We have been discussing the campaigns to remove faculty who voice dissenting views on the current protests or underlying issues. The art world has now been swept into this disturbing trend where critics label any opposing views as racist and demand the removal of anyone who questions their demands. That was the case with Gary Garrels the long-standing senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). He resigned after museum employees circulated a petition that accused him of racism because he simply stated that, while seeking to diversify the artists featured in the collection, he would not bar acquisitions of artists simply because they are white. That would not only decouple ignore the inherent value of the art but apply a racial discriminatory rule.
The petition by Garrels’ colleagues and staff details statements that would seem entirely appropriate, if not essential, for an institution committed to featuring the greatest artistic works. The petition declares “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?” Given that hyperbolic language, I assumed that the petition would reveal a virtual Bull Connor of the art world. Instead, the petition is headed by the what the signers indicate is the most offensive example of such “white supremacist beliefs”:
According to artnet.com, he also said previously that to bar artists based solely on the fact that they are white would constitute “reverse discrimination.” Forced to resign, Garrels apologized for any insult that he may have caused but reaffirmed that “I do not believe I have ever said that it is important to collect the art of white men. I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men.”
If that is truly the full extent of Garrels’ offensive comments, the only thing more surprising than the language of the petition was its obvious success. We previously discussed quotas imposed for the gender of subjects shown in art as raising the same underlying controversy.
Garrels was criticized for accepting major pieces of art because the artists were not minorities. This includes an agreement with Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher to take on their 1,100-piece collection of modern art.
I am less concerned about the ultimate merits as I am with the absence of support for these allegations against someone who has served the museum and the art community for so many years. Rather than offer specifics, Garrel was attacked as a white supremacist and racist. As has become a common feature in such attacks, his arguments were dismissed as “dog whistles” for other racists. The campaign was successful as have many such campaigns on college campuses.