GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM HIRES ITS FIRST BLACK CURATOR
By Erin White
November 15, 2019
At the beginning of this week, you may have caught our piece about the Guggenheim Museum’s treatment of Chaedria LaBouvier, the first Black woman curator in the museum’s long history. LaBouvier is behind the blockbuster “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” exhibition, and has taken the museum to task for what she describes as white supremacy through her exclusion from exhibition panels and the creation of supplemental exhibition content. Claims the museum denies.
Now, just a week later, the Guggenheim has announced its hire of a permanent curator, Ashely James. The museum’s first full-time Black curator. Most recently James worked at the Brooklyn Museum as an assistant curator of contemporary art where she led the organization of the critically acclaimed exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”
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I am truly thrilled to have joined the Guggenheim earlier this week, after two and a half years at the Brooklyn Museum working for Anne Pasternak and Eugenie Tsai, both of whom I appreciate so much for their guidance and faith in me. What has me most excited about this position is the clear belief Nancy Spector and the Museum expressed in the ideas, exhibitions, programs, research, and acquisitions that I can bring to the Guggenheim in concert with very smart and very creative colleagues in the coming years. I’m excited about these prospects just as I am excited for all that I will learn in the years to come. While the idea of firstness might initially conjure beginnings, for me it immediately- happily! – draws me back to the historical record: in the case of the Guggenheim specifically, of the late, *great* and groundbreaking curator Okwui Enwezor, the first black person to curate a show at the Museum, who organized “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” with Clare Bell, Danielle Tilkin, and Octavio Zaya in 1996, and more recently, the important and revelatory “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” curated by Chaédria LaBouvier. But also necessarily more broadly: to the many curators and thinkers in the field at large who have been doing this work for decades, whom I’ve looked up to and learned from (and even directly studied with!) since I was an undergraduate at Columbia writing my senior thesis on the gamechanging Freestyle exhibition, including Thelma Golden, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Kellie Jones, Elizabeth Alexander, Kobena Mercer, Lowery Stokes Sims, Deborah Willis, Saidiya Hartman, Thomas Lax, Kynaston McShine, Howardena Pindell, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, and so many more. It’s because of them that I was able to even begin to *imagine* a life with and of art. I’m thankful and excited for what comes next. ☺️ * * * [This image taken by Sam Vernon this summer at the Guggenheim with “Jug” (2019) in Simone Leigh’s “Loophole of Retreat,” curated by Katherine Brinson and Susan Thompson.]
“Ashley is a curator who has demonstrated incisive and intersectional thinking about contemporary artistic practice,” Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s artistic director, and chief curator, said in a statement. “Her work complements the Guggenheim’s mission to present the art of today, which we understand as a deep and expansive view of art history.”
As much as we’re rooting for Ashely, who is a total badass in her own right, it’s the timing of this hire is utterly suspicious. Let’s hope the museum acts right this time.