SAN FRANCISCO — The meeting was about safety protocols in the time of coronavirus. There was talk of masks, sanitizers and Plexiglas barriers. But that is not what people will remember about the all-staff Zoom call at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, July 7.
In its waning moments, during a Q. and A. part of the call, Gary Garrels, the museum’s longest-tenured curator, was asked about comments attributed to him in a @changethemuseum Instagram post in June. The post recounted that when Mr. Garrels had earlier spoken about “acquisitions by POC artists,” he had added, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”
Mr. Garrels responded to this on July 7, saying that his comments were “a little bit skewed.” He then explained efforts on “broadly diversifying the collection.”
“We have put a lot of focus,” he continued, “on collecting women, Black artists, first nation, Native, L.G.B.T.Q., Latino and so on.”
He added: “I’m certainly not a believer in any kind of discrimination. And there are many white artists, many men who are making wonderful, wonderful work.”
When a staff member suggested that Mr. Garrels’s comment was equivalent to saying, “All lives matter,” Mr. Garrels responded: “I’m sorry, I don’t agree. I think reverse discrimination — —”
What he said after that was drowned out by gasps and someone saying, “He didn’t say that!”
Five days later, Mr. Garrels, 63, senior curator of painting and sculpture, resigned. It is a decision that has drawn criticism from his many defenders in the art world, cheers from many in a museum staff that declared him a symbol of an objectionable status quo and a renewed focus on the term “reverse discrimination.”
Popularized by opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the expression, said Justin Gomer, assistant professor of American studies at California State University at Long Beach, “has been one of the most effective ways to undercut efforts to achieve racial equality.”
Leigh Raiford, associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called the term “the hollow cry of the privileged when they find themselves challenged to share power.”
And even some of Mr. Garrels defenders are surprised he used it.
Kevin Beasley, a Black artist who views Mr. Garrels as a supporter, and credits him with collecting his work for the museum, said that when he heard Mr. Garrels’s comment he “was shocked,” and wondered, “Is this Gary? It didn’t make sense.”
But supporters of the curator say that his use of the term, which Mr. Garrels has apologized for, did not warrant his abrupt departure from a post in which he had a record of supporting artists of color and others. Just last year, in a move he championed, the museum sold a Mark Rothko painting for $50.1 million and used the money to acquire works by women and people of color including Frank Bowling, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and Mickalene Thomas.
“I am deeply saddened that Gary is viewed as having any racial prejudice toward artists,” said Komal Shah, a museum trustee who said Mr. Garrels had helped establish many young artists of color in the collection. “In my experience it simply isn’t true.”
Support came from outside the museum as well.
“Gary Garrels is not a white supremacist,” Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, said. “He has championed the voices of those who were in the margins.”
But others say Mr. Garrels did not just momentarily misspeak. Many staff members say they recalled remarks he made during a panel discussion about female artists in January in which he spoke about “parity” for women and that it would take time — and added: “The other thing I have to say is I reassured artists we will continue to collect white men. There are a lot of great women artists but also still a lot of great men out there as well.”
Aruna D’Souza, the author of “Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts,” said in an interview that Mr. Garrels’s remark “wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.”
His message, she said, was: “‘Don’t worry, we can keep collecting men, too. Things aren’t going to change that much.’”
“Gary Garrels’s comment,” she continued, “was upsetting because he was making it explicit, whiteness will still be at the center of the institution.”
Mr. Garrels is perhaps the most prominent figure to tumble so far as art museums around the country, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art grapple with cultural tumult amid nationwide unrest after the death of George Floyd. In addition to Mr. Garrels’s 19 years at SFMOMA, he had also been a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
After the Zoom meeting, an anonymous group of former museum employees calling themselves xSFMOMA started a petition that drew several hundred supporters and called out Mr. Garrels for using “white supremacist and racist language.” The petition demanded he resign.
Then the museum’s store employees sent an email to the executive staff denouncing Mr. Garrels’s comments as racist. “We are not asking for an apology we’re asking for action and accountability,” the letter said.
The next day, Mr. Garrels lost some essential support when an unsigned email to staff from “Members of the Curatorial Division” was sent, saying they “collectively” disavowed Mr. Garrels’s reverse discrimination comments. They added,
“We will no longer accept such racism denial; unilateral power over systems, money and colleagues; and comments, made publicly and internally, that are offensive and reckless.”
It demanded “actions and accountability for Gary’s conduct.”
Mr. Garrels resigned the next day, apologizing to the museum staff for using “an offensive term.” He wrote, “I believe that true diversity and the fight for real and meaningful equality is the important battle of our time.” Then he said, “I can no longer effectively work at SFMOMA and so I have offered my resignation.”
One museum employee of color who asked to not be named because of fears of losing a job said it felt like time for Mr. Garrels to leave.
“We were trying to make all these changes,” the employee said. “He was an obstacle to that. We were working so hard for so long and for him to make these statements, it was so disheartening.”
Mr. Garrels’s departure was part of an ongoing debate about racial equality in the staffing and the collecting at the museum, which draws close to one million visitors annually. The staff, which numbered nearly 500 before a coronavirus closure and layoffs, was 59 percent white, 16 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent Black (the remaining staffers identified with two or more races), a spokeswoman said.
Maria Jenson, executive director of SOMArts, a San Francisco organization that supports art for social change, and a former SFMOMA public partnerships manager, said the resignation was a “reflection of much larger issues.”
“The same types of people keep getting hired for key leadership roles — namely people who are white and privileged,” she said. “Meetings feel like a social club.”
Last year, the museum staff went through racial equity training. But incidents still occurred. At the height of Black Lives Matter protests, SFMOMA had blocked from view a critical comment by a Black former museum employee, Taylor Brandon, who called museum officials “profiteers of racism.”
No Neutral Alliance, a coalition of artists of color, was participating in the museum’s online exhibitions, but because of the way Ms. Brandon was treated, some of the artists are now boycotting the museum. The Alliance is making demands that include the resignation of the director, Neal Benezra, who has retained the support of the museum board.
Mr. Benezra issued a public apology after the incident and the museum’s deputy director of external relations left her job. He and Mr. Garrels both declined to be interviewed for this article.
If Mr. Garrels had hoped to weather the storm of protest that followed his remarks on Zoom, the pressure on him only built, as the letter from employees of the museum store and from curators were sent.
Since his resignation, the museum has outlined a number of steps it is taking in response to the criticism. Last week, it announced it will be hiring a director of diversity. It also promised to investigate new and old discrimination complaints, and to revise the exhibition review process to consider diversity, equity and inclusion.
Last Thursday, the museum curators, who had denounced Mr. Garrels, sent a letter to Mr. Benezra in which they said, “We write to voice our support for you and your understanding of the need for change.”
On Tuesday, the museum’s board chairman, Robert J. Fisher, sent an email to his staff in which he said the board supports Mr. Benezra, who, he wrote, “is committed to transforming SFMOMA into an anti-racist institution.”
“Our staff is hurt, exhausted and frustrated,” Mr. Fisher said. “They have been courageous in voicing their experiences of racism and inequity. We are deeply sorry for the pain and anger this has caused our wonderful team and our community.”
“We hear your calls for change,” he continued, “and are united in the commitment to respond with action.”
Some of the announced plans address demands made by No Neutral Alliance and the museum said it was trying to schedule a meeting with members of the group.
And for now, there are no more Zoom meetings. Last week, Davida Lindsay-Bell, the museum’s human resources director, sent an email saying all-staff Zoom meetings would be postponed “until we resolve and improve format and logistics.”