Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

The Guggenheim’s Scapegoat

A museum curator was forced out of her job over allegations of racism that an investigation deemed unfounded. What did her defenestration accomplish?

illustration with four gold-framed historical paintings of people pointing fingers at each other
Illustration by Guillem Casasús*

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

Defacement is a beautiful painting—and an ugly one. Its alternative name, The Death of Michael Stewart, reveals its subject: a young Black man who died in police custody in 1983, after his arrest for allegedly writing graffiti on the wall of a subway station in New York City.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the November 2022 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Stewart’s death shocked the city’s artists, many of whom had known him personally. It resonated in particular with young Black men such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fred Brathwaite, known as Fab 5 Freddy, who had also been labeled as graffiti artists—undisciplined, dangerous outlaws—even though they were now working on canvas and selling in galleries. “I remember being with Jean-Michel,” Fab told me. “We would look at each other, without having to say it: We know that could be us.” The six officers tried in relation to Stewart’s death were cleared two years later by an all-white jury.

Basquiat took his fear and his anger and responded in the way he knew best. In the days after Stewart’s death, he painted Defacement onto the studio wall of another artist, Keith Haring, in precise, furious strokes: two piglike figures in uniform, raising their batons at a black silhouette. The word ¿DEFACEMENT©? looms above them, posing a question. Which is the greater defacement: writing on a subway wall, or the police brutality that wipes out young Black men’s lives?

Haring later cut Defacement out of his wall, then mounted it in a gold frame and hung it over his bed. He died in 1990, of complications from AIDS, only two years after Basquiat’s own death from a heroin overdose. The painting went to Haring’s goddaughter, Nina Clemente, and at some point an independent Basquiat scholar named Chaédria LaBouvier heard about it. She had been captivated by Basquiat since childhood; her parents had owned three of his drawings.

TK
Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983 (© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.)

In 2016, LaBouvier, then in her early 30s, arranged for the Williams College Museum of Art, in Massachusetts, to display Defacement as a powerful statement about police brutality by an artist whose commercial and critical reputation has continued to rise since his death. Nancy Spector, who would soon become artistic director and chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York, learned about LaBouvier’s work on the painting. She asked LaBouvier if she would like to collaborate on an exhibition where Defacement could be shown alongside other art responding to the death of Michael Stewart. The exhibition would speak to the political moment: In the years since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had been shot dead, the Black Lives Matter movement had been steadily gaining strength.

Spector’s offer led to a high-profile exhibition at one of New York’s most prominent art institutions, making LaBouvier a trailblazing Black curator in a white-dominated world. It also began a chain of events that, in the summer after George Floyd’s murder, saw Spector cast out of the Guggenheim, branded a racist and a bully, and left unemployed—a phenomenon the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo described to me as a “social death.” All of this happened even though an independent investigation found “no evidence” that Spector had racially discriminated against LaBouvier.

How did a simple offer, over a single painting, lead to such a spectacular destruction of someone’s life and career? The answer involves the shifting sands of American corporate life, as newly activist staff demand that institutions take political positions. But there is also a much older ritual at work: the tendency of the powerful, when faced with rebellion and called to account for their own behavior, to dump all their errors on a single individual, whose removal then wipes the record clean.

Nancy Spector, in other words, was a scapegoat.

Many of America’s great museums are beset by the same sins. Their low-paid staff struggle to make rent in expensive cities. Curators must answer to boards speckled with old-money elites and the socialite spouses of banking titans. In some museums, almost every gallery bears the name of a different donor. (The Guggenheim, like many others, has airbrushed out the Sackler name to avoid association with the opioid magnates.) Admission prices for students and senior citizens are subsidized by black-tie galas. Exhibitions that comment on poverty are supported by the country’s most successful capitalists. Most major art museums are very white; in 2018, only 4 percent of American curators were Black, according to a survey by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The collections are slowly diversifying, but only 1.2 percent of artworks across 18 major American museums are by Black artists, and the big crowds still flock to the Great White Males: Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, Pollock, Warhol. All of these realities have left museums struggling to speak with authority on the legacy of slavery and segregation, the toll of police violence, and racial injustice.

The sector is also overwhelmingly left-wing—though not in the sense of burning down the New York Stock Exchange and sowing the ground with salt. But liberal values pervade these institutions, with two obvious effects. The first is that charges of racism, sexism, transphobia, and other types of discrimination are taken very seriously. And second, when Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, the art world freaked out. Many prominent artists immediately voiced their horror.

