The New Orleans Museum of Art (Noma) is facing significant backlash over the appointment of a white woman to be its new curator of African art. After making the announcement on 29 June, the museum experienced a barrage of dissent on social media; as of this writing, there are more 850 comments on the museum’s Instagram post announcing the hiring.
“Until y’all remedy this situation with a REAL apology and a new Black hire, I can longer support NOMA”, wrote Megan Braden-Perry(@megandoesnola), a local journalist. Alexis Jackson (@ajaxsn33) shared, “I live here and work in the arts internationally and could provide a list of several dozen BIPOC museum and research candidates with degrees and projects delving into a wide range of African Art specialties. I’m sure Ms. Maples is an absolute star and a champion in her field. But to overlook those that would be better ablt to connect with the community this museum calls home is embarrassing and shameful for you.”
In a statement posted in response to the outcry, a museum spokesperson wrote, “We’re listening closely to feedback from New Orleans residents and the public on the appointment of the museum’s new Curator of African Art. We recognise 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…We are committed to taking this moment to learn and take action. In the immediate future, we will host a town hall to openly discuss race and equity within museums. We recognise that listening is only a small part of honouring our commitment to being an inclusive and anti-racist institution.”
In response, No White Saviors (@nowhitesaviors), a Uganda-based feminist nonprofit with more than 840,000 followers, wrote, “Town hall meetings won’t achieve the results being asked of you.”
On 30 June, in an email to the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s weekly magazine Gambit, a museum spokesperson emphasised Maples’s professional achievements. “Maples’s academic experience combined with her sustained relationships with organisations and artists in Africa, her work organising groundbreaking exhibitions and her leadership in addressing decoloniality and restitution led us to select her for this post,” the spokesperson stated.
Maples was previously the curator of global African arts at the North Carolina Museum of Art and served as visiting faculty in the department of art and art history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She earned her PhD in visual studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has curated a range of exhibitions and written extensively on historical and contemporary African art, decolonisation, collection ethics and issues regarding the restitution of looted art objects. For her first major project at Noma she is working on a 2025 exhibition focused on West African masquerade culture in collaboration with the Museum of Black Civlisations in Dakar, Senegal.
Noma’s decision to hire Maples has further amplified the strain between the institution and New Orleans’s Black community, first publicly exposed at the height of the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. The Instagram account @dismantlenoma shared a litany of anonymously reported racist incidents and micro-aggressions from former staffers and visitors to the institution, inspiring the museum to issue a statement promising substantive change. “We can do better and we will,” the statement read. “When we are able to rehire, we are 100% committed to expanding the diversity of our staff, in every department, at all levels.”
The current backlash against Noma’s hiring decision echoes a similar scandal in 2018, when the Brooklyn Museum announced its appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as a consulting curator of African art. Public outcry came swiftly, forcing the Brooklyn Museum to defend its controversial hire.
The museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, wrote in a statement published by Artnews: “In order to ensure the highest level of scholarly excellence in how we preserve and present our collections of historical African arts, we knew the job required a specialist with a PhD in this area.” Windmuller-Luna’s appointment was also defended by Princeton University African art professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, who wrote in a blog post: “I fully support her hire, and while we must press on museums and art history schools to do more to diversify their curatorial, managerial and professorial ranks, it makes absolutely no sense to say that white people should not be hired to curate or teach African art.”
Windmuller-Luna now leads the African art department at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Museum hired Ernestine White-Mifetu, a Black South African art historian, for the role of African art curator in 2022.
Amid the furor following Windmulla-Luna’s hire in Brooklyn, Steven Nelson, director of the UCLA African Studies Center, offered more holistic insight on a 2018 episode of NPR’s now-defunct Code Switch podcast, which discussed racial politics in popular culture. He opined that criticism of the museum was the result of a larger misconception “that African art scholars and curators are largely people of colour… Yet the field of African art history in the US is largely white and female. I am one of a small handful of African Americans who specialise in African art history.” Nelson pointed to larger, systemic factors impacting the talent pool elligible for leadership roles within museums.