We help people of color find their footing in the arts

Having worked for two decades as an art professional, Lise Ragbir has a lot to tell. “When I first moved to New York, I was a young black woman coming into the predominantly white art industry,” she said in a video interview. “I had just finished school and learned that I didn’t have a certain look, which some recruiters were very open about.”

This month, she launched a new agency called Verge, a recruiting firm that identifies talented employees of color and helps them land 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 many organizations struggle to recruit and retain leaders from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Ragbir, 49, previously art gallery director at the University of Texas at Austin, founded Verge with diversity consultant Ola Mobolade and gallery executive Julia V. Hendrickson. Artists Rasheed Johnson and Deborah Roberts are investors, but the company declined to specify what their contribution was. David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, where Hendrickson previously served as managing director, is the firm’s first client.

Johnson, who also serves as a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and other nonprofits, said his investment is designed to help arts institutions more quickly achieve their goals, such as improving diversity and connecting of artists of color with curators who understand them.

“I’m hearing a lot of enthusiasm, but there’s also concern about how these institutions are going to accommodate diverse people in their spaces,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “But it’s about more than filling up with black and brown people. There should be more insight into why they weren’t there.”

The protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020 were a rude awakening for museums and galleries that have expressed support for racial equality but failed to hire many people of color. Staff members demanded change, and executives hired a diverse cohort of new leaders, some of whom were tasked with making their historically white-dominated institutions more welcoming to workers of diverse backgrounds.

Ragbir acknowledges that after this initial burst of action, there is industry fatigue around diversity, equity and inclusion agendas. But the problem with the latest effort, she said, is the expectation that decades of exclusion can be corrected within a few months. Verge aims to help institutions remove structural barriers to diversity. She noted that her firm analyzed the websites of 180 galleries and found that only three percent listed a dedicated human resources officer.

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

As an example, Ragbir cited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which was founded in 1860 and did not have a black curator until 2021, when it hired Eunice Bellidore (who does not capitalize her name). She resigned after less than two years, citing a lack of support. “I was hired by Black Lives Matter, but black lives matter in institutions,” Bellidor told Ragbir in an interview published last month. “Institutions don’t want to make changes. They just want to appear to be making changes. (In a statement to the Montreal Gazette, the museum’s director, St├ęphane Akin, denied that Bellidore was hired because of her race. “We hired her because we believed she was the right person for the job,” he said.)

Ragbir said Verge will provide employees and institutions with ongoing support, including regular background checks and internal meetings with hiring organizations, and encourage new hires to make a one-year commitment to their employers.

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

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