The arrival of Trump in the White House gave a new urgency to the idea that museums needed to “decolonize” their collections, atone for their past elitism, and become overtly political institutions rather than mere warehouses of valuable objects. Gary Garrels, then the senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, told The New York Times that the furor over Open Casket, a work by the white artist Dana Schutz, was a “wake-up call.” In March 2017, this painting of the broken face of Emmett Till was displayed at the Whitney Biennial, a regular showcase of new American art. In an earlier time, it might have been received as being part of a tradition of bearing witness to the effects of racism: When 14-year-old Till was lynched by white men in 1955, his mother, Mamie, had his body displayed in an open casket. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she told the funeral director. Tens of thousands lined up to do just that: pay tribute to another young Black life ended too soon, another defacement.

More than half a century later, however, many Black commentators now express deep ambivalence about displaying images and artifacts from America’s racist past. Some worry that sensationalism has replaced genuine reflection. So when Schutz’s painting went on display in New York City, it caused an immediate backlash. The artist Parker Bright stood in front of it wearing a T-shirt that read BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE. In a letter to the show’s curators, the artist and writer Hannah Black demanded that Open Casket be not only removed from display but destroyed. It was “not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” she argued. (Schutz had never put the painting up for sale and has since withdrawn it from circulation.)

That same year, another controversy erupted at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, when Native American leaders protested the installation of a work called Scaffold. The huge wood-and-metal platform included a representation of the gallows used to put 38 Dakota men to death at the hands of the state in 1862. It was supposed to draw attention to capital punishment, but activists felt it was insensitive. They also noted that Scaffold, situated in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, stood on former Dakota land. The artwork was dismantled, and the museum’s executive director, Olga Viso, stepped down shortly afterward. (Viso declined to discuss the specifics of her departure.) The artist behind Scaffold, Sam Durant, initially apologized for his “thoughtlessness,” but three years later, on his website, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the museum’s approach to the controversy: “I have been accused of being racist because my work makes visible existing and historical systems of racial domination, blaming the messenger as it were.” In Durant’s view, he had been singled out to pay for the Walker’s founding sin—America’s founding sin—of colonialism and expropriation.

Around the same time, political concerns were getting louder at the Guggenheim. According to several sources, in late 2016, some staff members expressed frustration that the museum was not doing more to signal its opposition to Trump. Then Nancy Spector, as the chief curator, had a chance to join the #resistance. In 2017, the White House got in touch to request the loan of a van Gogh. Spector instead offered an artwork by Maurizio Cattelan called America—a solid-gold toilet. Liberals on Twitter loved the insult. “You spend your life hoping one day you’ll get the chance to respond to an unreasonable request in a manner worthy of Oscar Wilde,” tweeted a Georgetown Law professor named Aderson B. Francois. “For this one Guggenheim curator, that moment came last September and, as the kids say, she didn’t throw away her shot.”

The Guggenheim, and Spector, were successfully navigating the new mood. A few months later, Chaédria LaBouvier arrived at the museum, ready to work on the Basquiat exhibition.

LaBouvier and Spector had very different backgrounds and personalities, that much was obvious from the start. (Both declined requests to be interviewed for this story.) Spector, now 63, grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Albany and graduated from the liberal-arts college Sarah Lawrence. By the time she met LaBouvier, Spector had spent almost her entire career at the Guggenheim. She once described herself to New York magazine as “a product of the ’70s” who’d nursed her two children in Guggenheim meetings. Her position as artistic director and chief curator eventually paid $299,560 a year, according to the institution’s tax filings. Friends note her jitteriness and her tiny stature—only 4 foot 11—portraying her as a black-clad hummingbird who never puts her phone on silent.

Even one of Spector’s admirers described her as shy in a way that strangers sometimes mistake for coldness. “At first, I found her to be rather serious,” the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang told me. They first met in 1996, and he praised Spector as “one of the first Western curators to show an active interest in my art,” particularly its culturally specific elements, such as the use of gunpowder and traditional Chinese medicine.

