At 74, J. Tomilson “Tom” Hill didn’t have to head up the board of trustees at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He could have continued collecting his favorite blue-chip contemporary artists—Christopher Wool, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly among them—perhaps added to his 34 extraordinary Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, or tended to his 7,700 square-foot private museum in Chelsea. Instead, last November, the former president and CEO of Blackstone Alternative Asset Management and Forbes billionaire strode into the changing landscape of a museum world in turmoil.
That world changed on May 25, 2020, with the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Minute by minute, the graphic horror of Floyd’s death played out on national television and shocked every realm of American society, including the art world.
Overnight, the directors and trustees of America’s major museums felt the fury of a national backlash. Their entrenched power structure, built on a legacy of white curators, white artists, and white benefactors—above all, by white boards of trustees—placed their mission under siege.
A year before Hill’s arrival, a letter from the Guggenheim’s curatorial department to museum leadership demanded immediate, comprehensive changes to what it described as “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”
The Guggenheim responded with a 13-page action plan pledging to push through a wide range of anti-racism goals within the museum, including systemic anti-racism training of the staff. The museum staff’s racial makeup made those needs all too clear. Of its roughly 260 staff members, some 70 percent were white. Those numbers would have to change.
Similar stirrings, post-Floyd, swept through every other major museum in America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met was targeted in an open letter signed by 900 people from New York cultural institutions and allies expressing “outrage and discontent” over the unequal treatment of people of color in its ranks. The museum responded with a plan that included a commitment to recruit BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) candidates across all departments. Hill arrived at the Guggenheim knowing that he and his fellow trustees had profound work to do. They had to address a racial divide that had been festering for decades; it was a day of reckoning that no one could deny. The whole concept of what a museum could do and should be was at stake. Art was just the start of it. Museums and the trustees who ran them had to come to terms with the failings of traditional institutions—and the opportunities that newly-reconceived museums presented. In a sense, the museum, post-Floyd, was a public square, taking on issues not just artistic but cultural and political. History was the common thread, lacing through centuries of racism and colonialism but offering, at the same time, a chance for renewal. “Museums are sacred spaces,” says Abram Jackson at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, where he was appointed the first Director of Interpretation in June. “If there’s any place in the world where we can make sense of a text or work that might have a racist context,” he said to The Art Newspaper, “it’s in a museum.”
For PALMER Vol. 2, award-winning writer and journalist Michael Shnayerson digs into the changes happening at museum institutions across the nation following 2020’s seismic societal reckonings. Get a preview of his findings, and read the full feature in PALMER Vol. 2, available now.