The Tinsel Whip: Museums Flagellate Themselves Over Police Killings

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kanas City, Mo. (TheGridExe/via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)
George Floyd's murder is a police problem, not a museum one.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hat happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is terrible. I saw the tape and thought, “How awful . . . how brutal” but also “what a betrayal,” a betrayal to hundreds of thousands of good cops who follow the rules and put their lives on the line to keep us safe.

I soon got dozens of tweets and emails from museums and performing-arts venues about systemic racism. “We’ll do better,” most promise, as if they’re complicit in a crime whose culprits, in the real world, are all in Minneapolis.

They mostly sound the same. So much alignment of talking points is unprecedented among arts people and embarrassing, even disturbing. Aren’t these people supposed to be free spirits? Who is coordinating this?

They all got out the tinsel whip, shiny so you don’t miss it. Catches the light. It’s for self-flagellation. You hardly feel it . . . it’s for show, you see. It’s the latest rage of the perpetually enraged. Whipped coffee is in vogue, too, though Starbucks calls it Dalgona coffee. It’s the new, trendy lockdown beverage, though it sounds disgusting, sticky, sickly sweet, and sudsy, like these emails and tweets.

I’ll focus on the Nelson-Atkins’s. The museum’s in Kansas City. I like it and love Kansas City.

Here it is:

Statement on the Nelson-Atkins Museum web site (via nelson-atkins.org/black-lives-matter/)

 

When I was a director, I never wrote or talked about issues unrelated to my museum, and, in my opinion, a police shooting in another state isn’t an arts issue. Wandering far from the realm of art irks even opinionated donors, who agree to see a director to talk about art, not climate change, gun control, collusion, the Ukraine, or Trump. These weren’t going to get me a check.

Neither would racism. Anyone with a brain knows that racism, like anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny, is a stubborn octopus, elephant in a china shop, and 800-pound gorilla. Museums need to address it with the tools museums have by nature of what they are, through exhibitions, support for artists, and buying art. I’m against race-based hiring. It’s a terrible, corrupt concept. It helps no one and always turns into quotas and tokenism.

Police shootings? I can’t imagine what special insight a museum director brings to the subject. But if you’re going to talk about them, at least say something smart.

The Getty’s president, Jim Cuno, whom I like and who has common sense, issued a short “I feel your pain” statement and condolences. It was economical and appropriate. It succinctly focused on unrest in Los Angeles. His staff demanded the most full-throated of Full Monties, which he breathlessly provided, along with an apology for insufficient angst. He apologized for systemic racism, but, before that, he apologized for not being apologetic.

The Getty staff’s been paid for three months to shelter in place, with weeks more Beach Blanket Bingo to come. Nice work if you can get it, I’d say, though it sounds like some of them are bored as well as bossy.

The director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at least wrote something personal.

“Pain. Sadness. Outrage.” I don’t doubt he’s sincere — he’s Canadian. He notes the MFA’s own entanglement with the kabuki theater that Boston race relations can be. Google the MFA and the Davis Leadership Academy incident, if you want to go through the Looking Glass. “How will the MFA take the lead in bridging and healing the divides that exist among us?” he asks.

“Be careful what you ask for” is one cliché that springs to mind. “Stick to your day job” is another. As strange as this sounds, “the divides that exist among us” suit some people just fine. Lots of people are hooked on walking around town sporting those festering wounds. For those who genuinely suffer in Boston’s fraught racial climate, I’m not sure a museum can or should lead the charge.

All the big museums have HR staffs dedicated to equity, inclusion, diversity, and accessibility. I suspect that most of the messages started there, advanced by junior woke staff who frighten directors. I can’t imagine why they do. When I was a director and a curator, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to care what the junior staff thought about anything beyond their current projects.

I wonder if any of the directors know much about Black Lives Matter, or enough to understand their institutions are endorsing its agenda. Black Lives Matter started asking a good question: Why are African Americans stopped by police far more often than white Americans.

