THE SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM in New York has hired Naomi Beckwith to serve as deputy director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator. The announcement was made today by the museum’s director Richard Armstrong.

It’s a major appointment that comes against the backdrop of select museums nationwide facing accusations of racism from their employees in recent months, the Guggenheim included.

New York City is an international art capital, the center of the American art scene with many important institutions. Within this context, Beckwith becomes the highest ranking and most prominently positioned Black curator among the city’s mainstream art museums.

Beckwith, 44, joins the Guggenheim from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where she he has held curatorial roles since 2011, most recently senior curator.

“With her highly regarded accomplishments, scholarship that contributes to building a revised canon of art history, and creative projects that connect artists of today with growing audiences, Naomi Beckwith will be a catalytic leader for our outstanding curatorial team,” Armstrong said in a statement.

“We warmly welcome Naomi. Her expertise will be invaluable in advancing and amplifying an inclusive range of perspectives within the Guggenheim collection and culture. We look forward to working with her to develop avenues for new research and programming, and to create powerful and meaningful ways to deepen engagement with modern and contemporary art.”

“With her highly regarded accomplishments, scholarship that contributes to building a revised canon of art history, and creative projects that connect artists of today with growing audiences, Naomi Beckwith will be a catalytic leader for our outstanding curatorial team.” — Richard Armstrong

The Guggenheim has an international footprint. In New York, Beckwith will oversee exhibitions, collections, publications, curatorial programming, and archives. As a member of the executive leadership team, she will play a key role in planning and implementing strategy, and helping to shape the museum’s vision. Beckwith will also partner with international curatorial teams at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and provide guidance as collection and programming strategies develop for the forthcoming museum in Abu Dhabi.

BECKWITH HAS SPENT HER CAREER organizing exhibitions that center on identity, shed light on multidisciplinary practices, and deeply explore the work of singular artists, often for the first time in a meaningful way.

At MCA Chicago, Beckwith co-organized “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen,” the first major retrospective of the New York artist in 2018. The traveling exhibition surveyed Pindell’s five-decade career and was accompanied by an award-winning, fully illustrated catalog.

In 2015, Beckwith co-curated “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now.” The exhibition linked the “vibrant legacy of the 1960s African American avant-garde to current art and culture” and coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “a still-flourishing organization of Chicago musicians whose interdiscliplinary explorations expanded the boundaries of jazz.”

Additional exhibitions include “Homebodies” (2013) featuring contemporary artists who “examine the space of the home, both literally and metaphorically, as an integral site for making art.” Beckwith also organized solo shows of Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt, The Propeller Group, Keren Cytter, William J. O’Brien, and Jimmy Robert at MCA Chicago.

Presentations dedicated to Akram Zaatari, and Leslie Hewitt with Bradford Young, were both part of a series of exhibitions focused on film and video works. She also worked on the installation of three sculptural works by Yinka Shonibare CBE on the museum’s outdoor plaza.

Beckwith more recently oversaw MCA Chicago’s presentation of the traveling retrospective “Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera” (2019). “Prisoner of Love” was inspired by Arthur Jafa’s video installation “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death.” In 2019, she also edited the catalog for Duro Olowu’s recent MCA Chicago exhibition “Seeing Chicago.”

Naomi Beckwith has spent her career organizing exhibitions that center on identity, shed light on multidisciplinary practices, and deeply explore the work of singular artists, often for the first time in a meaningful way.

PREVIOUSLY, BECKWITH was an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she organized “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations” (2010-11), the British painter’s first-ever solo museum exhibition, and “30 Seconds off an Inch” (2009–10), which featured 42 artists spanning three generations who work with non-art materials and “challenge ideas of what art can be.”

Earlier, Beckwith worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2000-2005) coordinating art projects. She also participated in fellowship programs with the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York and University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

She earned an MA, with Distinction, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and received BA in history from Northwestern University in Chicago. Her board memberships include The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Laundromat Project.

Her latest exhibition at MCA Chicago, “The Long Dream,” features more than 70 local artists whose work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice across the nation, “offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world.”

She is part of the curatorial team that stepped up to work on “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” after the death of Okwui Enwezor. He conceived the exhibition which opens in February at the New Museum in New York.

Recently, Beckwith served as a juror for the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize. Deana Lawson was named the winner in October. She is the first photographer and second Black artist to be awarded the biennial prize, which includes $100,000 and an exhibition at the Guggenheim.

BECKWITH IS ARRIVING full-time at the Guggenheim following a rocky period at the museum. The Guggenheim’s origins date back to 1939 and the institution had never employed a Black curator when Chaédria LaBouvier was hired as a guest curator to organize “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” which was presented at the museum in 2019. LaBouvier was first solo Black curator of an exhibition at Guggenheim. LaBouvier worked on the show directly with Nancy Spector, then the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, and said her curatorial role in the exhibition she developed was diminished and that she was mistreated based on her race.

Then last summer, in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests, museums across the country were grappling with accusations of racism from staff. At the Guggenheim, leadership received a letter from the curatorial department referencing LaBouvier’s experience and describing “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”

The June 2020 letter prompted an independent investigation into the exhibition. In August, the museum approved a two-year diversity plan focused on equity in terms of professional opportunities, exhibitions, and acquisitions, and a system for reporting discrimination. In October, the investigation concluded that there was no evidence of LaBouvier’s accusations. Nonetheless, news that Spector was stepping down and departing the museum was announced at the same time as the findings.

Early in the timeline, in November 2019 (a week after the Basquiat exhibition closed), the Guggenheim announced the appointment of Ashley James as associate curator of contemporary art, making her the first full-time Black curator at the museum. The Guggenheim has said her hiring was not a response to events related to LaBouvier.

Beckwith is the second Black curator ever hired by the Guggenheim and the first to serve in the museum’s executive leadership. The announcement comes three months after Spector’s departure from essentially the same role.

Beckwith is the second Black curator ever hired by the Guggenheim and the first to serve in the museum’s executive leadership. The announcement comes three months after Nancy Spector’s departure from a parallel role.

The museum’s director told The New York Times that Beckwith’s appointment is not about attempting to cancel out the institution’s race problems, but rather real change and the future of the institution.

Beckwith told the Times: “I would not have taken this position if I did not feel the museum wasn’t doing that healing work, which they are.… What I heard clearly from Richard is they are doing the work themselves. They’re simply looking for a partner in that.”

The Guggenheim said Beckwith’s new role will focus on providing “an overarching intellectual vision for museum programming to be shared with diverse audiences, including local, international, and digital constituents, and in alignment with the museum’s objectives of increased accessibility and inclusion.”

Beckwith’s tenure at the Guggenheim begins in early June 2021. In a statement, she said: “One cannot overstate the iconicity and consequence of the Guggenheim Museum—yet, refusing to rest on its laurels, it readily presents projects that disrupt art history’s mythologies. I’m excited to join the Guggenheim and its passionate team at a pivotal moment. I look forward to merging our shared goals of expanding the story of art, and also working to shape a new reality for arts and culture.” CT

 

IMAGE: Naomi Beckwith. | Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

 

UPDATED (01/15/20)

 

BOOKSHELF
Naomi Beckwith has authored and edited many volumes. Key among them, she co-authored the exhibition catalog “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” and co-edited “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now.” Beckwith also edited the catalog for Duro Olowu’s recent MCA Chicago exhibition “Seeing Chicago” and co-edited the new exhibition catalog “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America (from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter).”

 

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