Denise Murrell, the curator behind the highly praised exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” that opened last year, will now hold the post of associate curator for 19th- and 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a newly created position that will involve her working closely with both the museum’s modern and contemporary department and its European painting department. She will begin in her post in January.
The announcement, which was first reported by the New York Times, comes on the heels of the Guggenheim Museum hiring curator Ashley James last week, making her the first full-time black curator ever to be on that museum’s staff.
Murrell came to art history after having a successful career in finance, working at Citicorp and Institutional Investor. (She has an M.B.A. from Harvard University.) In 1999, while in an art history course, one of her professors, discussing Manet’s famed 1863 painting Olympia, spoke only about the canvas’s white figure, the courtesan Victorine, and completely skipped over the black woman, a maid named Laure, to whom Manet had given significant attention in the painting’s composition. That interaction left an impression and would serve as the organizing principle for Murrell’s doctoral dissertation. In 2002, she began taking coursework that would enable her to begin a Ph.D. program, which she started in 2007 at Columbia University in New York.
When she completed her dissertation, Murrell began looking for a museum to host an exhibition drawing on her research. Many institutions told her no, and the Met never responded, according to the Times report. The exhibition opened last year at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery, where she was the museum’s first Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar, and later traveled in an expanded form to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. (Murrell served as co-curator on the Orsay version.)
Murrell’s is the first major hire under the tenure of the Met’s newest director, Max Hollein, who was appointed in April 2018. “Max and his team want to proactively move toward a more inclusive presentation of art history across all periods,” Murrell told the Times. “This is a moment of inflection at the Met—a reconsideration of the West that moves away from an exclusively European culture.”