Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Newly Appointed Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Art at the Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum has caused somewhat of a stir on social media with the announcement of who will be responsible for “rethinking” the museum’s African art collection. The hiring of Windmuller-Luna has ignited a conversation on the lack of Black arts administration candidates given opportunities within museum Curatorial departments and art galleries. As a Black woman who has been employed as a Curatorial Assistant and an Assistant Registrar in Curatorial Departments throughout Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I wanted to share my thoughts on this topic.
Museum Administrators Don’t Want to Commit to Real Diversity
It’s not that Black job seekers aren’t hired to work in museums or art galleries. It’s that the largest number of Black museum or art gallery employees work in security, food preparation, or janitorial positions. That’s not to say that there are no Black Curators, Museum and/or Art Gallery Directors, Registrars, or Curatorial Assistants working in museums and art galleries all over the world. There are, but the number is miniscule in comparison to Whites, Asians, Latinos, and Hispanics employees. While employed in arts administration I’ve typically been either the only Black Curatorial employee or 1 of 2. I recall overseeing the loading of several exhibition loans into an art transportation truck. The driver, a Black man, expressed shock that I was a Curatorial Assistant and in charge of an outgoing shipment of fine art.
“You’re in charge?” he asked.
“Of this shipment.” I said.
“But you work in Curatorial, right?”
He chuckled. “I’m just surprised. I deliver and pick–up art all over this country and I hardly ever see any of us [he pointed to the brown skin of his wrist for emphasis] doing what you do.”
“I’m aware, believe me.” I replied.
We shook hands, and I wasn’t the least bit offended by his reaction. I had previously worked at a museum at which I was the only Black employee who didn’t work in security, janitorial services or the kitchen. My being employed within a Curatorial department was as unusual as a unicorn sighting, and that fact was not lost on me. If art administrators want to truly commit themselves to diversity and have art institutions representative of multiculturalism and varied talents, they have to extend employment opportunities within their Curatorial departments to Black candidates and do away with practicing nepotism.
Well, Maybe If Museum Employees Stopped Hiring Their Friends…
While the hiring process for positions in museums and art galleries is frequently tainted by both conscious and subconscious racism, nepotism also plays a big role in hiring decisions. For example, the hiring of preparators throughout Broward and Dade County museums is extremely bias. Preparators are art handlers who possess carpentry and often times artistic skills. They are responsible for packing and moving art, hanging paintings and installations, painting galleries, building structures, etc. The reason exhibitions look so great is primarily due to preparators. Curators may select the art to be displayed and conduct research for exhibitions, but it’s the preparators who put in the manual labor and bring the Curator’s vision to life…despite rarely receiving recognition for their hard work.
People within the Dade and Broward County art communities all seem to know one another, either through work, school, or by connecting as fellow artists. While there are some cultural centers and historic homes in Broward County, there are few museums. Dade County, on the other hand, has a plethora of museums and art galleries. As a result, it’s common practice for artists, art students, and art instructors to commute between Miami and Fort Lauderdale to work in museums and art galleries. Preparator positions pay well, and the need for them is always there because some museums and galleries change exhibitions as frequently as every 2 to 3 months. The job opportunities are there, but the same people are hired to fill them over and over, sometimes at multiple museums simultaneously without ever having to interview, or submit a job application or resume. Why? Because their friend either recommended them for the position or hired them directly. Nepotism at its finest.
If a preparator is skilled it’s understandable to hire them repeatedly, certainly that was the case with some of the guys I’ve worked with. However, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes a lazy and/or careless person who was not very skilled would get hired as a preparator simply because he was another preparator’s friend. These were times that position could’ve gone to someone qualified, but instead the job was given to someone simply because they happened to know someone working on the preparation crew. Sometimes a job opening for a position as a preparator would be posted on the university’s job site for legal purposes (some job openings must stay posted for a mandatory amount of time), even though friends and friends of friends had already been selected to fill these positions behind the scenes…not that those applying for the position were aware of this. These are examples of how nepotism cheats deserving and qualified candidates out of employment opportunities in the arts. I worked at one museum in Broward County for 4 years and during that time no Black person was ever given a position as a preparator.
