Meet Naomi Beckwith, The Guggenheim’s First Black Deputy Director

Naomi Beckwith Guggenheim BeLatina Latinx
Photo: Nathan Keay/MCA Chicago.

When Chaedria LaBouvier collaborated with the Guggenheim museum as the first Black woman to curate an exhibition, she described the collaboration as “the most racist professional experience of her life.” 

LaBouvier said she fought for proper credit of the exhibition she’d curated their called “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement:’ The Untold Story,’ and was not invited in her exhibitions panel discussion. 

In an open letter signed by almost 200 current and former museum employees, she demanded change and accountability, and more diversity in their employees. The Guggenheim quickly announced their plan called “Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion.”

In October 2020, Nancy Spector stepped down from her position as deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum to make amends after 34 years of serving in that position.

On Thursday, January 28, the New York Times announced that the Museum named a new person for that position Naomi Beckwith.

Beckwith is 44 and was previously the senior curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago since 2018. In an interview, she said she plans on bringing “greater diversity to museum collections and exhibitions.”

The museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, said, “If you look out over the cultural landscape — particularly in the U.S. — she is quite obviously one of the outstanding leaders of today with a huge potential as well. She’s very adept at issues of identity and, particularly, multidisciplinary art. We have to think about the Guggenheim’s growth over the next few years, so it needs to be a person with enormous capacity.”

Armstrong also told the Times that hiring Beckwith was not done for the purpose of looking right to the public by finding a solution despite the year of racial awakening they’ve had. He said it was for “the future of the institution. What’s promising is that our staff and our board have committed to that kind of change. So it’s not Naomi alone; it’s Naomi in concert with a large group of people.”

An independent investigation found that LaBouvier’s exhibition had no evidence regarding being “subject to adverse treatment based on her race.” The investigation was performed by the Kramer Levin law firm and pretty much dismissed the case.

However, LaBouvier told the Observer that the results were not enough. “A great deal of ‘healing’ for the Guggenheim is predicated on the hope that I will be too broken to speak, and lots of resources have been used to insinuate that I am, to quote Nancy Spector directly, ‘irrational,’” she shared. 

In closing, though Armstrong denies, she reaffirmed that “the museum’s ‘healing’ has meant finding a Black person to use as a shield when they are faced with a public reckoning for their racism. What’s been called ‘progress’ and a ‘new beginning’ is founded on trying to break a Black woman for refusing to offer my work and my body as a sacrifice. This is not progress, and these are cursed beginnings.”

Though a spectacular moment for Beckwith to enter and change the course of the museum’s history, it is telling that 2021 is when the place finally let a Black Woman have the opportunity to run the show.