A Conversation With the Women Who Curate New York’s Museums
For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
At a time when museums are facing numerous challenges — including the pandemic fallout and demands for greater diversity — leaders at those institutions find themselves grappling with how to chart a new future without completely jettisoning the past.
The Black Lives Matter movement prompted a crisis of conscience at cultural institutions all over the country, forcing them to look hard at how they develop their exhibitions, boards, staff and audiences. Employees have felt newly emboldened to call out racism, as well as pay inequity, and to insist on meaningful, measurable reforms.
More recently, climate protestors have taken to defacing historic works of art to bring attention to environmental causes.
Almost no institution has escaped this reckoning. Last year, protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art demonstrated against what they saw as the undue influence of its wealthy patrons. A 2020 letter signed by “The Curatorial Department” of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum decried “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”
MoMA used a recent building renovation to rethink how it presents art: doing away with boundaries between artistic disciplines; integrating formerly excluded female artists and artists of color; rotating shows more often; and creating collection galleries in which artists could be in dialogue with each other.
Ann Temkin, 62, a 20-year veteran of MoMA who has been its chief curator of painting and sculpture since 2008, and Naomi Beckwith, 46, who became the first Black deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim last year, sat down to talk about how they are navigating the new thorny museum terrain and why both of them see signs of progress.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How do you survive change?
ANN TEMKIN The model in the 20th century for curators and MoMA was that we were the authorities, the experts, the czars. And that model didn’t make sense anymore after a certain point. We became much more interested as a culture in many voices. Taking on the position [of chief curator], what was really in my mind was converting from the model of authority to the model of collaboration—of breaking down hierarchies and sharing powers and responsibilities. That matched this time and the world of art.
NAOMI BECKWITH I think the biggest change was precipitated by the rise of the contemporary. The model of expertise used to be so much about being a scholar, and you just can’t claim that kind of know-how when you are dealing with work that is being made now or is even yet to be made. There is the rise of commissions, the rise of biennials—all these things where art is on view the moment it comes off the wall. There is a sense that it’s not going to be your single authoritative voice that will make the argument for why something is valid. Now you’ve got to build that up in coalition with other people.
Can you reimagine the canon?
ROBIN POGREBIN Naomi, while you were studying at the largely traditional Courtauld Institute of Art in London, how much did you struggle against the white Eurocentric canon?
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BECKWITH There were mentors and friends who asked why I wanted to go there, saying it was a place full of people in cashmere sweater sets and pearls. But the moment I arrived, it was an entirely different story. The professors were all keen on keeping abreast of intellectual developments happening in the world in and out of art history.
TEMKIN That very much describes the goal of our collection galleries as we reconfigure them. That visitors to the galleries don’t feel a lecture—they feel a discussion. And they feel the electricity that comes from different curators working together and putting together works of art that haven’t been together, generating attractions and even discord.
BECKWITH Was this the result of a lengthy collecting practice and buildup?
TEMKIN It took a decade. So definitely no instant transformation of this kind is possible, because it can’t be something where you just wave a magic wand. People have to believe in it deeply and believe in each other. So soon after I became head of paintings and sculpture, we began meeting as a group of chief curators.
POGREBIN Which was a first, right? That had never been done before?
TEMKIN It was a first. What I had in mind was the integrating of the mediums in the galleries, because at that time painting and sculpture had the vast majority of the space in terms of square footage or works on view. To me, that was not artistically or intellectually serving the museum’s collection or our public or artists. It wasn’t true to artistic production. It’s not like an artist makes paintings, but never drawings or photographs or videos. The most important thing for a museum to be current and to be true to the art we’re showing is to be true to the artist’s practices.
BECKWITH The first time I came to MoMA, when I was in grad school, it was deeply European and North American—definitely a Western model of what constitutes the Modern. Already you see the massive shift in a much more globally aware collection. And you see a kind of creative enterprise, this sense of experimentation around the possibility of the—
TEMKIN “What if?”
TEMKIN What if we just put these two artists in conversation vis-à-vis the objects? What if we put these materials in conversation with these different geographies? I do believe that is the model that we’re all trying to engender now in our museums—to think not so much about the distinctions, but to pull together as many things as possible to spark new conversations. This is how artists work.
Is it hard to be alone arguing for change?
