The Untenability of the Unethical Museum

Norman Lewis, "American Totem," 1960. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The last time I visited a museum was in early March, when I saw artist Tishan Hsu’s survey at Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. It was the perfect kind of museum visit – I experienced many works I’d never seen in person, including carefully painted carved wooden reliefs that were embedded into perfectly poured plastic. Their virtuosic materiality, and refined weirdness, swept me up. And yet since then, I have not missed visiting museums. Not at all. Largely because I, like so many others, have kept abreast of their increasingly blatant dysfunction alongside the dysfunction of the art industry at large across the past seven months. In June, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hired a union-busting law firm after furloughing staff due to budget woes; in July, the director of MOCA Detroit was fired after allegations of  “racial microaggressions” and a “toxic work environment” made headlines. Before the global pandemic forced them to temporarily shutter, art institutions were already, deservedly, facing increased protest and scrutiny over treatment of staff, funding, and board composition (take the effective rebranding of the Whitney Biennial as the “Tear Gas Biennial”). The labor organizing movement that began to spread with renewed vigor across the US in 2018 helped fuel this scrutiny, as art workers employed by museums moved to make their institutions more equitable, and healthier places to work. But in the wake of COVID-19, layoffs proliferated even at museums that took massive government bailout loans, depleting the membership of newly formed unions. This past June, some museums began issuing statements in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and their already disenfranchised current and former staff quickly called out their hypocrisy. The unionization and museum transparency movements underway before the pandemic had been spurred by racial as well as labor inequalities, since the two often go hand in hand: museums already did not hire or support Black staff, and their predominately white leadership often discriminated against colleagues of color and also BIPOC publics, as a group of seventh graders and their teachers pointed out after visiting the MFA Boston in 2019. The frayed curtain pulled back by pandemic revealed nothing new, and yet the disempowered began walking away from the lines they used to toe, as the enfranchised appeared (at least) to dress themselves in care.

If institutions had not already demonstrated their steely commitment to protecting power – how a museum director who depletes an endowment ends up at the helm of another museum, for instance, or how sexual harassment allegations against an administrator disappear as he moves from one post to another – it would seem that the institutional artworld was in a freefall from which it might not recover. Yet even if institutions do manage to survive, thanks to donors, endowments, and blind eyes, it has become clear that museum employees feel greater allegiance toward each other than to their employers. For instance, after the New Museum let her go, communications strategist and union supporter Nora Landes Tweeted that her “proudest achievement” was the “solidarity with all my comrades who have also been laid off since March.” Other unionizing leaders and advocates for change who have freshly left their institutions through resignations or layoffs have similarly framed their resistance as about relationships, celebrating their colleagues over fealty to the museum or the artworld at large. They’ve made lateral, supportive solidarity feel more alive than any idealized notion of “museum,” and this in itself augurs change in a traditionally hierarchical realm, and leaves many of us who have supported, worked with, or written about museums in the past but can no longer look past their behavior, with questions: Will museums just bounce back to an unacceptable normal in the pandemic’s wake? Or is there a viable way to disinvest, directing resources and attention elsewhere, nurturing art and artists without participating in a slow-to-change system built on plunder, appropriation, and the fortunes of a few?

In recent months, art institutions have shown themselves hostile to employee solidarity. At the New Museum, furloughs started in early April, and by July 9, every member of the New Museum Union’s stewardship committee had been laid off and 60 of 84 union members had been furloughed. Other US museums similarly furloughed and laid off staff, and many, including the Seattle Art Museum, MOCA Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, dismissed unionizing or newly unionized employees first. COVID-19 began to seem like a union-busting cover.

Dana Kopel, an editor at the New Museum and a member of the stewardship committee, was furloughed on April 2, after which the museum promptly cut off her email access, even though she was told a job would still be waiting for her upon the museum’s reopening. She wrote about all this, and about contemplating the museum and its labor issues while temporary exiled, for Ssense Magazine in May: “I am not interested in asking what art looks like in these uncertain times. I want answers to other questions. What does art look like when you can’t pay rent? What does art look like when you’re too sick to get out of bed, and too broke to go to the hospital?” She went on to point out how the pandemic underscored the emptiness of claiming “both scarcity and radical politics while funneling more money into executive salaries and endowments.” On June 30, Kopel learned from her New Museum supervisor that she’d been laid off.

The gutting of the New Museum Union, which still exists and filed National Labor Board charges against the museum in August, carries particularly symbolic sting because of the role it played in the unionization wave that has swept through United States art museum over the last two years. Art + Museum Transparency, a watchdog group formed in 2018, often refers to “the new museum labor movement,” to acknowledge the New Museum staff’s role in jumpstarting and nurturing an infectious nationwide effort. Its members centered racial and social justice, pushing their employer to expand diversity protections beyond those mandated by state law, and helped other unions get started – including the Marciano Art Foundation Union, which further spurred the movement’s momentum after its formation essentially prompted the foundation to shutter rather than recognize its employees’ agency. Even if museums have used COVID-19 to further union-bust, the collective commitment to changing the institution, or at minimum exposing its resistance to change, has only grown in force.