By contrast, LaBouvier comes across as fierce and direct. On Twitter, her display name is “No Quarter Will Be Given.” Born in Texas, she graduated with a degree in history from Williams College. She was an outsider to the self-important art world. LaBouvier knew what it was like to lose a loved one at the hands of the police, so perhaps Defacement had extra resonance for her: In 2013, her 25-year-old brother, Clinton Allen, was killed by a police officer. No criminal charges were ever brought against the officer who shot Allen, who was unarmed. LaBouvier was 27 at the time and training to be a screenwriter, but, she has written, she took a career break to care for her brother’s twin boys.

After arriving at the Guggenheim, LaBouvier began work on a catalog for the exhibition. She interviewed Basquiat’s friends and fellow artists, including Fab 5 Freddy. He was delighted by the show, he told me, and by Spector’s choice of LaBouvier to curate it. He had met LaBouvier years before, at a gallery opening, and seen firsthand her love of Basquiat’s work. “I was amazed and impressed that a person that’s not from the art world, or a curatorial background, was given a chance to curate a major exhibit,” he told me. “I thought it was incredible.”

But things soon began to go wrong. LaBouvier felt disrespected by the Guggenheim’s desire to edit sections of the essay she had prepared for the exhibition catalog. Months later, in a curatorial meeting, Spector told her staff, “Where it really went downhill is when she turned in her essay.” According to a leaked transcript of the meeting, another curator seconded Spector’s account, describing the work as “poorly written” and lax in its scholarship. They told LaBouvier it would need to be reworked extensively, and suggested she could be credited as a co-author, alongside Spector and another curator. LaBouvier was insulted—“I said fuck no & fought back,” she later tweeted. She met with Fab 5 Freddy, trying to persuade him to withdraw his interview from the catalog. He tried to talk her down, he told me. He didn’t think the issues she raised were “as serious or as big or as problematic as she made [them] out to be.” He urged LaBouvier to focus on the importance of the exhibition to Basquiat’s and Michael Stewart’s legacies, and what it would mean to have a museum as powerful as the Guggenheim address the subject of police racism. Fab 5 Freddy believes in the transformative power of museums: He and Basquiat would walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art as young men, looking at the Caravaggios and the Pollocks, imagining their own work gaining admittance to the high cathedrals of American culture someday.

LaBouvier continued working on the show, but her concerns remained. According to multiple sources, she tried to persuade other interviewees to withdraw from the project, and to mollify her, the museum renegotiated her fee and gave her sole credit for the catalog. LaBouvier later said on Twitter she was unhappy that the Guggenheim described her only as the “first Black solo curator,” on the technical grounds that the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor had been involved in organizing a show in 1996. (The Guggenheim said that LaBouvier was never described this way in publicity materials; instead, she was called a “guest curator.”) LaBouvier also argued that she was not properly credited in the letters requesting loans of artworks, and that the museum was sabotaging her by refusing to pass on journalists’ requests for interviews.

In the spring of 2019, as the opening of “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” approached, LaBouvier spoke at a private event for donors at the Brant Foundation, and the museum flew her to Abu Dhabi, where it was building a new outpost, to participate in a panel on Basquiat and graffiti art. In June, she spoke at the exhibition’s press launch. But the friction between LaBouvier and the museum kept getting worse. After the opening, she brought guests for a private after-hours tour. In the leaked meeting transcript, Spector claims that LaBouvier had not alerted security beforehand—a major breach for a museum employee that shocked other members of the curatorial department.

Soon, these tensions spilled into the press coverage. LaBouvier noted, accurately, that she was working in an institution where senior staff were used to being treated with deference by junior staff. “I think it will be better for the black curators coming after me,” she told The New York Times. “For instance, if I didn’t review something, that meant that no person of color looked at that document or process. And certainly it felt at times that there was an expectation that I would just be grateful to be in the room.” In the same interview, she criticized the museum for not providing extended captions for the artworks, and said that it was inept at dealing with the nuances of Black identity.

TK
Chaédria LaBouvier (left) and Nancy Spector (Mary Inhea Kang / The New York Times / Redux; Michael Loccisano / Getty)

On the penultimate day of the exhibition, in November 2019, a panel was held at the Guggenheim to discuss the three overlapping exhibitions there, all of which included work by artists of color. The speakers included Ashley James, who had recently been hired as the museum’s first full-time Black curator—but, conspicuously, not LaBouvier. She went to the panel anyway, and stood up during the Q&A to say that “as someone that truly lives the politics of human dignity,” her omission was “so violent.” The panel’s multiracial makeup was itself a provocation to her: “To weaponize a panel of Black bodies of color to do your filth is insane. This is insane. And this is how institutional white supremacy works.” Elizabeth Duggal, then the chief operating officer of the Guggenheim, was also in the audience, sitting next to Spector. She stood up after LaBouvier, and said that the museum “does truly respect and appreciate your work” and that LaBouvier’s research had been acknowledged by the panel.

