SAN FRANCISCO — Gary Garrels has resigned as senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). His abrupt departure marks the latest and highest-profile leadership change at the Bay Area’s cardinal modern art institution, which is reckoning with what current and former workers call pronounced racism and structural inequities.
The announcement on Saturday came less than 24 hours after a petition launched calling for his resignation, and less than a week after a staff meeting in which he stood behind controversial comments about collecting art by white men. “To say that we will not collect another white artist I absolutely do not agree with,” Garrels said at the meeting, calling it “reverse discrimination.”
Garrels, who was hired as SFMOMA’s senior curator in 2008, announced his resignation in an internal email acquired by Hyperallergic, offering apologies for his “extremely poor choice of words” while defending his record as a curator committed to racial diversity. “I realized almost as soon as I used the term ‘reverse discrimination’ that this is an offensive term,” he wrote.
Garrels also recounted the 1990s SFMOMA shows he worked on featuring artists of color, mentioning Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, and Doris Salcedo, and the recent sale of a Mark Rothko painting to diversify the collection. “I firmly believe that is essential [sic] to collect works of art from artists of diverse backgrounds and from artists of all races,” he wrote.
Sarah Roberts will take Garrels’s place as interim senior curator of painting and sculpture.
In a recording of the Tuesday meeting acquired by Hyperallergic, Garrels is asked to address remarks he made in January about assuring artists that SFMOMA “will continue to collect white men.” At Garrels’ mention of “reverse discrimination,” an unidentified meeting attendee interrupts to exclaim, “He did not just say that!” The moderators then work to bring the meeting to a close.
On Thursday, SFMOMA director Neal Benezra and chief curator Janet Bishop called Garrels’s comments “inappropriate and understandably upsetting” in an internal note. “They are out of sync with the difficult and absolutely essential work that we are currently doing across the organization, and within the Curatorial Division, toward a more equitable museum,” it reads.
The petition sent out on Friday by xSFMOMA, a group of former SFMOMA staff pressuring the museum to address institutional racism and other structural inequities, calls Garrels’s ouster necessary: “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 homogeneity of SFMOMA’s collection on view partly stems from an agreement to reserve some 60 percent of galleries for predominantly works loaned by the Fisher family, whose fortune derives from the Gap and who’ve long held key roles on the museum’s board of trustees. The collection, spanning across three floors of the museum, skews heavily towards male European painters.
In a statement, xSFMOMA called on other museum leadership figures to “also recognize that their time is up and step aside to make space for those who are qualified to lead SFMOMA into an anti racist future.” xSFMOMA previously joined demands made by No Neutral Alliance, a coalition of Bay Area artists and art workers aiming to hold SFMOMA accountable for anti-Black racism, including for Benezra to resign as director.
The xSFMOMA statement also called on Garrels to return a $500,000 no-interest home loan from the museum, a hiring perk that’s become a byword for lavish executive compensation (Benezra received a $800,000 loan), and for the money to support BIPOC employees. SFMOMA has undergone two rounds of layoffs since closing to the public in March.
Garrels did not respond to a comment request. SFMOMA is hiring for two new positions: a Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, and a Director of Employee Experience and Internal Communications. The museum sees this “as a key step towards ensuring a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive museum and staff experience,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Hyperallergic.
Garrels is the fourth high-level SFMOMA employee to step down in recent weeks. As Hyperallergic previously reported, Deputy Director of External Relations Nan Keeton resigned after defending a decision to censor Taylor Brandon, a Black former employee and No Neutral Alliance cofounder. The museum confirmed that the director of human resources, Marisa Robisch, and recruitment and staffing manager Cindi Hubbard are also leaving the museum at the end of July.