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Garrulous Gary Garrels: The Thought-Police Nab Another Unguarded Curator

In the second of what threatens to become a series of parlous CultureGrrl posts, I’m again risking the wrath of the thought-police by coming to the defense of another consummate museum curator who has had the misfortune of wandering into the cancel-culture crosshairs.

Joining Keith Christiansen, the Metropolitan Museum’s chairman of European paintings, in this predicament is Gary Garrels, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, who on July 9 precipitously announced his resignation, effective July 31.

Gary Garrels in his SFMOMA office, in happier times (2016)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The trigger for this regrettable occurrence was Gary’s careless remark that outraged some of the museum’s staff members. It came at the end of his report to the museum’s staff about new acquisitions of works by artists of color:

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” Failing to do so, he quipped, would be “reverse discrimination.”

Not funny. Some 269 (at this writing) mostly anonymous signatories to a Change.org petition to SFMOMA’s board demanded Garrels’ resignation, citing his use of allegedly “white supremacist and racist language.”

They got their wish, along with this note from the contrite curator:

Image from the Instagram page of xSFMOMA Workers, the instigators of the anti-Garrels petition

In my post last year about works that SFMOMA had bought with funds from a deaccessioned Rothko, I had praised Garrels as “a curator whom I greatly admire.” I regarded his move from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to San Francisco’s as a great loss for us East Coast-ers that never should have happened.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director. His press-released statement on Gary’s resignation made no reference to the reasons for the curator’s departure. Instead, it praised his contributions in diversifying the collection with works of black, Latino, Native American and female artists:

There are few curators over the course of SFMOMA’s 85-year history who have made as profound a contribution to the museum and our community as Gary Garrels [emphasis added].

Over the course of two separate appointments at the museum [SFMOMA], first from 1993-2000 and more recently from 2008 until now, Gary has proven to be an exceptionally gifted curator, renowned for his work with living artists ranging from early museum shows by Glenn Ligon, Doris Salcedo and Kara Walker, to definitive retrospectives of the work of Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner and Sol Lewitt and other ground-breaking exhibitions….

Gary is to be especially acknowledged for his passionate collection development, with a particular emphasis on broad diversification and expanded narratives. Most recently, with the deaccession and sale [my link, not Neal’s] last year of a Mark Rothko painting, Gary took the lead in a concentrated effort to broadly diversify the collection.

Works acquired include major paintings and sculptures by Rebecca Belmore, Frank Bowling, Lygia Clark, Jeffrey Gibson, Sam Gilliam, Luchita Hurtado, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Mickalene Thomas and many others that have already transformed SFMOMA’s galleries and expanded the stories we can tell.

Gary Garrels with Neal Benezra, gazed upon by Edvard Munch’s “Self Portrait with Brushes,” 1904, at press preview for the 2017 New York showing at the Met Breuer of the jointly organized Munch survey
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If there’s more substance to the petition-signatories’ grievances than distress over one insensitive remark, I haven’t yet seen it. What I can say is that over the many years that I’ve known Gary Garrels and admired his work (both at SFMOMA and during his stint as MoMA), I’ve seen not a hint of racism, let alone “white suprematicism.”

What I have perceived is unrivaled expertise at crafting intelligently installed, incisively explicated exhibitions and installations. His most ambitious project was the reinstallation of the permanent collection for SFMOMA’s 2016 Snøhetta-designed renovation and expansion, where I particularly relished the ample single-artist focus galleries, including those for Ellsworth Kelly

Agnes Martin

and Calder kinetic sculptures:

A small segment of the large Calder array for SFMOMA’s 2016 reopening
All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

I’ve several times had a chance to peruse traveling exhibitions that appeared both at SFMOMA and in New York (most notably, the 2016 Bruce Conner retrospective). The SFMOMA installation was, to me, always more compelling in its juxtapositions and elucidations.

Long before he became a target of those now accusing him of “toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity” (in the words of the petition), Gary stated the following (in an extensive 2009 interview for SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary Oral History Project, on p. 18):

I had been very interested very early on, in the ’80s, with feminist work and black artists and Latino artists and gay artists….It’s still something I’m very conscious of. (Along with the late Thomas Sokolowki and two others, Garrels was a founder of Visual AIDS, the activist organization for “supporting HIV+ artists and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”)

As has occurred at too many museums, SFMOMA’s professional atmosphere has been infected by an epidemic of Covid-related staff cutbacks that have engendered resentment among many lower-rung employees against their better paid, more job-secure superiors.

Instead of being banished for a thoughtless utterance, Garrels should be encouraged (even by those who piled on with seemingly unsubstantiated accusations) to reverse his resignation.

I realize this idea is probably a non-starter on both sides. With a five-museum career under his belt, semi-retirement for this sexagenarian is a reasonable option. But if Gary isn’t restrained from walking out the door, the next-best result would be for SFMOMA’s sad loss to become another museum’s fortunate gain.

There must still be some great, unrealized exhibition ideas in the messy pile of folders that I saw on his office’s desk.

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