News, Culture & Society

San Francisco art curator resigns after colleagues accused him of being a ‘toxic white supremacist’

Gary Garrels (pictured) resigned as senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art after his colleagues circulated a petition accusing him of holding ‘toxic white supremacist beliefs’ 

A senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has resigned after his colleagues circulated a petition accusing him of holding ‘toxic white supremacist beliefs’. 

Gary Garrels sparked outrage among staff when he concluded a presentation about recent acquisitions of art by people of color by saying: ‘Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.’ 

The senior curator of painting and sculpture was then confronted about that comment and others during an all-staff Zoom meeting on July 7, according to Artnet. 

In the meeting Garrels argued that avoiding work by white men would amount to ‘reverse discrimination’ – prompting a group of museum employees to start a petition calling for him to resign immediately. 

‘Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable,’ the petition states. ‘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?’

About 180 people signed the petition before Garrels stepped down on Saturday, effective July 31. Since then a total of 279 people have added their signatures as of Wednesday.

However many people decried his decision to resign over ‘baseless accusations’ of racism and said he had been unfairly targeted by a ‘pathetic cancel culture mob’. 

Garrels has worked for the SFMOMA for nearly 20 years and also held prominent curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. 

Over the course of his career Garrels helped organize early shows by emerging artists of color including Glenn Ligon, Doris Salcedo and Kara Walker, as well as retrospectives featuring Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner and Sol LeWitt. 

Just last year he spearheaded the sale of a $50.1million Mark Rothko painting that was used to create a fund dedicated to purchasing works by female artists, artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists.  

Garrels reportedly sparked outrage among SFMOMA staff when he concluded a presentation about recent acquisitions of art by people of color by saying: 'Don't worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists. Garrels is pictured (left) with gallery owners Jack Wendler (center) and Adrian Rosenfeld (right) at artist Richard Prince's High Times exhibit in May 2019

Garrels reportedly sparked outrage among SFMOMA staff when he concluded a presentation about recent acquisitions of art by people of color by saying: ‘Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists. Garrels is pictured (left) with gallery owners Jack Wendler (center) and Adrian Rosenfeld (right) at artist Richard Prince’s High Times exhibit in May 2019 

Garrels had worked at the SFMOMA (pictured) for more than 20 years before his resignation and also served in curatorial roles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles

Garrels had worked at the SFMOMA (pictured) for more than 20 years before his resignation and also served in curatorial roles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles 

Garrels’ alleged remark about continuing to collect work by white men was featured in a viral Instagram post on the account @changethemuseum, which seeks to shed light on racism within the museum industry. 

While the post only referred to a ‘white senior curator’, it was widely understood to be Garrels. 

The employee petition charges that Garrels ‘has been obtuse (at best) to the point of offense or deliberately racist (at worst) in his retorts to criticism’.

‘Amongst SFMOMA staff as well as in public view, Gary has used and continued to use white supremacist and racist language such as “reverse racism”,” it adds. 

Garrels reportedly made similarly controversial comments earlier this year during a February panel at the FOG Design+Art Fair called ‘Ways of Being Seen: Creating Visibility for Women in Art’.

‘You’ve got this huge mountain you’re scaling to get to parity, to get to balance. It’s going to take a lot of time,’ he said, according to KQED. 

‘The other thing I have to say, and I’ve reassured artists, we will continue to collect white men. There are a lot of great women artists, but there are also still a lot of good men out there working as well.’

Panel moderator Sarah Douglas, the editor in chief of ARTnews, then suggested that curators could help achieve balance in their collections by suspending acquisitions by white men for a period of time. 

‘I just don’t agree with that. That’s an alternative, different kind of profiling,’ Garrels replied. 

Employees started a petition for Garrels removal after an all-staff meeting on July 7. 'Gary's removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable,' the petition states. '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?'

Employees started a petition for Garrels removal after an all-staff meeting on July 7. ‘Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable,’ the petition states. ‘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?’

The description on the Change.org petition is shown in full above

The description on the Change.org petition is shown in full above 

Garrels acknowledged his remark at the Zoom meeting in his resignation email to staff on Saturday.  

‘I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you. I realized almost as soon as I used the term “reverse discrimination” that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff,’ he wrote. 

He also appeared to deny making the comment described in the @changethemuseum Instagram post. 

‘I do not believe I have ever said that it is important to collect the art of white men,’ he wrote. 

‘I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men.’

Garrels went on to say that ‘true diversity and the fight for real equality is the important battle of our time’ and promised to ‘contribute in any way that I can to reach that goal’.  

‘I am so proud of this museum and I am proud of the work I have been able to do with so many of you,’ he concluded. 

‘But I realize that in the current climate, I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA, and so I have offered my resignation.’ 