Up to this point, the alienation of LaBouvier from the Guggenheim seemed like an everyday story of mismatched expectations—a stiff institutional culture confronted by an outsider unwilling to bend to its shibboleths. LaBouvier tweeted, and received modest engagement; the Guggenheim largely stayed quiet, refusing to take part in a public quarrel that put its name in the same sentence as racism. As 2020 dawned, it looked as though the storm had blown over.

But then another Black man had a fatal encounter with the police.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was choked to death by a police officer in Minneapolis. His slow, casually sadistic murder, captured on a smartphone and posted online, came in the fourth year of Trump’s presidency, two months after the Guggenheim and other museums had closed their doors because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many Americans were trapped at home, frightened for their lives, apart from their friends and family. Meetings had turned into Zooms. Managers could no longer speak to their employees face-to-face. Slack channels and social-media feeds buzzed with fear, outrage, and hurt. At the Guggenheim, which ultimately stayed closed for six months, 92 of the museum’s nearly 300 staff were furloughed.

In this frightened, anxious time, the Black Lives Matter movement gathered force, prompting peaceful demonstrations, scattered riots, and an outpouring of solidarity across the country. In the art world—dominated by rich white donors and white senior staff—these events also led to something like panic. Could a cultural world that prided itself on progressive values really claim it had done everything possible to pursue racial justice? Surely not. While the white leaders of institutions were examining their own conscience, their young staff were in no mood to be fobbed off with platitudes. They wanted change, fast.

A week and a day after Floyd’s death, the Guggenheim, along with many other businesses and individuals, posted a simple black square to its social feeds. The initiative was called #BlackoutTuesday, and it was used to signal that Floyd’s death would not be ignored or minimized. But some Black artists and activists found Blackout Tuesday performative and empty.

Chaédria LaBouvier was one of those dissenters. She quote-tweeted the Guggenheim’s post, adding: “Get the entire fuck out of here. I am Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator in your 80 year history & you refused to acknowledge that while also allowing Nancy Spector to host a panel about my work w/o inviting me. Erase this shit.” She followed this up with a long viral thread the next day, claiming that working at the Guggenheim “was the most racist professional experience of my life.” She zeroed in on Spector, the woman who had brought her into the museum’s orbit but who, according to LaBouvier, was “trying to co-opt my work,” and likened her to Amy Cooper, the “Central Park Karen,” a white woman who had recently been in the news after she called the police on a Black bird-watcher.

In this new climate, the Guggenheim could not just ignore the story and hope it would go away. In a statement to Essence magazine, the museum recognized the “missteps made in our 80-year history” and said it was committed to “doing the work.”

Had the museum looked more closely at LaBouvier’s feed, its board might have seen her complaints as part of a long-standing pattern of excoriating others who were interested in Defacement or Basquiat, even when they sought out her opinion. Back in June 2017, LaBouvier had complained about a “lightweight” Basquiat exhibition in London, which did not feature Defacement, by tweeting that a curator involved was a “mediocre bitch … trying to erase me from my own Defacement conversation” and that she belonged to a “special ring of yoga-feminist hell.” When the woman emailed offering to thank LaBouvier in the exhibition’s acknowledgments, she tweeted: “Lol, #bitchplease.” The same year, LaBouvier claimed on Twitter that David Shulman, the producer of a BBC Basquiat documentary, “stole my research.” (In a statement, a BBC Studios spokesperson said: “We are proud of this award-winning documentary and stand by our work on it. All the information on Basquiat’s painting ‘Defacement’ came from primary sources and is presented solely in first person accounts.”)

Two years later, LaBouvier tweeted a complaint that a writer for British GQ found new interviewees to discuss points that she had made previously, rather than citing an article she had written for Dazed magazine. “I am SO tired of these unoriginal ass White people writing about Basquiat, curating Basquiat and they are stealing the entire goddamn time,” she wrote. (The current editor of Dazed reviewed correspondence from the incident and said that, at the time, the magazine “did not find plagiarism to have taken place.”)

