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It's 2018. Why Can't Museums Let Female Curators Do Their Jobs?

The departure of LA MoCA's chief curator Helen Molesworth is the third abrupt exit of a high-profile female museum staffer this year, following those of Laura Raicovich and María Inés Rodriguez.

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Mar 15 2018, 6:04pm

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The recent firings of three prominent and respected curators have shaken the institutional art world and seem to point to a pattern of sexism on the part of the museums and governing authorities involved.

The most recent high-profile departure is that of Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, whose stepping-down was announced on Monday. Molesworth had reportedly clashed with the museum’s director Philippe Vergne over programming to the extent that, as board member Catherine Opie told the Los Angeles Times, he asked her to leave for “undermining the museum”—a notorious bit of mansplaining that also, as pointed out by critic Brian Boucher, weirdly echoes Fred Wilson's 1992 masterpiece of institutional critique, Mining the Museum. Molesworth had been in her job since 2014, and had organized well-received shows including the recent retrospective of the work of painter Kerry James Marshall. In a 2016 interview with the Art Newspaper, Molesworth decried the art world’s ingrained lack of representation: “Most museums still maintain a commitment to an idea of the best, or quality, or genius,” she said. “And I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values. But I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favor white men.”

Immediately preceding Molesworth’s departure was that of María Inés Rodriguez, who spent four years as the director of Bordeaux’s Contemporary Art Museum (CAPC) before being fired last week for, per a statement provided to Hyperallergic from the local municipality that runs the museum, “managerial difficulties.” The action prompted 79 art-world figures including Danh Vo, Pablo Leon de la Barra, and Hans Ulrich Obrist to publish an open letter in Libération decrying the decision. “The number of women and men leaders at the head of French cultural institutions is so low,” it reads, “that this announcement marks a new regression away from parity in the predominantly masculine French art world.” Hyperallergic also calls out Bordeaux’s adjunct for culture, Fabien Robert, for a generally antagonistic stance toward contemporary art in general and the museum’s program in particular.

Kicking off the whole sorry trend was Laura Raicovich’s resignation from her post as Executive Director of the Queens Museum in January. As reported by GARAGE at the time, Raicovich cited differences with the board over politically oriented initiatives including her invitation to artists, activists, and others to make protest signs at the museum on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day. And as in the case of Rodriguez, Raicovich’s departure gave rise to a letter of support from curatorial colleagues. It states: “We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich, regardless of their gender. This is more necessary now than at any other point since the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.”

As GARAGE’s Paddy Johnson concludes in her piece on Raicovich, “This feels like the start of something. As an arts community we can’t afford to watch our best talent shoved under the bus for fear that we might lose a limb while digging them out. We’re in this together.” While the intricacies of such cases are numerous and often opaque, it’s difficult not to perceive an overarching prejudice at work in such abrupt and seemingly unjustified decision-making, and a persistent inequity in the treatment of men and women even in the purportedly enlightened world of contemporary art. Molesworth, Rodriguez, and Raicovich are all highly accomplished curators who had earned their broad support. It's hard to see their resignations as anything but a victory for the power structures that perpetuate sexism in the art world.

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