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Garrels Quarrels: BlogBacks on My Defense of SFMOMA’s Deposed Curator

After posting my contrarian defense on Tuesday of Gary Garrels, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s distinguished (now deposed) senior curator of painting and sculpture, I ducked, anticipating a pile-on of invective.

Instead, I got confirmation of what I’ve always known: I’ve got a classy readership—intelligent, civil and reasonable…even while contesting my contentious views.

Here’s one detractor who, from his informed comments about my blog, is clearly a devoted CultureGrrl reader—Peter Kuntz, formerly an official of the Chicago Humanities Festival and of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago:

Your admiration for this man [Gary Garrels] has suddenly compromised your usual probity and perceptiveness. Your prose recounts just-the-facts with uncharacteristically neutral language, referring to Garrels’ dumb joke as a “regrettable occurrence.” You’ve never been one for passive euphemisms–why now? Say it plain: It was a supremely insensitive and stupid (dare I say willful?) act at the worst possible time and place by a thoughtless, careless and privileged individual.

In your admiration, you appear to want to look the other way from this man’s irresponsibility and (in this incidence) lack of professionalism when it most counted–in a message to the very people charged with realizing the museum’s ambitions. In doing so, you forfeit, at least for the duration of this blog post, your well-earned critical reputation.

I look forward to your future posts.

Support for my point of view came from Steven Nash, director emeritus of the Palm Springs Art Museum, founding director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, former associate director and chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and now president of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Steven Nash
Photo from website of Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Expressing appreciation for my Garrels post, he attached a letter that he had sent to SFMOMA, giving me permission (at my request) to publish excerpts:

I write to express both my sympathy and concerns about recent developments at an institution much beloved by me for 50-some years.

As a former art museum director, I can well understand and commiserate with the difficulties brought on by the corona epidemic and recent political and social protests. All of us in the museum industry can take equal responsibility for recognizing for a long time the racial inequalities in our profession but not doing enough to try to correct them. There is plenty of guilt to go around, and change is absolutely necessary.

But politics within museums across the country have gotten to the point where clear thinking and due process have been overcome by the understandable desire to express remorse and make amends. Too often, people are being castigated because of actions that do not actually represent the true nature of the individual involved, who is essentially “thrown under the bus” of roaring political correctness.

What has happened to Gary Garrels is a truly reprehensible example of this out-of-control syndrome. Yes, Gary (whom I have known for 40 years) spoke intemperately on at least two public occasions and possibly more unknown to me. But in any kind of a rational and just assessment of his errors and their magnitude, consideration would be given to the amazing record of actions to advance the causes of women artists and artists of color witnessed within a career that is clearly one of the most significant within the history of the museum.

The reader’s comment that I’d like to frame and hang on my office wall came from an official of a major New York museum, whom I’ve interviewed several times (and sometimes taken to task).

Characterizing me (with exaggeration) as “an important voice, especially now,” he wrote:

I commend your deep intelligence, fierce independence, and commitment to getting it right.

That, along with the occasional pithy turn of phrase, describes what I’m going for.

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