Like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, all formed roughly at the same time, it demanded accountability, and that seemed reasonable to me. It seems to have expanded to language policing, trans issues, gouge-the-rich (like those rich museum donors), reparations, and guaranteed everything-under-the-sun, plus whatever Greta Thunberg wants, as long as she stops hissing “how dare you.” Do museums really want to help Black Lives Matter in its fundraising?

MoMA and other museums even offered a list of organizations for readers to support. It’s always a bad idea for a not-for-profit to promote gifts to another not-for-profit. It’s the ultimate in off messaging. Two of MoMA’s suggestions were the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, both in the news for scandal. Looking at these lists, I think museum people can be so naïve.

I’ve read dozens of these statements. The most moving came from Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery, the closest thing to a flagship museum the country has. It made sense for her to write because of the place’s prominence, and, unlike other directors, she has some firsthand experience since she directed the Minneapolis Institute of Art for years.

She wrote about the power of art to heal. Art from the ages shows us that “we are part of something more profound than ourselves,” she wrote, deploying perspective and common humanity. “We must remain hopeful, generous, just, and kind.” She wrote about her friendship with Valerie Castile, whose son, Philando, was shot by a Minneapolis police officer in 2016. For Mrs. Castile, the art at the MIA, along with her faith in God, was a path through grief. Feldman’s message was about human values, and it came from the heart.

Back to the Nelson-Atkins. My term-paper-grading days are long gone, my editing days the stuff of antiquity, red quill pen and all. It’s so much harder to tackle something that’s bad.

For starters, the special message from the Nelson-Atkins is tiresome and trite, preachy, condescending prattle. If the museum’s real message is “please don’t loot us,” then at least strike a blow for clarity and candor and say it.

That’s unwise, on second thought. The looter class doesn’t know there’s a billion dollars’ worth of art behind those walls, so don’t remind them. “Why grab Hermès when there’s Caravaggio,” a grief-stricken pillager might ask a tear-drenched thief while doing their masked, socially undistanced Christmas shopping. “Ahhh,” he muses, “a fancy Italian car,” not knowing that a Caravaggio’s get-up-and-go isn’t the four-wheel kind. The Steven Holl wing is enchanting during the evening, but by daylight it might pass as a showroom.

As much as they’d love to have a Maserati or a Botticelli, they’re into smalls they can fence.

“The Black community has taught us,” we read. Taught us what? “We have made mistakes in our long journey to become an anti-racist institution.” Huh? Have I missed something? Was the museum ever a racist institution? And what mistakes? Please, describe to me what an “anti-racist” art museum looks like. Is this a new feature in the museum’s strategic plan? Enquiring minds want to know. And what do the Nelson-Atkins’s unnamed “mistakes” have to do with what happened in Minneapolis?

And who’s “we?” The director? Julián Zugazagoitia is from a rich, connected Mexico City family. Talk about privilege. Mexico is nearly feudal is its social, political, and economic relationships between few rich people and its millions of poor, “nearly” in that in Mexico it’s all take, take, take on the part of the rich. At least in medieval times, the poor got the local baron’s beneficent protection. Today, well, there’s the rich Mexican aristocracy, and then there are the local drug lords.

The Nelson-Atkins’s director is a fine fellow who has done a great job. I don’t know whether or not he’s an American citizen, but he’s an art historian, and as a historian he should know that police brutality cases in the U.S. are a tiny fraction of what they were even a generation ago. Better recruitment and training, tougher rules, and a still-not-universal aversion to cover-ups help.

We’ve also experienced a 30-year period of domestic tranquility since the Rodney King riots in 1992. It seems this is about to end. Those who have never known civic unrest and invite it today will see how destructive it is, physically and morally.