In an email to all staff announcing his resignation, Garrels wrote: 'I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you. I realized almost as soon as I used the term "reverse discrimination" that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff.' Garrels is pictured (right) with artist Richard Mayhew and prolific collector Fred Giuffrida at the Abstracted Black Tie Dinner at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in September 2016

In an email to all staff announcing his resignation, Garrels wrote: ‘I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you. I realized almost as soon as I used the term “reverse discrimination” that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff.’ Garrels is pictured (right) with artist Richard Mayhew and prolific collector Fred Giuffrida at the Abstracted Black Tie Dinner at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in September 2016 

The petition for Garrels removal continued to rack up signatures even after he stepped down, with 279 as of Wednesday morning. 

But the news of his resignation drew criticism from many who said the claims that he is racist do not stand up to scrutiny.  

In the comments section of the petition and several social media posts promoting it, critics noted that the offended employees shared little evidence of Garrels misconduct beyond his comment at the Zoom meeting. 

They argued that it was completely reasonable to continue collecting work from white artists under the museum’s efforts to diversify its collection.  

‘All of those who have signed this petition and who have contributed to ousting this man for nothing – the mob will come for you, too, eventually,’ one man wrote on the petition. 

‘This is pathetic cancel culture,’ another added. 

An Instagram account for the podcast WTF, Utah?! called the petition ‘far more problematic’ than Garrels’ comments. 

‘There’s far more violence in trying to fire someone & ruin their life because you don’t like what they say/how they say it. That will never be okay,’ the account commented. 

The petition for Garrels removal continued to rack up signatures even after he stepped down, with 279 inked as of Wednesday morning. But the news of his resignation drew criticism from many who said the claims that he is racist do not stand up to scrutiny. Garrels is pictured (center) with gallery owners Jessica Silverman and Paula Cooper in September 2016

The petition for Garrels removal continued to rack up signatures even after he stepped down, with 279 inked as of Wednesday morning. But the news of his resignation drew criticism from many who said the claims that he is racist do not stand up to scrutiny. Garrels is pictured (center) with gallery owners Jessica Silverman and Paula Cooper in September 2016

In the comments section of the petition critics noted that the offended employees shared little evidence of Garrels' misconduct beyond his comment at the Zoom meeting

In the comments section of the petition critics noted that the offended employees shared little evidence of Garrels’ misconduct beyond his comment at the Zoom meeting

Some critics said Garrels had been unfairly targeted by 'cancel culture'

Some critics said Garrels had been unfairly targeted by ‘cancel culture’

An Instagram account for the podcast WTF, Utah?! called the petition 'far more problematic' than Garrels' comments

An Instagram account for the podcast WTF, Utah?! called the petition ‘far more problematic’ than Garrels’ comments

Garrels first worked at the SFMOMA from 1993 to 2000 and then returned in 2008 after holding curator positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.  

Over the course of his career Garrels helped shine the spotlight on numerous female artists and artists of color by organizing some of their first major museum shows.  

He made headlines in May 2019 when he orchestrated the $50.1million sale of a Mark Rothko’s prized ‘Untitled’ painting from 1960 and put the proceeds toward  SFMOMA’s new initiative to showcase female, queer and minority artists.  

So far the funds have been used to purchase 11 works by 10 artists in those categories, including Rebecca Belmore, Forrest Bess, Frank Bowling, Leonora Carrington, Lygia Clark, and Norman Lewis.    

Another one of Garrels’ top accomplishments was inking a deal which saw Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher loan 270 works from their private collection to the SFMOMA in 2016 – including pieces by Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.  

Garrels is the fifth SFMOMA employee to resign in recent weeks as the museum has been accused of racial inequality both by staff and by outside critics. 

The accusations arose after Taylor Brandon, a former black employee who left SFMOMA due to perceived racism in the workplace, criticized the museum for posting artwork by a Black artist on Instagram to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd. 

Brandon commented on the post, calling it a ‘cop out’ and saying that the museum has a ‘history of using black pain for their own financial gain’.

Public outrage erupted after the museum appeared to delete Brandon’s comment from the post. 

In the wake of that incident four people stepped down: Nan Keeton, the deputy museum director in charge of external relations; Marisa Robisch, director of human resources; Cindi Hubbard, recruitment and staffing manager; and Ann von Germeten, chief marketing and communications officer.

Brandon and others have also called for Neal Benezra, the museum’s director, to resign.  

Benezra released a statement announcing Garrels resignation on Saturday. 

‘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,’ he wrote of the ‘exceptionally gifted curator’.  

‘Gary is to be especially acknowledged for his passionate collection development, with a particular emphasis on broad diversification and expanded narratives.’

‘I cannot thank Gary enough for his exceptional work on behalf of SFMOMA, and wish him the absolute best in his next chapter.’ 

Benezra concluded the statement by saying that Sarah Roberts, curator and head of painting and sculpture, would serve as interim senior curator after Garrels’ departure.  

Garrels is the fifth SFMOMA employee to resign in recent weeks as the museum has been accused of racial inequality both by staff and by outside critics

Garrels is the fifth SFMOMA employee to resign in recent weeks as the museum has been accused of racial inequality both by staff and by outside critics

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk