Guggenheim gets new chairman, and second ever Black female trustee

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Guggenheim gets new chairman, and second ever Black female trustee
The poet, playwright and essayist Claudia Rankine. Photo: Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.

NEW YORK, NY.- At a time when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is working to address charges from within its own ranks that it is “an inequitable work environment that enables racism,” the museum Monday appointed a new chairman, billionaire collector J. Tomilson Hill, and elected its second ever Black female trustee, poet, playwright and essayist Claudia Rankine.

“He’s a prescient collector and a very gifted convener,” Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, said in a telephone interview. “I think he feels strongly about the role of art inside contemporary civilizations.”

Hill joined the board in 2019, the same year he opened the Hill Art Foundation, a public exhibition and education space in Chelsea. He will become the Guggenheim’s chairman as of Nov. 1, succeeding William L. Mack, who served for 16 years and has been elected chairman emeritus.

“You have to go where your passion lies,” Hill said, adding that his was in modern and contemporary art. He and his wife, Janine — the director of fellowship affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations — collect several artists in depth, including Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin and Christopher Wool.

They also collect renaissance and baroque bronzes as well as old master paintings — Hill was the mysterious buyer of an early-17th-century canvas billed as a rediscovered masterpiece by Caravaggio. (He also serves on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he said he plans to remain.)

Hill, who from 2007-18 served as the vice chairman of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, said he was firmly committed to the Guggenheim's efforts at “broadening the definition of how we think about showing works.”

“We’re going to increase the frequency of artists who are diverse,” he added, “where we can actually put our leadership position behind innovation and showing art by artists who are less well known.”

Last year, a letter to the Guggenheim’s leadership signed “The Curatorial Department” demanded immediate, wholesale changes to what it described as “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.”

The museum subsequently approved a plan to address those complaints. It also conducted an independent investigation into the handling of an exhibition on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which was being organized by a guest curator, Chaédria LaBouvier, whose treatment at the Guggenheim was mentioned in the letter.

The investigation found no evidence that LaBouvier, who is Black, was mistreated because of her race, but Nancy Spector, the artistic director and chief curator who was publicly criticized by LaBouvier, simultaneously left after 34 years at the museum.

Such turmoil “gives you the opportunity to ask a lot of tough questions — several of which are uncomfortable,” said Hill, who previously served as chairman of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and of Lincoln Center Theater. (He is currently on Christie’s advisory board and the Smithsonian Institution’s investment committee; Forbes puts his net worth at $2.7 billion.)

“The Guggenheim was not doing enough to embrace the notion of DEI,” Hill added, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion. “You have to set very aggressive goals for yourself. We’ve created a whole game plan and we’re holding ourselves accountable.”

In addition, the museum in January appointed Naomi Beckwith as its first Black deputy director and chief curator. And in July it named Ty Woodfolk as its first chief culture and inclusion officer.

Rankine is the second Black woman ever to join the board; the first was Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a photographer and the widow of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who served from 1993-94.

Rankine is the author of five books of poetry, including “Citizen: An American Lyric” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric”; three plays, including “Help,” which premiered in March 2020 at the Shed in New York; and a recent collection of essays, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” published by Graywolf Press.

“We’re all wrestling with our history, and the history is in us and is racist and committed to white supremacy and we know it,” Rankine said. “So the Guggenheim joins every other institution in this country in having to get up to speed with regards to people’s humanity.”

Hill will also oversee the continuing development of the museum’s long-delayed Abu Dhabi branch, which last month announced an opening date of 2025.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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