Helping People of Color Find Their Footing in the Arts

Having worked for two decades as an arts professional, Lise Ragbir has stories to tell. “When I first moved to New York, I was a young Black woman moving into a predominantly white art industry,” she said in a video interview. “I was fresh out of school and learned that I didn’t have a certain look, which some recruiters were very candid about.”

This month, she opened a new agency called Verge, a recruitment firm that identifies talented employees of color and helps them settle into positions at all levels in the commercial and nonprofit sides of the art world. Despite a recent wave of efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts, Ragbir said that many organizations were struggling to hire and retain leaders from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Ragbir, 49, previously an art gallery director at the University of Texas at Austin, founded Verge with the diversity consultant Ola Mobolade and the gallery executive Julia V. Hendrickson. The artists Rashid Johnson and Deborah Roberts are investors, though the company declined to specify how much they had contributed. David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, where Hendrickson was previously a managing director, is the firm’s first client.

Johnson, who also serves as a trustee for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and other nonprofit organizations, said that his investment was intended to help arts institutions more quickly meet their goals, like improving diversity and connecting artists of color with curators who understand them.

“I hear a lot of enthusiasm, but there is also concern about how these institutions will accept diverse folks into their spaces,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “But it’s about more than filling themselves with Black and brown folks. There needs to be more insight into why they haven’t been there.”

The protests that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020 were a rude awakening for museums and galleries that had expressed support for racial equity but failed to employ many people of color. Staff members demanded change, and executives recruited a diverse cohort of new leaders, some of whom were tasked with making their historically white-dominated institutions more hospitable to workers from different backgrounds.

Ragbir acknowledged that after that initial burst of action, the industry is experiencing fatigue regarding diversity, equity and inclusion programs. But the problem with recent efforts, she said, is the expectation that decades of exclusion could be fixed within a couple of months. Verge aims to help institutions remove structural impediments to diversity. She noted that her firm had analyzed the websites of 180 galleries and found that only three percent listed a dedicated human resources employee.

“Without human resources, there are no standards,” Ragbir explained. “We are seeing a new wave of talent coming through the art industry without infrastructure.”

As an example, Ragbir pointed to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which was founded in 1860 and did not have a Black curator until 2021, when it hired eunice bélidor (who does not capitalize her name). She left the position after less than two years, citing a lack of support. “I was the Black Lives Matter hire, but Black lives do not matter at institutions,” bélidor told Ragbir in an interview published last month. “Institutions don’t want to make changes. They just want it to look like they’re making changes.” (In a statement to the Montreal Gazette, the museum’s director, Stéphane Aquin, denied that bélidor was hired because of her race. “We hired her because we believed she was the right person for this job,” he said.)

Ragbir said that Verge would provide recruits and institutions with ongoing support, including regular check-ins and internal meetings with the hiring organizations, and would encourage new hires to make a one-year commitment to their employers.

“We have talked a lot about systemic racism,” she said. “Now we have to talk about building systemic change.”

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