New Curator Position at The Met Provides More Opportunities for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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Artnet News recently reported that The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) is planning to hire its first full-time associate curator of Native North American art in an effort to create “an increasingly robust program of Indigenous American art” throughout its museum.

The job description posted on the website of the American Alliance Museums notes that the new curator will be based in the museum’s American wing, which currently houses a collection of African American, Euro American, Latin American, and Native American art. According to Met officials, the collection of roughly 20,000 objects is one of the largest and most comprehensive holdings of North American artistic expression in the world.

I sought feedback and insight from John Haworth, Senior Executive Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, whom I have known for many years and I previously interviewed for Arts & Culture Connections. John served as Director and Senior Manager for over two decades at the New York branch of NMAI. He teaches a museum management course at New York University and gives lectures and panel presentations about cultural policy and management. He also serves on the boards of Americans for the Arts, CERF+ (Craft Emergency Relief Fund) and the Harpo Foundation. John is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He had the following thoughts about the job posting:

Having directed the New York City branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for over two decades, I know firsthand the challenges Native American and other indigenous artists have had over the years. The major collecting institutions have not given nearly enough attention to collecting contemporary Native art and related exhibitions and programs. Indeed, a handful of museums who focus primarily or exclusively on Native American arts and cultures have developed significant collections and provided opportunities for indigenous artists. This group includes the NMAI; the Heard Museum in Phoenix; the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa; The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles; the Eiteljorg Museum (Indianapolis), The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, among others.

 How significant that at long last the Metropolitan Museum—one of the most important museums in the world—is recruiting for a Curator of Indigenous Art for its American Wing. And, over the last few years, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Denver Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum and the Newark Museum have produced significant Native exhibitions.  The Whitney Museum included several indigenous artists in its 2019 Biennial, and some of the major contemporary art organizations, such as the Hammer Museum in LA and MassMOCA, are front and center in terms of this discourse.  

 Over the last decade especially, the cultural field generally and the museum profession, in particular, are more seriously committed to diversity and inclusion efforts and providing training and career-building opportunities for our field. Native Artists are being recognized in the public art field and art galleries are representing Native artists. With support from major foundations like the Ford Foundation and advocacy and training programs (especially for emerging leaders) from major arts service organizations. including Americans for the Arts and the American Alliance of Museums, we are moving in positive directions. 

In the last decade, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) has contributed to building the grassroots field of Native cultural organizations throughout the country, and the Native American Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) has given opportunities to scholars who focus on indigenous issues. Both of these fine organizations attract hundreds of scholars and cultural leaders to their annual conferences. Of course, there is far more than can be done to advance the field of Native arts, but it’s encouraging that more cultural institutions are moving forward in such positive directions.

I appreciate John’s broad perspective and insights. This position offers a unique opportunity for Native American/Indigenous art to be showcased, recognized and venerated at one of the world’s most famous and revered art museums.

At the same time, the new associate curator will have to be mindful of and sensitive to the controversy this job posting renewed in the Native American community over items included in the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, which is currently at the Met. The exhibition includes objects from 50 different Native American cultures, spanning 18 centuries.

According to Artnet News, items in the collection have been challenged by the Association on American Indian Affairs for wrongly classifying sacred items, including funerary objects, as art. The Association, which was established nearly 100 years ago to protect sovereignty, preserve culture, educate youth and build capacity for Native peoples, also alleged that the Met failed to consult with tribal representatives about its collection. Artnet News reported that the Met, in its response, said that it “engaged regularly and repeatedly with tribal leaders in many Native communities throughout the country,” and the museum declined to remove contested items from the exhibition.

Controversies, such as this one, are another reaffirmation of why diversity, equity and inclusion is so important at the executive and curatorial levels. Establishing community councils for ongoing dialogue, and who can offer insight, grounding, authentic viewpoints, as well as promotion for exhibitions, also are critical for generating support and making art and cultural institutions welcoming environments for all people.

As posted, the role and function of the associate curator will be enormous and will require a support team to oversee all its components. Along with the Met’s commitment to create the position, thanks to the gift from the Dikers, it is my hope that the new person will have the power and the resources needed to ensure authenticity, accuracy, sensitivity and compassion in the museum’s representation of Native American art.

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