On Friday, the New Orleans Museum of Art announced that it had hired Amanda M. Maples as its Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art, introducing her in a press release and in an Instagram post. But the decision to hire a white woman for this role caused immediate blowback as Instagram commentators expressed frustration that a Black curator hadn’t been chosen for the position.
A user who goes by the handle @scorpiantay commented, “No offense at all and congrats to her! She seems to be qualified given the brief history you all provided, but are there no African, black, or poc that can oversee endeavors like this at NOMA? the efforts to showcase African history become very watered down and dampened when the very person appointed to oversee them isn’t at least a person of color and can by no means relate to the black or African experience.”
NOMA responded, writing, “While we can’t speak about others considered for this post, Maples’s breadth of experience and emphasis on sustained collaboration with artists and institutions in Africa and around the world set her apart from other candidates. Maples’s research and work focuses on areas where NOMA is seeking to grow, including leading a crucial reconsideration of how North American museums collect and present African art.”
As the post garnered hundreds of negative comments, the museum occasionally attempted to respond without giving much more information on the hiring process, reiterating that Maple’s experience ad connections with African institutions set her apart.
Maples has a PhD in Visual Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz and was previously curator of global African arts at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She has also held curatorial roles at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center; the Yale University Art Gallery; the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution; the High Desert Museum; and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a press release announcing the new appointment, Maples said she was focusing on “how to fill historical gaps in the museum’s extensive collection to tell the fullest story of African art possible and how NOMA can highlight the work of contemporary artists in Africa.”
The museum said that Maples is organizing “New Masks Now: Artists Innovating Masquerade in Contemporary West Africa,” which will open in 2025.
In a statement to ARTnews, a press representative said the museum was “listening closely to feedback from New Orleans residents and the public on the appointment of the museum’s new Curator of African Art. We recognize the need for NOMA’s staff and the museum field at large to represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. We take this priority very seriously for positions throughout the institution.”
“The search to fill this post,” the statement continued, “was conducted with guidance and recommendations from leaders in the field of historic African art, and we are committed to this appointment. Amanda Maples’s curatorial and academic experience combined with her sustained relationships with organizations and artists in Africa and her leadership in addressing decoloniality and restitution led us to select her for this post. We look forward to her work at NOMA and her continued contributions to the field at large.”
The museum said it would host a town hall as a “next step” to “openly discuss race and equity within museums.”
This is not the first time a US museum has faced blowback for hiring a white woman as an African art curator. In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum faced opposition from groups like Decolonize This Place after hiring Kristin Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as an African art consulting curator. Director Anne Pasternak defended the decision, citing Windmuller-Luna’s “anticolonial approach to curating,” and enlisted experts such as curator Okwui Enwezor to issue statements in her favor.
[Editor’s Note, 7/3/2023, 6:00 p.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from the museum.]