It’s Bigger Than a Hip Hop Exhibit: What the Controversy Around White Curators in Black Spaces Reveals

Timothy Ann Burnside raises question about her curatorial position at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

It wasn’t breaking news, by any means: Timothy Ann Burnside, a Specialist in Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, had been collecting hip-hop artifacts for the Smithsonian for years. But a discussion about her position and her work dominated parts of the Twittersphere this past weekend, as a long-simmering debate about white curators in black spaces came to a boil.

Hip-Hop Wired attributes the root of the conversation to a reaction @DJChubbESwagg posted on Twitter. Upon learning of Burnside’s work with the museum, he wrote, “THERE IS A WHITE WOMAN CURATING THE HIP HOP PART OF THE NMAAHC SMITHSONIAN?!?!?!?!?!?!? WHO LET THIS SHIT HAPPEN!?!?!”

The reactions to his tweet cleaved mostly into two halves: those defending Burnside’s bonafides and allyship, and those who expressed disappointment and outrage that a white woman would helm exhibits about a black art form—in the most prestigious black museum space in the country, nonetheless.

Over the weekend and into Monday morning, cultural critics like Jamilah Lemieux and April Reign either gave new insights or revisited the deeply divided conversation. Both lamented the turn the debate had taken on the social media platform, noting that DjChubbESwagg—who fielded a lot of criticism for posting the original tweet—was right to ask the question about Burnside’s role. Lemieux, in particular, acknowledged her closeness to all the parties involved in the debate, and tried to give more nuance to the conversation.

It’s hard to argue with Burnside’s qualifications. In their 2018 “Best of D.C. Issue,” Washington City Paper named her the “best cultural influencer you probably haven’t heard of,” noting that Burnside has been collecting “hip-hop and other cultural objects” for the Smithsonian’s hip-hop initiative since 2006. Speaking of her work, Burnside told the paper that visitors to the museums don’t see the “hours of site visits, conversations, research, and detailed preparation that happens before a collection is considered.”

But defenses of Burnside’s work missed a greater point: it’s impossible to talk about Burnside’s hiring without acknowledging the barriers to entry that exist for the art world’s “outsiders”—particularly in marquee spaces like the Smithsonian.

A similar debate was sparked earlier this year, when the Brooklyn Museum hired Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a 31-year-old white woman, to curate its African Art wing. A backlash ensued, prompting the Brooklyn Museum to write a statement defending their decision. Windmuller-Luna’s mentor, Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, came to her defense, admonishing her critics.

“There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman,” he said.

There is one key difference between Burnside’s role and that of Windmuller-Luna’s: the entirety of the NMAAHC is dedicated to telling black American stories and showcasing black American art. As part of the Smithsonian, it’s also arguably the most prestigious space in the country centering the black American experience—and it’s not as though there’s a multitude of such spaces. (The Root reached out to the NMAAHC for comment, a representative for the museum has yet to respond.)

In both instances, though, art experts claimed there was a dearth of black curators able to fill such positions—and the numbers would seem to support that. According to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study (pdf), 85 percent of all curators are white. When it comes to positions “most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums,” the Mellon Foundation writes, only 7 percent of those jobs were held by black and Latinx curators.

But if there is no black candidate with Burnside’s credentials, isn’t that part of the problem? As The Root explored in an earlier piece, the lack of black curators points to deep systemic issues within the art world that have yet to be adequately confronted.

The curator position has become increasingly professionalized, and many of the top jobs now go to curators with Ph.D.s.—barring many people who lack the time or funds to fulfill this kind of study. And upon graduation, many fledgling curators and art professionals will work for years for very little pay or job stability, requiring them to rely on familial support to get by, a 2017 ArtSy article found (Windmuller-Luna, a Princeton Ph.D., actually exemplifies this. Her position with the Brooklyn Museum is technically a part-time role). These factors shut out many people who don’t already have money or deep connections to the art world.

But for black curators in particular, the art world’s insular circles and lack of diversity can drive feelings of isolation and disenchantment, with little recourse. The net result is that the vast majority of the country’s artistic spaces shut out black people as curators, even as black artists create more and more of the art featured in them.

As one black curator told The Root for an earlier report, curators shouldn’t be forced to specialize in areas specific to their background—that insistence would effectively shut out black curators from specializing in Renaissance art, for example. But black American and Latinx curators are underrepresented across the board in the art world, (which effectively remains a majority-white space) making such comparisons moot. Black curators don’t get those opportunities; white curators do.

Until the art world addresses its equity issue—and confronts the many barriers to entry people from marginalized and underrepresented communities face in telling their own stories and collecting their own art—the conversation about who gets to curate what isn’t going anywhere.

This article originally appeared on The Root.

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