A longtime senior curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has resigned following a campaign to remove him after he reportedly said the museum would not discriminate against white artists.
Gary Garrels, the senior curator of paintings and sculptures at the museum, was on a remote call July 7 when he was confronted by a museum employee about previous comments in which he did not rule out blacklisting white artists, including white males.
Artnet reported Saturday that after the San Francisco museum had recently acquired art from minority artists, Garrels said, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”
A person claiming to be a museum employee outlined the complaint against the museum administrator on social media.
“At the SFMOMA staff meeting this week, Senior Curator Gary Garrels was asked to respond to his documented earlier comments about collecting white male artists. His response included violent language claiming ‘reverse discrimination,’” the anonymous employee wrote on Instagram.
“Gary must be removed from his job, effective immediately. @SFMOMA, Gary’s words are in direct conflict with your stated mission. If you are committed to anti-racist work, the choice is clear. Link to sign a letter in support of Gary’s removal in our bio,” the employee added, according to Artnet.
The petition to remove Garrels linked his comments about not discriminating against white artists to a “hate crime” and connected him to a news story about a couple who painted over a “Black Lives Matter” mural in Contra Costa County, California, earlier this month.
“Vitriolic terms like [Garrels’ comments] are damaging and counter-productive to bringing the attention and compassion needed in SFMOMA and the Bay Area’s most vulnerable communities,” the petition stated.
“His use of dog whistle terms and divisive language is the antithesis of the spirit of SFMOMA’s Strategic Plan,” the petition argued, adding: “Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable.”
Artnet reported Garrels resigned after the petition was started.
He started working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1993 but left in 2000, returning to the museum in 2008.
Garrels announced in an email to his colleagues that he would end his second stint at the museum over the comments about white artists.
“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.
Garrels added, “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.”
“I realize in the current climate, I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA,” he said.
While speaking at an art conference titled “Ways of Being Seen: Creating Visibility for Women in Art,” Garrels said that his San Francisco museum would not discriminate against men.
“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. “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.”
When panel moderator Sarah Douglas insisted that museums could stop recognizing the work of white men, Garrels said, “I just don’t agree with that. That’s an alternative, different kind of profiling.”
Garrels will officially leave his job at the museum on July 31.
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