franklin, were cut with white or integrated bands. 

Before he became a rock superstar Duane Allman was a much in demand soul/R&B session guitarist, occasionally surprising Black employers who had assumed from his name and more importantly his sound, that Allman must be a Black man. Some talents or interests which we often assume are correlated with or defined by race, aren't. So the way I see it the question here is not about race, or rather not just about race, but about talent. If Dr. Windmuller-Luna knows her stuff, then her race is immaterial. And according to one of her mentors, a Black Nigerian African art expert, she does know what she's doing. 

In its statement on Friday, the Brooklyn Museum included a reaction from Okwui Enwezor, the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar and arts leader, who called Dr. Windmuller-Luna “formerly a brilliant student of mine.” “The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said. “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.”

If a person wants to get upset that Dr. Windmuller-Luna was hired, show the world that the doctor is unqualified. Show the world that the good doctor knows bupkis about African art or history or knows significantly less than the (hypothetical??) Black art historian who wasn't hired. Show the world that she lacks the experience for the position. Show the world that the museum directors and big donors put the word out not to hire any Black people who applied for the job. Show the world that Dr Windmuller-Luna was hired because her father's friend's cousin is a political or financial big shot who "suggested" to the appropriate parties that the Brooklyn Museum hire Dr Windmuller-Luna. Show the world that the donors and media will give extra attention to Dr. Windmuller-Luna because she's white. 

Those are all legitimate critiques. 

But getting upset solely because a white person has interest in or a job in a field which you think isn't for them isn't legitimate. You need a bit more than that. That is unless you think that whites who deride Black classical conductors, sci-fi writers, ballerinas, or opera singers have a point.
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