So…Not One Black Candidate Was Qualified?
Not even one Black person was qualified in all of Brooklyn, or even Queens? Brooklyn (now gentrified) is a New York City borough that is home to a population estimated at 2,600,000+ people, 35% of which are African-American or of the African diaspora. Do the Brooklyn Museum’s Curatorial administrators expect us to believe that there wasn’t a single Black applicant qualified to hold this position? I’m not upset with Windmuller-Luna. This is a damn good position, and she wasn’t going to turn it down. I’m upset with those who engaged in the interview and hiring process for this position.
I’m not suggesting Windmuller-Luna isn’t qualified to be a Curator of African Art at the Brooklyn Museum or anywhere else. She has a B.A. in the History of Art and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Art and Archaeology. Windmuller-Luna is also a Historian of African arts, so she’s probably qualified. I’m also not suggesting a person of the African diaspora should’ve been awarded this position because it’s a position that involves working with African art, or that individuals who are not of the African diaspora are unqualified to curate African art. What I am suggesting is that it is highly unlikely that there were no Curators of the African diaspora with experience in African Collections that were just as, if not more so, as qualified for this position as Windmuller-Luna. I would also find it very hard to believe that no qualified Black African, African-American, or Afro-Caribbean applicants applied.
There’s Racism Within Those Gallery Walls
If life as a Black woman has taught me anything it’s that anyone is capable of hating Black people. It doesn’t matter if they’re a liberal, a Democrat, the poorest of poor, Jewish (refer Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun Sends Clear Message: Hate Crimes Are Okay), a member of the LGBTQ community (refer to this video of Jeffree Star), anyone can be openly, covertly or subconsciously racist. Despite being hired for positions in museums by 2 White women and promoted by 1, I’ve still witnessed and personally experienced racism at every museum of which I was an employee, intern or guest, with the exceptions of Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
One of my previous supervisors was a racist bully who made the average workday unbearable. Refusing to tolerate being constantly harassed I filed multiple complaints with the university’s Human Resources Department for at least a year, only to have my employment terminated as a result. Apparently, (at least in the eyes of those overseeing complaints of racial discrimination in this university’s Human Resources Department) unless your co-worker calls you a nigger aloud or to your face you aren’t being harassed, they aren’t racist and you are the problem for complaining about being mistreated.
I reported racial discrimination and harassment to Nova Southeastern University’s Human Resources Department and received this standard copy-and-paste response:
“The University takes all allegations of discrimination very seriously, and as such conducted a thorough investigation. The specific details of the investigation and actions taken related to the investigation remain confidential in accordance with University practice. However, I am writing to inform you that the investigation is complete and that an allegation of discrimination was not substantiated.”
“Will there at least be an on–site Diversity Training seminar for museum staff? I think it would be extremely helpful.”
The Human Resources Department employee responded:
“Thank you for your e–mail. As previously discussed, the allegation of discrimination you raised was not substantiated. That said, the Office of Human Resources offers many trainings that departments may utilize and/or employees may participate in. You may find a detailed list of upcoming University trainings at http://sharklink.nova.edu.
No diversity training was ever made available, and I felt what her response really said was: “We don’t take the need for diversity or your claims of racial discrimination and harassment seriously.” This is a museum at which a White employee proceeded to appease her black hair texture curiosity by touching the hair of a Black Finance employee during a staff meeting, and then asking me if she could touch mine. This employee was nice, and based solely on my interactions with her she didn’t seem to have any disdain for people of color, but her behavior is an example of why diversity training was needed at that museum: you have educated employees who simply don’t know how to interact with people of different ethnic groups, and have no clue as to what is considered offensive.
There’s also the issue what “type” of Black employee you will be. Are your views towards other Black people in line with those of Stacey Dash or Tamika D. Mallory and Bree Newsome? Do you prefer distancing yourself from other Black people and or co-workers, or do you welcome interacting with them? Do you believe you must change who you are to make others around you more comfortable? Based on my experiences at the many museums I’ve visited throughout the United States, interned or been an employee, a Black person interested in working in the arts must understand the following: