The Guggenheim’s longtime chief curator forced out of job after false accusation of racism by Black artist

The Guggenheim’s longtime chief curator, Nancy Spector, was forced out of her job in 2020 after she was falsely accused of racism by a black artist.

The story begins in 2016 when black artist Chaédria LaBouvier arranged for a piece of Black Lives Matter-themed art about the death of black graffiti artist Michael Stewart while in police custody to be displayed at the Williams College Museum of Art.

The piece of art was known as Defacement, and it was spray-painted by deceased artist Michel Basquiat.

When Spector learned about LaBouvier’s efforts, she decided to intervene.

“She asked LaBouvier if she would like to collaborate on an exhibition where Defacement could be shown alongside other art responding to the death of Michael Stewart,” according to a lengthy profile by The Atlantic.

LaBouvier agreed to Spector’s offer and wound up being taken under her wing as a mentee and being hired by the Guggenheim to curate this new exhibition.

Now fast-forward to 2019, when LaBouvier submitted an essay for the exhibition’s catalog but the museum rejected it because it was frankly amateurish.

“Months later, in a curatorial meeting, Spector told her staff, ‘Where it really went downhill is when she turned in her essay.’ According to a leaked transcript of the meeting, another curator seconded Spector’s account, describing the work as ‘poorly written’ and lax in its scholarship,” according to The Atlantic.

They subsequently “told LaBouvier it would need to be reworked extensively, and suggested she could be credited as a co-author, alongside Spector and another curator.”

She didn’t respond well to the demand, as she would go on to later tweet (*Language warning):

LaBouvier then began actively working against the exhibition by pressuring other participants, like the graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy, to withdraw from it.

“According to multiple sources, she tried to persuade other interviewees to withdraw from the project, and to mollify her, the museum renegotiated her fee and gave her sole credit for the catalog,” according to The Atlantic.

Things only got worse come summer, despite the museum’s repeated attempts to appease her.

“[A]s the opening of ‘Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story’ approached, LaBouvier spoke at a private event for donors at the Brant Foundation, and the museum flew her to Abu Dhabi, where it was building a new outpost, to participate in a panel on Basquiat and graffiti art,” The Atlantic notes.

“In June, she spoke at the exhibition’s press launch. But the friction between LaBouvier and the museum kept getting worse. After the opening, she brought guests for a private after-hours tour. In the leaked meeting transcript, Spector claims that LaBouvier had not alerted security beforehand—a major breach for a museum employee that shocked other members of the curatorial department.”

Then in July 2019, LaBouvier sat with The New York Times for an interview in which she somewhat trashed the Guggenheim.

“Ms. LaBouvier said that assembling the show … exposed fault lines that she attributed to the Guggenheim’s inexperience with black curators and their perspectives, especially with regard to nuances of black life and identity,” the Times’ write-up reads.

Then days before the exhibition was to open in November of 2019, “a panel was held at the Guggenheim to discuss” both this exhibition and two others, and LaBouvier wasn’t invited as a speaker. This apparently offended her.

“She went to the panel anyway, and stood up during the Q&A to say that ‘as someone that truly lives the politics of human dignity,’ her omission was ‘so violent.’ The panel’s multiracial makeup was itself a provocation to her: ‘To weaponize a panel of Black bodies of color to do your filth is insane. This is insane. And this is how institutional white supremacy works,'” according to The Atlantic.

Everything then died down until Minneapolis criminal suspect George Floyd’s death in May of 2020. His death not only triggered violent nationwide riots, but they also triggered LaBouvier into a raging fit.

“A week and a day after Floyd’s death, the Guggenheim, along with many other businesses and individuals, posted a simple black square to its social feeds. The initiative was called #BlackoutTuesday, and it was used to signal that Floyd’s death would not be ignored or minimized. But some Black artists and activists found Blackout Tuesday performative and empty,” the Atlantic notes.

“Chaédria LaBouvier was one of those dissenters. She quote-tweeted the Guggenheim’s post, adding: ‘Get the entire f–k out of here. I am Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator in your 80 year history & you refused to acknowledge that while also allowing Nancy Spector to host a panel about my work w/o inviting me. Erase this shit.'”

She also posted a Twitter thread claiming working at the Guggenheim “was the most racist professional experience of my life,” accusing Spector of having tried to “co-opt” her work, and likening Spector to the so-called “Central Park Karen.”

This was the beginning of the end for Spector and her longtime career as first a Guggenheim curator and then later the Guggenheim’s chief curator. Indeed, in response to the controversy, Guggenheim threw Spector under the bus.

Roughly a month later, the Guggenheim brought in a third party to investigate Spector. Completed by October, the investigation found “no evidence that Ms. LaBouvier was subject to adverse treatment on the basis of her race.”

But it didn’t matter.

“A separate statement from the board, issued the same day [as the investigation’s conclusion], revealed that Spector was leaving the Guggenheim, ending an association dating back 34 years. A line had been drawn. In the media, the words Guggenheim and racism would no longer be placed in the same sentence,” according to The Atlantic.

And this despite the evidence showing that the one with the attitude problem is LaBouvier, not Spector.

“Had the museum looked more closely at LaBouvier’s feed, its board might have seen her complaints as part of a long-standing pattern of excoriating others who were interested in Defacement or Basquiat, even when they sought out her opinion,” the Atlantic notes.

In June of 2017, for instance, she’d “complained about a ‘lightweight’ Basquiat exhibition in London, which did not feature Defacement, by tweeting that a curator involved was a ‘mediocre bitch … trying to erase me from my own Defacement conversation’ and that she belonged to a ‘special ring of yoga-feminist hell.'”

“When the woman emailed offering to thank LaBouvier in the exhibition’s acknowledgments, she tweeted: ‘Lol, #bitchplease,'” according to The Atlantic.

This right here is the character of the nasty woman who cost Spector her job and career. A nasty woman who thinks her race entitles her to act like the real B-word …

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