The Kansas City Police Department briefly used the museum’s parking lot as a staging area connected with the police presence at the Country Club Plaza until Zugazagoitia told them to leave. The police presence, he felt, sullied the museum’s profile as a diverse, inclusive place. It also undermined the use of the museum’s vast, open, beautiful sculpture garden for reflection and solace. Would anyone feel comfortable there if it’s a staging area?

I won’t second-guess him. There are other areas in the neighborhood for police to use. There’s no point making the museum and its sculpture garden a target. “Knowing that the presence of police would be badly perceived by our community,” Zugazagoitia told NPR, “by the people we’ve worked so hard to embrace, . . . I felt this was not right.” On the one hand, he was dealing with a barrage of anti-police tweets and didn’t want rioters or protestors on the museum grounds.

On the other, he seems to have made a public pronouncement of telling the police to leave, which is a subtle taking-of-sides in a match between police and protestors that’s artificial. The KCPD was there to help an orderly, reasonable protest march stay peaceful. It was there to keep looters away, to preserve lives and property, and to let the protests happen.

Is this statement from the trustees? Is this a board resolution or some in-house HR or PR stunt? Is it the corporate “we” — and don’t you love it if it is? Corporations apologize all the time. There, the evildoers, the “I” and “me” of actual decision-making, well, you never hear about them, whether they’re polluters, swindlers, or, in this case, systemic racists. They hide behind the corporate — formerly the royal — “we.” Whoever wrote this message certainly rides a high horse, proclaiming as he or she does that America is a racist place. What a hateful, false thing to say.

Would trustees sign their names to this? I doubt it. Then they’ll have to explain what they means.

“We apologize.” I get that there’s a groveling Olympics overrunning the country, but, specifically, apologize for what? It all sounds like the struggle sessions in China during the Cultural Revolution, except those cited specific transgressions, and no one, unlike America’s please-forgive-me partiers, ever volunteered to be the main course. Self-abasement, public contrition, and the annihilation of incorrect thoughts were staples in party discipline. Snap goes the tinsel whip.

Yet no one’s named, except poor, dead, speechless Mr. Nelson and Mr. Atkins.

I’m intrigued by the mental impulse here. Somebody’s getting a cheap thrill, after all, through a vehicle that sounds so sonorous and abstract on the one hand and so needy on the other. Minneapolis is far from Kansas City. Aren’t there problems in Kansas City upon which the unnamed, symbolic “we” can pronounce? Are people at the museum bored with their day jobs? Oops, I forgot. They’re getting paid for sheltering in place.

A few years ago, Country Club Plaza in Kansas City was sacked by looters working as gangs. A short walk from the Nelson-Atkins, it’s the city’s Mission Revival–style shopping area — KC’s  Madison Avenue. It’s from the 1920s, a historic district, and a national architectural treasure. The place was trashed. Didn’t that experience, which was national news, inform the museum?

It’s just another dollop of virtue-signaling, as treacly as it is gratuitous and meaningless. Did the museum post a paean when five Dallas cops were killed execution-style in 2016? Of course not. “We” only lament what’s hip. “We” like to play by the watering hole of headline events. Just don’t get our lace pantaloons muddied.

“We are working every day to reopen as an institution that is stronger, braver, and committed to the ideals of equity, inclusion, diversity, and accessibility.” Is that why the place is still closed? I thought they were installing sneeze guards and Purell dispensers.

I like facts, not airy bromides. Nine unarmed black men were shot by a police officer last year. Last year, there were 350 million encounters between a cop and a civilian in America. There are 688,000 police officers in the U.S. and about 30 million African Americans. Eighty-nine cops were killed last year in the line of duty. Black-on-black violence is rampant in American cities. Kansas City had 225 murders last year. In most, the killer and victim were African American. Chicago just saw its most violent day in 60 years, with 18 murders in 24 hours. Where’s the outrage over this?

Any apology from the faceless, nameless “we” people on that? Of course not. Too controversial. That kind of local interference bears a price. Rich, poor, and in-between alike in Kansas City will tell the museum to mind its own business.

