At a time when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is working to address allegations from within its own ranks that it is “an unequal work environment that allows for racism,” the museum on Monday appointed a new chairman, billionaire collector J. Tomilson Hill, and elected the second ever black female trustee to the poet, playwright and essayist Claudia Rankine.
“He is a farsighted collector and a very gifted organizer,” said Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, in a telephone interview. “I think he feels strongly about the role of art within contemporary civilizations.”
Hill joined the board in 2019, the same year he de Hill Art Foundation, a public exhibition and teaching space in Chelsea. He will become president of the Guggenheim on Nov. 1, succeeding William L. Mack, who served 16 years and was elected president emeritus.
“You have to go where your passion lies,” Hill said in an interview, adding that he was involved in modern and contemporary art. He and his wife, Janine – the director of fellowship affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations – collect various artists in depth, including Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, and Christopher Wool.
They also collect Renaissance and Baroque bronzes and Old Master paintings – Hill was the mysterious buyer of an early-17th-century canvas heralded by Caravaggio as a rediscovered masterpiece. (He also serves on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he said he plans to stay.)
Hill, who was vice chairman of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, from 2007 to 2018, said he was committed to the Guggenheim’s efforts to “broaden the definition of how we think about showing works.”
“We’re going to increase the frequency of artists who are diverse,” he added, “where we can leverage our leadership position to innovate and showcase art from artists who are less known.”
Last year, a letter to the Guggenheim leadership signed with “The Curatorial Department” demanded immediate, large-scale changes in what it described as “an unjust work environment that allows racism, white supremacy and other discriminatory practices.”
The museum then approved a plan to resolve those complaints. It also conducted an independent inquiry into the handling of an exhibition on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which was hosted by a guest curator, Chaédria LaBouvier, whose treatment at the Guggenheim was mentioned in the letter.
The investigation found no evidence that LaBouvier, who is black, was mistreated because of her race, but Nancy Spector, the artistic director and chief curator who was publicly criticized by LaBouvier, left the museum at the same time after 34 years.
Such turmoil “gives you an opportunity to ask a lot of tough questions — some of which are uncomfortable,” said Hill, who was previously president of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and Lincoln Center Theater. (He currently serves on Christie’s advisory board and investment committee of the Smithsonian Institution; Forbes states his net value at $2.7 billion.)
“The Guggenheim didn’t do enough to embrace the idea of DEI,” Hill added, referring to diversity, equality and inclusion. “You have to set yourself very aggressive goals. We have a whole game plan in place and we hold ourselves accountable.”
In addition, in January, the museum appointed Naomi Beckwith as Black’s first deputy director and chief curator. And in July it called Ty Woodfolk as the first chief culture and inclusion officer.
Rankine is the second black woman to ever join the board; the first was Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a photographer and the widow of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who served from 1993 to 1994.
Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Citizen: An American Lyric” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric”; three plays, including “Help,” which premiered in New York’s Shed in March 2020; and a recent collection of essays, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” published by Graywolf Press.
“We all struggle with our history, and the history is in us and it’s racist and committed to white supremacy and we know it,” Rankine said. “So the Guggenheim is joining every other institution in this country to learn about the humanity of people.”
Hill will also oversee the ongoing development of the museum’s long-delayed site in Abu Dhabi, which was completed last month announced an opening date of 2026.