In 2019, LaBouvier’s criticisms had gained some attention, but prompted no action. The summer of 2020 gave such disputes new meaning. Nancy Spector had the misfortune to be the focus of LaBouvier’s latest tweets at a time of heightened racial sensitivity—and also a time when the Guggenheim’s leadership could not gather its staff together in person to dampen the smoldering discontent.

On June 8, diversity consultants hired by the museum convened a Zoom meeting to discuss the situation. Staff members were asked to sort themselves into “gravel,” “paved,” “boulevard,” and “highway” rooms, depending on how smoothly they felt able to navigate racial issues in the workplace. By the end, some were in tears. Over the next two weeks, the curatorial team agreed to meet on Zoom without Spector, so they could speak freely. One of these meetings was five hours long. Anonymous feedback was solicited through a Google form, which was then collected in a 10-page document, complete with a cover letter addressed to Richard Armstrong, the director of the museum; Sarah Austrian, the deputy director and general counsel; Elizabeth Duggal, the COO; and Spector herself. In 58 bullet points, soon leaked to the press, it laid out a roster of complaints and demands, including “Can we please all self-reflect our privilege?” and “Some [staff] expressed feeling obligated to do work on behalf of the museum that they don’t personally agree with (and sometimes are morally opposed to).” The staff also shared concerns about a gender pay gap, racial disparities among those furloughed, a lack of performance reviews, and a “culture of retribution” against anyone who complained.

Nine of the 58 bullet points related to LaBouvier and the Basquiat exhibition, although the only direct accusation of racism by Spector was that she had, in an unrelated incident, confused two East Asian staff members with each other. Both Armstrong’s handling of the Defacement crisis and Duggal’s decision to respond to LaBouvier at the panel were heavily criticized. “We cannot move forward with any credibility until we offer [LaBouvier] a sincere, unqualified, public apology,” one of the bullet points concluded. The letter was signed by “the curatorial department.” Spector had lost the confidence of her team. (In subsequent days, it emerged that, on the 23-person curatorial staff, one holdout had refused to join the protest. He soon resigned from the museum and wrote his own letter, which condemned the attempt to find “a single scapegoat.”)

The curatorial letter was followed by another from a new pressure group calling itself A Better Guggenheim, composed of current and former employees. On June 29, the group published an open letter to the board, alleging that “the most visible egregious act of anti-Black violence in the museum’s recent history was the disrespectful and publicly hostile treatment of Chaédria LaBouvier.”

In the aftermath of the curatorial department’s meetings, by some alchemical process, the general swirl of blame had settled on Nancy Spector. She was now the public face of the art world’s PR crisis. Her position at the Guggenheim was untenable. The museum commissioned an independent investigation into LaBouvier’s allegations, and on July 1, Spector went on a three-month “sabbatical.”

The campaign to oust her kept gathering momentum. A Better Guggenheim soon had its own professional-looking website. It also launched an Instagram page, which carried anonymous stories, including the allegation that Spector had once praised a security guard’s “wonderful Caribbean lilt.” (She had been describing a guard who liked to sing as he made his rounds in the museum’s rotunda. In October 2019, the museum had considered this observation worth amplifying, and tweeted it out from its institutional account.)

The members of A Better Guggenheim have mostly remained anonymous, citing fears of retribution. (The New York Post has alleged that it is entirely led by white women; when I asked for comment on that claim, the group—which insisted on replying collectively and anonymously to my email messages—told me that this was false.) Over the summer of 2020, their demands expanded to calling for the resignation of Nancy Spector, Elizabeth Duggal, and Richard Armstrong—Nancy Spector’s immediate boss—who was accused of having “sullied his twelve-year tenure as director by nurturing a culture of unchecked racism, sexism, and classism,” and having prioritized putting up shelving in his office over creating workspaces for employees. He was further accused of initially failing to meet with LaBouvier, before acting in a “combative” and “dismissive” manner when he did. The statement linked to a viral 2019 tweet by LaBouvier suggesting that Armstrong “literally rolled his eyes when I told him how he enabled violence.” (A spokesperson for the Guggenheim told me that it “rejects this characterization of our culture and of Richard Armstrong’s actions regarding Ms. LaBouvier.”) In all, 22 accusations were made against Armstrong, and 11 against Spector.