We know who’s directly responsible for George Floyd’s death, and he’s charged and in jail. Minneapolis also has a mayor, police chief, and county prosecutor. It has a police union. Minnesota has a governor. One of its U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar, let Derek Chauvin off easy on police-brutality charges when she was a prosecutor.

Police brutality has been an issue in Minneapolis for years. It’s gone unaddressed, despite promises, by political actors who are still there and have names and specific duties. They’re responsible and need to be held accountable.

The mayor, police chief, prosecutors, and police union and Minnesota’s governor love talk of “systemic racism.” It gets them off the hook.

Whoever “we” might be blames everyone, which means no one, for something bad that someone we know has done, but let’s not get too specific about who. That’ll ruin the joy of a good tinsel whipping, which hurts even less when it happens via computer keystroke.

I suggest that whoever wrote and approved the Nelson-Atkins’s act of bed-wetting spend half a day with a police officer on patrol. It’ll be an eye-opener. An experience of this kind won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t excuse the murder in Minneapolis. It’ll show that for every bad cop, there are a thousand good ones. It’s vital to understand that rather than to universalize eight horrible, unforgivable minutes.

Here’s a statement the Nelson-Atkins could have released, had the museum put aside the tinsel whip and chosen to get real. Ever controlling, I’ve added stage directions and annotations.

It’s gratis on my part. Just send a check to the Police Foundation of Kansas City. It’s raising money to buy body cameras for the KCPD. The cops want accountability, too. They’re sick of being called racist.

Here goes it:

The leadership of the Nelson-Atkins Museum condemns the gruesome death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. We urge authorities there to move quickly to assure his killer is brought to justice. We pray for George Floyd and his family.

(Say who’s writing, situate the reader, call for justice, and console.)

We deplore the violence and looting that has cost and ruined lives and livelihoods. It completely negates the peaceful protest we support.

(You have to say this. You can’t ignore the looting and rioting in 50 cities and need to separate them from the protests — it’s in your interests to distinguish them.)

We demand that elected officials in Minneapolis and Minnesota and the Minneapolis police union act to address the many longstanding problems and abuses that invited George Floyd’s death. As much as his killer, you are accountable.

(Put responsibility where it belongs and ditch the apologies.)

To these failed leaders in Minneapolis, your untended dumpster fire has set the country ablaze.

(I’m writing this, so you’ve got to expect purple prose. A little sass never killed anyone. Don’t be boring and predictable — you’re arts people, not accountants.)

We challenge Kansas City’s leaders, police, and citizens to act decisively to end black-on-black violence, which costs so many lives each year.

(Make it local. The reader’s still wondering why you, a museum in Kansas City, are writing about a murder in Minneapolis, but don’t get too snarky since your local leaders, police, and citizens will correctly tell you to butt out.)

As a museum community, we affirm the primacy of reason and beauty in human existence. The art on display at the Nelson-Atkins expresses thousands of years of struggle, joy, hope, and, above all, creativity.

(Self-promotion never killed anyone either, and you want to strike a positive note — you’re arts people, not undertakers.)

Artists, as creative people, embrace the power of individual vision. Art in turn inspires us to think and do our very best, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. In times like this, reflection and personal accountability for how we treat others are more vital than ever.

(Explain why your mission compels you to get involved, and suggest what people need to do, stressing individual responsibility.)

Understanding that people need and want places for contemplation, we will open our doors tomorrow, with the entire museum, including our exhibitions, free of charge.

(Time to get your thumb out of your mouth and go back to work, guys, and while you’re changing from your jammies, give something away for free — people like free stuff. Whoah, you charge $18 a head to see exhibitions? And you’re not a member of IMLS’s Museums for All initiative, which provides free admission to food-stamp recipients? Really, how seriously committed are you to equity, inclusion, diversity, and accessibility? You talk the talk, now walk the walk.)

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