curator says museum’s white supremacy silenced her

November 12, 2019
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Invited to the Guggenheim Museum as a guest curator, Chaedria LaBouvier organized the exhibition and edited the catalog for “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” which closed last week after a five-month run and rave reviews. The first Black woman to curate a solo exhibition at the museum, LaBouvier’s involvement in the show was historic and highly-anticipated. At the centerpiece of the exhibit was the Jean-Michel Basquiat piece, “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” which the artist painted on a wall at Keith Haring’s studio following Stewart’s brutal 1983 murder by New York City Police. (Haring saved the painting, cutting it out of the studio wall.)  With social justice, identity, and activism setting the tone, the exhibit supplemented Basquiat’s work with additional pieces that raised similar themes, as well as archival materials about Stewart’s death, which became a major, contentious tabloid story in the city.

One of the great successes of LaBouvier’s exhibit was how it used a museum show to re-examine a historical incident originally told through a white supremacist narrative. Which is why the Guggenheim’s decision not to more deeply engage LaBouvier during the exhibit’s run — and especially, not invite her to speak at the exhibition’s closing panel on the weekend of November 5th — seemed so contrary to what “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement'” was about. Refusing to be shut out of a conversation she presented, LaBouvier confronted the panel, organized by the museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, and accused the group of silencing her, while profiting off of her work.

“You have a panel that is hoisted on that intellectual labor, that intellectual credibility, on the penultimate day of the exhibition and say that it’s not about the Basquiat show?” LaBouvier said.

And this is how Elizabeth Duggal, president of the Guggenheim responded:

This was not the first time that LaBouvier spoke out about her alleged maltreatment by the museum while working on “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement.'” She had previously cited what are, at the very least, unprofessional actions that the museum used to exclude her in the exhibition’s overall voice, denying LaBouvier the full breadth of what is customary for any curator at a prominent museum.

In response to LaBouvier’s characterization of her experience working with the museum, a Guggenheim spokesperson said, “All staff and guest curators follow standard guidelines for every exhibition we present; we disagree with Ms. LaBouvier’s claims that she was treated differently.”