This morning the Museum of Modern Art sent out a press release, as they often do, announcing a curatorial appointment. This one, however, caught my eye: underneath the headline in my inbox announcing “Darby English Named Consulting Curator at The Museum of Modern Art,” there was a dek: “Leading Scholar to Focus on MoMA’s Collection and Presentation of Art by Black Artists.”
This is a laudable, if long overdue, effort, and the appointment of English seems right in line. But it’s also interesting because it raises questions about the way museums treat black artists and their work, which in turn expose the complications of turning a race into an artistic category. When MoMA says that English will work with curators on acquiring and showing “black artists,” what does that mean — African-American artists? Artists of the African diaspora? African artists? Any and all artists who are black? If the latter, does English really have the knowledge and expertise for that kind of breadth?
Other institutions have tackled the problem of representation in different ways. The Newark Museum has African and American Art departments, and they place contemporary African artists in the former, contemporary African-American artists in the latter. The Brooklyn Museum also has African and American Art departments, but Contemporary Art covers black artists working today. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a Center for African American Art. And, while it’s not a museum, Swann Auction Galleries has an African-American Fine Art department.