A shakeup is in the works at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which in recent months has been roiled by allegations from some of its workers that high-ranking officials at the museum have overseen a toxic environment.
On Thursday, the Guggenheim announced that Nancy Spector, the museum’s highest-ranking curator, is departing after more than 30 years at the institution. In a press release, the museum said that Spector was leaving to “pursue other curatorial endeavors and to finish her doctoral dissertation.” Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, had taken a three-month sabbatical this past summer, though no reason was given for her temporary leave at the time.
The news accompanies another announcement of the results of an investigation into the treatment of Chaédria LaBouvier, an independent curator who was brought into the Guggenheim to organize an exhibition focused on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work about the police killing of the artist Michael Stewart. In press releases issued in 2019, around the time that the show opened, the museum said the exhibition was curated by LaBouvier “in collaboration” with Spector and Joan Young, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. (On the Guggenheim’s website, LaBouvier is now listed as the sole curator of the show.)
LaBouvier publicly alleged that Spector and other leaders at the museum sought to “erase [her] labor” on the exhibition, as she told Essence in June. She added, “They weren’t ready to have a Black woman lead a show like this.”
LaBouvier had made many of her claims public on Twitter, and some were also aired at a panel focused on Basquiat’s legacy at the museum. (Elizabeth Duggal, the chief operating officer of the museum, responded to LaBouvier’s allegations at the panel by saying, “We do really respect and honor your work and everything that you’ve done.”) A little over a week after the event, art historian Ashley James was hired by the museum, making her the first Black curator ever at the Guggenheim.
The Guggenheim said on Thursday that an investigation led by the New York–based law firm Kramer Levin did not find evidence to support the claim that LaBouvier was subject to discrimination. In a statement, the museum said, “After conducting a comprehensive investigation, including by reviewing more than 15,000 documents and conducting a broad range of interviews with current and former Guggenheim employees across many departments and others affiliated with the institution, the investigators have concluded there is no evidence that Ms. LaBouvier was subject to adverse treatment on the basis of her race.”
On Twitter, LaBouvier wrote that she was not interviewed for the investigation. A Guggenheim spokesperson told the New York Times that LaBouvier did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
LaBouvier was not the only figure to claim that the Guggenheim enabled a racist work culture. An open letter signed by “the curatorial department” of the museum and made public in June alleged that the Guggenheim has “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”
In its statement following the investigation on Thursday, the museum said, “The Board recognizes the museum’s lack of diversity in staff, programming and outreach remains an urgent issue, and we continue to move forward expeditiously with our Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion Action Plan to help ensure our institution becomes a more equitable place.”
Spector has been one of the figures most closely aligned with the Guggenheim for several decades. She made her career at the museum, having started there as a curator in 1989, and she organized various widely seen shows including a 2003 exhibition of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” a 2010 survey of performances by Tino Sehgal that filled the museum’s rotunda, and a 2017 presentation of Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet sculpture “America”. She also helped conceive the Hugo Boss Prize, a $100,000 art award given out by the museum, and served as a co-curator of the 1998 Berlin Biennale and as curator of the 2007 United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which that year featured the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Spector’s next steps are not clear based on the press release. In a statement, she said, “As I pursue new challenges, including completing my doctoral dissertation, I am humbled by the accolades I have received from colleagues around the globe. I am confident that the Guggenheim is stronger than ever before, and incredibly well-positioned to emerge successfully from the challenges presented by 2020.”
Ahead of its reopening earlier this month, the Guggenheim projected a $15 million deficit due to its months-long coronavirus closure. It laid off 24 employees in September, shrinking its staff by 11 percent.