SFMOMA Senior Curator Gary Garrels Resigns After ‘Reverse Discrimination’ Comments

SFMOMA. (Beyond My Ken/Wiki CC)

Updated July 15, 11am

Gary Garrels, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, announced his resignation on Saturday following an uproar over comments made at an all-staff Zoom meeting last week. His final day at the museum will be July 31.

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Garrels was confronted in the July 7 staff meeting, Artnet first reported, about statements he had previously made concerning the museum’s collection priorities. At a time when museums are being called upon to diversify their holdings beyond the work of Western, white male artists, an Instagram post on the account @changethemuseum claimed that a white senior curator (widely understood to be Garrels) had ended a presentation about recent acquisitions of work by artists of color saying, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”

Garrels shared a similar sentiment while speaking publicly during a February 2020 panel at the FOG Design+Art Fair titled “Ways of Being Seen: Creating Visibility for Women in Art.”

“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, editor in chief of ARTnews, suggested one approach would be to stop collecting work by white male artists for a period of time (as the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it would do in 2020), Garrels said, “I just don’t agree with that. That’s an alternative, different kind of profiling.”

In last week’s staff meeting, Garrels said avoiding the work of white men would amount to “reverse discrimination,” a phrase he later described as “an extremely poor choice of words.” A group of former museum employees organized under the name xSFM0MA quickly created a petition calling for Garrels’ resignation, writing, “Gary’s removal from SFMOMA is non-negotiable. 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?”

Garrels first worked at SFMOMA from 1993 to 2000 and returned to the museum in 2008 after curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. As ARTnews has previously reported, Garrels received a no-interest home loan for $500,000 from SFMOMA, approved by the museum’s board. (Museum director Neal Benezra received a $800,000 no-interest home loan.)

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Recently, Garrels organized SFMOMA’s 2019 Vija Celmins retrospective and led, with chief curator Janet Bishop, the deaccession and sale of a Mark Rothko painting from the museum’s collection. Funds from the $50.1 million sale (an endowment named the Peggy Guggenheim Fund after the Rothko’s original donor), have now been used to accession 110 artworks across curatorial departments. The initial purchases of 11 works were announced as part of a concerted effort to diversify the museum’s holdings with works by female artists, artists of color and self-identifying LGBTQ+ artists.

“I deeply and personally apologize to all of you for any hurt I may have caused,” Garrels wrote in an all-staff email announcing his resignation. “I am so proud of this museum and I am proud of the work I have been able to do with so many of you. But I realize that in the current climate, I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA, and so I have offered my resignation to Neal Benezra and the Board of Trustees.”

Garrels is the fifth SFMOMA staff member to step down in recent weeks as the museum faces accusations of racial inequity from both internal and external critics after the deletion of a critical comment written by former museum employee Taylor Brandon on a May 30 Instagram post. His departure follows that of Nan Keeton, the deputy museum director in charge of external relations; Marisa Robisch, director of human resources; Cindi Hubbard, recruitment and staffing manager; and Ann von Germeten, chief marketing and communications officer.

In addition to the June 27 quote attributed to Garrels, the Instagram account @changethemuseum, which shares anonymous stories of racism within U.S. museums, has featured nearly a dozen stories of employee experiences at SFMOMA. Brandon, in conjunction with the Nure Collective, the No Neutral Alliance and xSFM0MA have called for, among other demands, the resignation of museum director Neal Benezra.

Since shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, SFMOMA has laid off or reduced the hours of 186 employees. According to a statement issued by Benezra on July 11, Sarah Roberts, curator and head of painting and sculpture, will assume responsibility for the department in an interim capacity.

This story has been updated to include the total number of works accessioned through the sale of a Mark Rothko painting and the actual number of employees laid off or furloughed in recent months.