As I began to write this, Gary Garrels, longtime chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), resigned. He did so just one day after the quickly-formed resistance group, xsfm0ma, broadcast his racist remarks (among other things, he’d recently called it “reverse discrimination” to not collect white artists too, in a time when the museum was under pressure to make its collection less overwhelmingly white). At SFMOMA, the current conversation about institutional white supremacy was in many ways foreshadowed when its ambitious new building opened in 2016, showing how deeply the racisms and inequalities now hanging out have soaked into museums’ fabrics and infrastructures. Non-white artists comprised only 6% of the inaugural, museum-wide installation, thanks in large part to the Fisher wing, featuring the mostly white, male collection of Don and Doris Fisher of GAP wealth (as LA Times columnist Carolina Miranda recently noted, one whole floor of the wing held no art by women). Last year, at the same time that SFMOMA sold off a single Rothko to buy art by non-white and non-male artists – criticized as a quick fix – the museum deflected the union’s call for equitable wages, which union members argued would lead to more diversity. Then came COVID-19, and, in March, SFMOMA laid off all 135 on-call workers, and cut wages for its remaining staff, before announcing 55 more layoffs in early June. Throughout these layoffs, highly-paid administrators only took 10% pay cuts (director Neal Benezra has since taken a steeper cut), and staff pointed out the hypocrisy of using phrases like “SFMOMA Family” while only protecting certain members.

After the murder of George Floyd, when cities in the US and beyond rose up against state-sanctioned violence toward Black lives, SFMOMA posted to Instagram an image and quote by Black artist Glenn Ligon: “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” A former communications staff member, Taylor Brandon, who quit her job in April because she found the workplace racism untenable, commented, “You don’t only get to amplify black artists during a surge of black mourning and pain.” Nan Keeton, the Director of External Affairs, deleted Brandon’s post, but not before union members took screenshots. In the censorship controversy that followed, Keeton resigned, as did the museum’s recruitment staffing manager and its director of human resources. Garrels’s fall came after an all-staff meeting he led on July 7 to review new acquisition policies. He said, according to the petition later circulated by xsfm0ma, “Don’t worry, we will definitely continue to collect white artists” – as if this is what anyone other than white people in positions of power worried about. Meanwhile, xsfm0ma has continued to push for SFMOMA director Neal Benezra’s resignation, bolstering the call with anonymous accounts of mistreatment (like the staff member who recalled Benezra, who made close to $1 million a year pre-COVID, telling a frontline worker to be content with “psychic rewards” in lieu of cost of living wage increases).

Much of the collective frustration with museums remains anonymous due to the fact that, especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic, many cannot risk their job security in the art industry. But the fear of speaking openly seems to be losing some of its sway, as a recent swift protest against the Whitney Museum suggested. In late August, the museum announced the exhibition Collective Action: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change, including works the museum had bought at steeply discounted prices from fundraisers held during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter uprisings. Many BIPOC artists in the show, who had donated their work to help community aid efforts, received no compensation nor heard of the museum’s acquisition of their work until a curator emailed them about the show. Artists were quick to call out the institution’s exploitative, cut-rate, back-channel acquisition of their works. Texas Isaiah, whose photography would have been exhibited, acknowledged on Twitter the difficulty of publicly criticizing major institutions for artists and art workers: “I understand it can seem intimidating to speak up because some folks find themselves within these art spaces,” Isaiah tweeted. “You don’t want to step on the wrong toes, seem ‘aggressive’ or ‘too upset’. Please be gentle on yourself.” When the Whitney cancelled the exhibition within 24 hours, no one was better off. The museum had still not offered full compensation to artists whose work it bought on the cheap, and these artists had been forced to devote their time and energy to resisting an institution’s interests in favor of each other’s dignity.

Institutions’ interests are not the interests of the art workers, artists, and advocates who have asked for and even provided a roadmap to a different world. They do not want to make room for the desires of those whose labor they rely on, and while this imbalance has never been tenable, its untenability has reached a grisly zenith. A few months ago, the collective DismantleNOMA of the New Orleans Museum of Art issued demands that would require a full rebuilding and reorienting of the institutional culture, as well as resignations from top administrators. Like so many other boards faced with comparable demands, NOMA’s board deflected, saying in a letter from the board president that they “respectfully decline” and “have every confidence in NOMA leadership.” They were too busy with their own plans to talk about racism and toxicity with those most affected by it, those who had written an unflinching but beautiful letter about sharing resources and collectively thriving. Probably establishments like this one will not crumble. Probably, many will still need to work in such institutions. I do not begrudge anyone a job – refusing to participate isn’t a choice for those without resources. But I am no longer interested in pretending that museums are remotely good, or giving them the benefits of the doubt. I am interested in giving my time and attention to those who have learned to articulate with razor-sharp accuracy the textures of institutional injustice, and who, through their calls for accountability, have already contoured another far more desirable world.

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