Thanks to this public pressure, the whole leadership of the museum was in the frame. And if this truly was a revolutionary moment, the 25 members of the Guggenheim’s board of trustees—23 of whom were white—had good reason to be worried. The board’s membership reflects a world of inherited wealth and status, of heirs and wives, of high-altitude people whose undoubted commitment to the arts is nonetheless enabled by their personal fortunes and connections. How safe were the board seats of Peter Lawson-Johnston—a grandson of the museum’s founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim—and his son, Peter Lawson-Johnston II, if radical change was in the air? What about the investment banker Paul Cronson, whose appointment coincided with one Mary Sharp Cronson becoming a trustee emeritus? (She is his mother.) The museum needed to show it was taking action.

The ferocity—and, if you were a supporter, the courage—of LaBouvier’s denunciation simply made the Guggenheim the most high-profile art-world target during a summer of discontent. But there were others, too. Take the events in Cleveland. On June 6, the Afro-Latino artist Shaun Leonardo went public with his disappointment over the cancellation of his show The Breath of Empty Space by the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In an email to his supporters, Leonardo called the cancellation an “act of censorship” caused by “institutional white fragility.”

The real story was knottier. Leonardo’s work featured drawings based on photographs and video footage of police brutality. Among the scenes depicted was the setting of the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed in Cleveland in 2014 by a police officer. This local connection made the exhibition politically sensitive, and Leonardo had written to Rice’s mother, Samaria, to alert her in advance. She opposed the exhibition, saying Leonardo should not “benefit off my son’s death,” and sent him a cease-and-desist letter. The situation was further complicated by a staff revolt against showing the works, led by a curatorial fellow who warned that “it could become for white people a type of pornographic viewing.”

And so, just before the pandemic closed moCa Cleveland for four months, the museum’s director of 23 years, Jill Snyder, canceled Leonardo’s show, later saying it “stirs the trauma back up for the very community that it is intending to reach.”

However, in trying to avoid upsetting a grieving Black family—and her own employees—Snyder upset a Black artist. In March, when the exhibition was canceled, this was a regrettable situation that generated no headlines. By June, though, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, it had become poison. The story looked simple: A white-led museum was censoring a Black artist making work about racism. The day after Leonardo complained, Snyder publicly apologized, admitting “our failure in working through the challenges this exhibition presented together with Mr. Leonardo.” Two weeks later, she resigned.

The rules were unclear, and in flux. Dana Schutz and the Whitney had been castigated for showing Black pain, in the form of Open Casket. Jill Snyder left moCa Cleveland after refusing to show Black pain, in the form of drawings of Tamir Rice’s place of death.

Display or don’t. Cancel or don’t. There was no right answer, except perhaps to go back in time and erase the sins of America’s past. The racial reckoning of 2020 was righteous, and overdue, but its targets were haphazard. Activists wanted sweeping changes; instead they got individual firings and forced resignations. “If directors or curators face controversy, boards often find it easier to start over with new leadership,” Olga Viso, formerly of the Walker Art Center, told me. “While transitions can often accelerate the pace of change, they can also defer the potential for systemic restructure.”

In San Francisco, the senior curator of SFMOMA, Gary Garrels, was also forced to step down. Garrels—a gay man who had overseen the sale of one of the museum’s Rothkos for $50 million to fund the purchase of more art by women and people of color—might have believed that his progressive credentials were impeccable. But in a Zoom meeting in early July, he was asked about the museum’s collection policy. He wanted to collect a more diverse range of artists, he said, but it would be impossible to stop purchasing the art of white men altogether—that would be “reverse discrimination.” Those two words ended his career.

TK
Guillem Casasús

At the Zoom meeting, the chat box immediately exploded in condemnation. On July 11, 2020, Garrels sent a resignation letter to all staff. “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,” he wrote. One person with knowledge of the situation told me that activist staffers at SFMOMA wanted “the industrial death penalty” for Garrels, and the museum “threw Gary to the wolves … The whole idea is: I’m going to give you what you want, but you won’t eat me.” (Garrels is believed to have received a payout in return for a nondisparagement and nondisclosure agreement. He declined to talk with me for this story. A spokesperson for SFMOMA disputed that Garrels was forced out, and said that the museum would not otherwise comment on personnel matters.)

Doris Salcedo, who worked with Garrels on an early exhibition of her work, described him to me as a “brilliant, progressive, intelligent man.” Citing the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, she said, “When a person is not allowed an apology, his death, either his physical or social death, has already been determined … This mob destruction of a progressive thinker like Gary must be a joke for the very rich.”