BECKWITH Let’s just be real: I’m usually the only Black person in the room, anyway. I was the only Black woman studying art history at the Courtauld. But that sense of being solitary doesn’t have to mean a sense of solitude. I have to learn how to build coalitions. I have to learn how to build a community of like-minded thinkers, and that’s not hard to do.
POGREBIN It’s not?
BECKWITH I don’t think so. I’m trying to build a coalition of the willing to put forward a new model around art. I started at the Guggenheim at a moment when people were hungry for change—they knew it was necessary. So if anything, everyone is receptive, and they want to hear something different. The way forward may not be obvious. We’ve got to figure out how to work that out, to break down the silos.
TEMKIN We would be wrong to say it’s brand-new. In a sense, it’s a return to our roots. MoMA was invented as a multidisciplinary place at a time when that was a very new idea — for a museum to have film, to have photography, to have design objects along with painting and sculpture. The idea was one of cross-fertilization.
BECKWITH This is why you periodically see this push toward literally new museums. Especially in the ’60s, you see the rise of the contemporary art museum. All of a sudden everyone began to think about the model of, How do we get back to the new again? And now institutions all the way up to the Met are trying to answer that question of, How do we always stay in tune to what is happening? How do we stay close to the artists? How do we stay close to pop-culture production rather than taking a kind of retrospective, authoritative look back?
TEMKIN Or pretend that you’re not always looking at the past through the eyes of the present. It’s just inevitable that, no matter how objective you’re feeling, your view about the art of 50 or 100 years ago is totally conditioned by the moment.
BECKWITH You’re also conditioned by your lens. That’s been a huge new consciousness: You need different people in the room who are going to bring different perspectives. It’s also important to hold a mirror up to people, without being too accusatory — what is your own definition of expertise? Sometimes it’s just saying to colleagues: Who are you talking to in this show? What do you present? Who do you assume is in the room looking at this?
How do you navigate a changing tide?
BECKWITH All of a sudden the museum is the site of public discourse. People don’t feel empowered enough to go to the square anymore and occupy it. But there is a site where they know that people gather, discuss, argue with each other. People are watching us in a way that extends far beyond what we do around art and artists.
TEMKIN That’s something a worker at a museum in the 1980s never could have imagined, when the slice of the population that visited an art museum was so much narrower. It was sort of a club. But the reality right now gives us so much more opportunity, and so much more responsibility.
POGREBIN What kind of pushback or resistance have you encountered around making this shift?
TEMKIN I think we’re presenting the kind of change that is in sync with our culture right now, so we’ve felt extremely positive responses from people who understand that MoMA has to be a museum of its moment.
BECKWITH The challenge is how. There is a sense that we all want to be the most progressive person in the room at times. But there are going to be dissenting voices even within that. And it’s not going to be the case that the most radical path is absolutely the way forward. Sometimes you need to also engender this sense of patience for even those voices that feel a little retrograde. There is still wisdom in those voices.
POGREBIN Naomi, you started just after some curators accused the Guggenheim of institutional racism. That’s a pretty big thing to recover from. What has that process been like?
BECKWITH My first thought is, with all due respect, name an institution that isn’t. One of the first things I had to do is to say, “I am not going to be the racial healer in this institution — we all have things to unlearn.” No one person is going to be responsible for equity or the lack thereof; this is everybody’s responsibility.
I’m not going to be a Black version of a white male scholarly art historian. I’m going to have a different way of working. So is the institution open to all of those different ways of working? Can we get away from the club mentality of how things are done? These are big conversations that we’ve been having at the Guggenheim — can we really create a culture of openness and accountability?
TEMKIN That is the great lesson of the 2019 book that Darby English and Charlotte Barat edited, “Among Others: Blackness at MoMA.” The great and heartbreaking lesson of that was that there were different points during our history when there was focus, just like there is focus right now, and the tide went back. Those big steps forward kept getting retracted. Our job is to make sure that the current moment isn’t one more cyclical episode that then gets left behind.
BECKWITH Absolutely, we’ve got to be talking about that actively in my team as well — how can we make this stick? That way, no matter who’s sitting in the big chair, this institution will be walking forward with this in mind in terms of programming and collections and colleagues. I am interested in the project of making and remaking museums instead of just destroying them.
TEMKIN I certainly see progress already.
BECKWITH Yes. It may not look radical, it may not be quick, but it’s there.