The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s commitment to diversity and inclusion seems to have hit a snag, as its chief curator was forced to resign after saying the institution will not be excluding white artists.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) promoted its commitment to social justice in a public statement, and even established the position of “Director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging” at the end of June.

But all this talk of “inclusion” did little to save a longtime curator from having to resign after saying the museum “will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”

Gary Garrels, who the media has called one of the most prominent curators in the country, made the comment at the end of a meeting about the museum’s move to acquire more works from artists of color following the death of George Floyd. He also said that banning white artists from the institution would be a form of “reverse discrimination.”

His comments prompted several former employees to start a petition demanding Garrels resign or be fired from his position. The petitioners specifically focused on the term ‘reverse discrimination’, calling it “white supremacist and racist language.”

At the SFMOMA staff meeting this week, Senior Curator Gary Garrels was asked to respond to his documented earlier comments about collecting white male artists. His response included violent language claiming “reverse racism.” Gary must be removed from his job, effective immediately. @SFMOMA, Gary’s words are in direct conflict with your stated mission. If you are committed to anti-racist work, the choice is clear. Link to sign a letter in support of Gary’s removal in our bio.

A post shared by xSFM0MA Workers (@xsfm0ma) on Jul 10, 2020 at 12:08pm PDT

“I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you,” Garrels wrote in an email obtained by In it, he lamented his choice of words in using the “offensive” term ‘reverse discrimination’.

Garrels then tried to explain his controversial phrasing in painful detail, clarifying that he doesn’t believe he ever said that “it is important to collect the art of white men.”

I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men.

However, the apology was in vain. SFMOMA announced on July 11 that Garrels formally resigned after working as the chief curator for about 20 years in total. 

The public’s reaction to the incident has not been particularly mixed. Some say the SFMOMA is complying with “mob rule or Cancel Culture.” Others believe the museum is “obsessed with the race of the artist instead of the art.” Some have simply used the occasion to mock the position that ‘cancel culture is not real’.

Garrels’ departure comes on the heels of the deputy director, Nan Keeton, leaving the museum over another racial controversy on July 2. He left the museum after deleting a former employee’s Instagram comment calling some people in SFMOMA’s administration “profiters of racism.”

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