In October 2020, after a summer of relentless pressure by campaign groups, the investigation into Spector, by the law firm Kramer Levin, reported its conclusions. The firm had reviewed 15,000 documents and messages, and interviewed current and former staff members—although Chaédria LaBouvier had declined to be interviewed, saying it was “not safe to do so.” A Better Guggenheim supported her decision, later saying, “We think it makes perfect sense that she would not feel safe participating in an investigation of questionable independence.”

According to a statement from the Guggenheim’s board of trustees published on October 8, investigators found “no evidence that Ms. LaBouvier was subject to adverse treatment on the basis of her race.” (The Guggenheim declined to provide the full text of the investigators’ report.) It didn’t matter. A separate statement from the board, issued the same day, revealed that Spector was leaving the Guggenheim, ending an association dating back 34 years. A line had been drawn. In the media, the words Guggenheim and racism would no longer be placed in the same sentence.

When Nancy Spector left the Guggenheim, she lost more than her job. She lost her professional reputation. She lost friends. And she lost the rest of her career. She had taught intermittently at Yale’s school of art since 1994, but has not been invited back since leaving the Guggenheim. Now in her 60s, Spector cannot easily rebuild the life she once had.

Enough time has passed for many of those who were uneasy about what happened that summer to reflect on those events, and their role in them. One former Guggenheim colleague told me that she thought about what happened to Spector every day—but that she was too afraid for her future career to speak on the record. Another source told me he was taking the risk of speaking with me because a friend had been forced out of a job, in another industry, and had later killed himself. Many of my interview requests for this story went unacknowledged. Nondisclosure agreements are common in the art world, and even in their absence, the pool of desirable jobs is small enough to make any potential whistleblower cautious of being informally blacklisted.

Established artists, who have more financial and personal independence, were the group most willing to talk with me. Cai Guo-Qiang told me that he was one of many artists who had been championed by Spector. “Because her focus is on the exploratory spirit and creativity of artists, her curatorial practice naturally reflected cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as an open and inclusive attitude towards different cultures,” he said.

“I don’t want to be positioned as a validator,” the artist Hank Willis Thomas, who has worked with Spector, told me. “Like, ‘Oh, this Black guy said they were nice.’ ” But he agreed that there had been scapegoating, and added, “The feeling that one person has to be banished in order for another person to get an opportunity is really antiquated.” He worried that the manner of Spector’s departure had cast a shadow over the appointment of Naomi Beckwith as her replacement—that Beckwith, a Black woman with a brilliant career, would be seen as “a fix to an institutional problem … as if she didn’t deserve the opportunity independently.”

In hindsight, the summer of 2020 was revolutionary, in both good and bad ways; noble goals were being pursued, but the ground was constantly shifting, and it was unwise to end up on the wrong side of the revolutionaries. People are complicated, and not every workplace dispute between individuals can bear the entire weight of America’s racial history.

The philosopher Oliver Traldi has described the phenomenon often known as “cancel culture” as a combination of “widespread precarity, unclear social norms, distributed surveillance, and the presence of lots of small and fervent groups which can organize to exert a great deal of pressure on people through social media.” While LaBouvier was tweeting her complaints about the Basquiat show, the senior staff had been focused on the next exhibition at the museum, which showcased the work of the architect Rem Koolhaas. According to the leaked meeting transcript, the younger staff saw Koolhaas as, in Spector’s paraphrase, “the 70-year-old white man from Holland who’s getting everything he wants.” They felt the museum was playing by the old rules, whereby the most dangerous person to offend was the celebrity with his name on the posters. In the new world, the power had shifted to those who could attract the most attention on Twitter. This realignment caused a shiver to run through the art world. “This social-media censorship, it’s far more effective than the censorship a person like me in Colombia, a third-world violent country, can experience from its government, because it destroys your moral integrity,” Salcedo told me.

As in any revolution, who survived and who fell foul of the crowd was often arbitrary. Keith Christiansen, a Met curator since 1977, made an Instagram post on June 19, 2020, that asked: “How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve?” It read as a criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, and prompted a condemnatory letter by 15 staff members. Christiansen deleted the post and apologized, but was allowed to quietly retire and is still listed by the Met as a “curator emeritus.” One of my interviewees noted that a disproportionate number of the senior curators who have departed in difficult circumstances were white women or gay people—groups who rose into leadership positions when those were considered marginalized identities, before their whiteness became more politically salient than their gender or sexuality.

