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SFMOMA’s senior curator resigned amid outcry over comments he made at staff meetings.

Justin Kamp
Jul 13, 2020 4:25PM, via artnet News

The San Francisco skyline, including SFMOMA. Photo by Minette Lontsie, via Wikimedia Commons.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) senior curator of painting and sculpture Gary Garrels has resigned following staff outrage at a series of comments made in recent weeks.

The unease began when a comment allegedly made by Garrels, who held the position of senior curator from 1993-2000 and again starting in 2008, was shared widely on the Instagram account @changethemuseum. The post alleges that, following a presentation on acquiring works by artists of color—a priority for the museum, which deaccessioned a Mark Rothko painting in order to fund more diverse collecting practices—Garrels told staff: “don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” When confronted at a subsequent staff Zoom meeting about the comment, Garrels allegedly responded by saying that not collecting the work of white male artists would amount to “reverse discrimination.”

Following these remarks, former SFMOMA employees organized a petition calling for Garrels’s resignation. The petition, which has more than 250 signees at the moment of writing, claims Garrels has been “obtuse (at best) to the point of offense or deliberately racist (at worst) in his retorts to criticism.”

The petition goes on to say:

Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable. Considering his lengthy tenure at this institution, we ask just how long have his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity directed his position curating the content of the museum? Furthermore, is any more evidence required to prove that these viewpoints are cavalierly wielded by staff members in the most extreme positions of leadership and power and setback long-term progress towards a more inclusive institution? In light of the above, the most appropriate path toward the change SFMOMA has committed itself to is for Gary Garrels to no longer be part of the institution.

In response, Garrels sent an email to staff on Saturday apologizing for his actions, stating that “true diversity and the fight for real equality is the important battle of our time” before announcing that he was resigning, according to artnet News. Garrels marks the fourth employee to leave SFMOMA in the past month as high-level museum staff’s complicity in structural racism has been increasingly called into question. Nan Keeton, deputy director for external relations, resigned in early July following criticism of her censorship of a former employee’s complaints on Instagram.

Justin Kamp
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019