Luke Nikas, a lawyer who represented Olga Viso in her settlement with the Walker Art Center, told me that she was one of half a dozen clients with similar stories. Women in top museum jobs, he said, face a harsher reaction than men when they have to make tough personnel or curatorial decisions. He has agreed to represent several female curators, pro bono, because he believes that museums should not be run like risk-averse corporations: If a bank or an ice-cream company bows to social-media pressure, that’s a matter for them, but art is supposed to be where provocative questions are asked and taboos are challenged.

Marilyn Minter, an educator and artist, sees a generational change behind the spate of firings and forced resignations. In the 1980s, when her work drawing on pornographic images was attacked by the Christian right and by radical feminists, her fellow artists stood with her. But Nancy Spector did not receive the support of her peers, Minter suggested, because the social-media world “is trying to erase imperfection—and imperfection is who we are. To see this tidied-up world, it’s going to make everybody feel like a failure, constantly.”

In August, I sent an Instagram message to LaBouvier asking if we might speak for this article. In her reply, LaBouvier castigated The Atlantic for not having covered her Guggenheim exhibition or its fallout. “Where were you in 2019 or 2020?” she asked. “Fuck you and your arrogance.”

LaBouvier followed up by email, copying the executive editor at the magazine. “I am not interested in participating in a piece that through lack of expertise, thoroughness, research or fortitude will resign me as a footnote and amplify a glorified publicity stunt,” she wrote, calling me “another example of a clueless, rapacious White woman.”

“I am so tired of scavenging journalists attempting to speak for me, or depict me. I am nothing if not direct, and I have always said it from my chest, and with my name on it.” She closed with a warning: “Should you fuck this up—which you will—I will be on your ass like white on rice on a paper plate in a snowstorm at a KKK rally.”

Two years on from the events of that long, feverish summer at the Guggenheim, what did all its protests and panic accomplish?

More than a tenth of the museum’s staff was laid off because of the pandemic. In 2020, Richard Armstrong—the director, who was described as “nurturing a culture of unchecked racism, sexism, and classism” by A Better Guggenheim—earned $1.1 million, plus $400,000 in deferred compensation from previous years. This past July, the 73-year-old announced his retirement. When asked for comment, the Guggenheim noted its wider diversity efforts, including the appointment of six board members of color. “The Guggenheim has worked hard to change itself,” Ben Rawlingson Plant, the museum’s deputy director for global public affairs and communications, told me. “The vast majority of our Executive Team have joined the museum in the last three years, myself included.”

For the moment, A Better Guggenheim is withholding judgment. While the group welcomed Spector’s ousting, as well as recent unionization efforts at the museum, it also told me that “until the Guggenheim fully addresses its deep-rooted institutional racism with a focus on how its most vulnerable staff are treated, we will continue to call for change.”

The Guggenheim Foundation still has enormous wealth—its latest tax filing shows $236,296,508 in assets—and is close to opening its offshoot in Abu Dhabi, a Gulf emirate where arbitrary detention is common, freedom of the press is severely restricted, and homosexuality is illegal. About 90 percent of the population are migrant workers, many of whom face exploitation and low wages, according to Human Rights Watch.

LaBouvier has not announced another job since calling out the Guggenheim, and Spector has not found another full-time position. Neither has Gary Garrels of SFMOMA. “What’s so painful is that Nancy is such a great curator, Gary was a great curator, and they have no jobs,” Minter told me. She predicted a backlash against the current atmosphere in the art world. “People have to be able to redeem themselves; they have to be able to make mistakes,” she said. “Otherwise, creativity is going to be killed.”

In 2019, Jenny Holzer was one of six artists whom Nancy Spector asked to curate their own selections from the Guggenheim’s archives. Holzer chose only pieces by women, implicitly criticizing the museum for collecting so few female artists throughout the 20th century. Asked for comment on Spector’s fate, she made an even starker criticism, replying in her signature block capitals: “RACISM IS CRIMINAL. SCAPEGOATING IS A CRUEL DODGE.


*Lead image: Illustration by Guillem Casasús. Sources: Arte & Immagini srl / Corbis / Getty; Pierce Archive /  Buyenlarge / Getty; Leemage / Corbis / Getty; DeAgostini / Getty.

This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “The Scapegoat.”