Museums Should Stay Far from the Barricades

Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859, by Martin Johnson Heade. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain)
Long-simmering complaints about pay and treatment still need to be addressed.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I’ ve spilled endless pixels exploring why so many art museums in America remain shuttered to the public they’re supposed to serve. The art’s there for the edification of the public, after all. That’s why the philanthropy that funds museums is tax-exempt. Are the top brass lazy? Lots of staff in museums have it made, I know, collecting fat paychecks while Zooming every once in a while.

One curator friend of mine is painting landscapes. Another has taught herself the art of pedicure. Extreme baking, piano, Proust, online bridge, fishing . . . the lucky duckies among my museum friends are tanned, toned, and fully rested. Why spoil the party? The Louvre, the Vatican, the Hermitage, and the Uffizi are open, though, as are the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China, and Disney World. Why can they do it, and so many American museums won’t?

Tens of millions of working-class Americans are on the job, as are medical people, cops, and firefighters. Why are museum directors and trustees dragging their feet, invoking the endless “need to prepare”? This isn’t a space launch. Purell dispensers, sneeze guards, exhortations to wash hands, and, yes, I’ll even concede that the one-way bubbles are all that’s needed to open a few galleries.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve surmised another cause for this strange state of suspended museological animation. Staffs in museums big and small are circulating petitions saying their bosses are racist. No wonder the directors want the pause button to stay jammed. They’re hiding under the covers. Virtual bombs are exploding left and left and far left. Real-life, real-time turmoil awaits when everyone is back in the sandbox.

I’ve read the petitions and demands for reckoning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Getty, the Detroit Institute of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery, and many other places.

I’ve read them so you don’t have to forge through a thicket of whines, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and hate for America. They say lots of the same things, with local tweaks. Obviously, there’s some coordination. These petitions also make many good points or, at least, points worth considering. Overall, they’re extraordinary. I’ve never seen so many fireworks.

Here’s the gist. “Racism abounds,” the Getty petition says, “from insensitive comments made by management and frequent microaggressions experienced by staff and visitors of color to collecting practices to exhibition programs that glorify the work of white heterosexual cisgender male artists to the exclusion of others.” A long, very good, and specific letter from 23 of 24 people in the curatorial department at the Guggenheim deplores the “culture of favoritism, silencing, and retribution” aggravated by systemic racism and sexism.

All the petitions describe senior leadership as insensitive, HR departments as unresponsive, and hiring, paying, and mentoring minority staff as a low priority.

The “Open Letter to New York City’s Cultural Institutions” demands an end to “covert and overt white supremacy,” “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees,” and weak enforcement of anti-harassment policies by HR departments.

An open letter from the staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts demands an “acknowledgement of oppressive systems” in gallery interpretation, a living wage, hiring of more African-American and Hispanic staff, and a crackdown on petty racial harassment of the minority staff by visitors.

“Museums have a moral imperative to engage in reparations,” the VMFA letter adds, “as the origin of the Western Museum is inextricably linked with the colonial exploitation of BIPOC labor, pain, creativity, and scholarship.” The letter writers want the museum to become a community-wide advocate for dismantling “white supremacy” in all aspects of civic life.

There’s an open letter circulating in Boston, too. “As a living relic of empire, the museum as we know it today exists because of its dependency on and complicity in the workings of settler colonialism and racial capitalism.” It demands that Boston museums dissolve hierarchical and exclusionary governance, divest money from the oil and arms industry, acknowledge that they sit on stolen land, and hire more minority staff in policymaking positions.

The National Gallery petition is entitled “Anti-Racist Imperatives for the National Gallery of Art.” It’s from three anonymous writers, one a current employee and two former employees. It calls the museum “the last plantation on the National Mall.”

It expresses “our outrage at your exploitation and unfair treatment of employees identifying as BIPOC, LGBTQ, or womxn.” “BIPOC” is an acronym for “black, indigenous, and people of color,” and it’s new but everywhere.

I had to look “womxn” up. It means “woman,” but you can’t say “woman” because it derives from “man” and, besides, “womxn,” as a term, “foregrounds transgender, non-binary, and non-white” women. “LGBTQ” gathers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and either queer or questioning — I’m not sure — in one group. Sometimes these letters need a glossary.

The petition demands an end to tokenism, performative allyship, and virtue-signaling. I’m all for that. “Performative allyship” is a good term and new to me, though I suppose, donning my editor’s cap, the three mean the same thing. When I was a curator at the Clark, the place got one visit from an all-black school in Brooklyn. For years afterwards, in every promotional brochure for the Clark, annual report, grant application, and presentation from the director, pictures from that group visit appeared. The curators squirmed because we knew that visit from that school group was totally unrepresentative of the Clark’s otherwise entirely white, bourgeois visitorship.

“Tokenism,” “performative allyship,” and “virtue-signaling” together mean talking the talk but not walking the walk. They mean using isolated African-American or Hispanic staff as props. They mean preening and purring about inclusion and diversity by bourgeois, highly paid, entitled museum brass while keeping a system of haves and have-nots. It means kicking cans down the road, and vacuous, fake apologies, and preserving an unjust salary scale where people at the top make a bundle, the worker bees a pittance, and women aren’t paid the same as men.

Taken together, it’s a bucket of woes. These open letters have thrown the museum world into a dark, unprecedented state of chaos. Trustees have lawyered up.

I’ll sort them by what is reasonable and doable and what’s nutty.

There are three things to remember. First, most of these letters are anonymous, which correctly devalues their content. Where there are named petitioners, they are mostly former staff, interns, and what one petition calls “allies,” which means live bodies.

Second, the pandemic lockdown has created an isolated, angry, anxious, bored cohort. It’s psychologically unhealthy. It promotes brooding. Directors who have kept their museum doors shut haven’t done anyone any favors. They and their senior staffs might like the unfettered time, but they’ve created a toxic environment, especially since younger staff members know that all of these museums have big deficits, and layoffs are coming. The lockdown and lockout have created an unprecedented management challenge that many museums seem to have failed.

The letter signed by about a third of the Art Institute of Chicago’s staff specifically anchors museum-wide angst in the layoffs. It’s a great letter. About 10 percent of the museum’s staff is sacked. The layoffs, the letter says, hurt junior staff who are more likely to be people of color. Job cuts were made by people at the top without consulting department heads who might have suggested ways to save jobs by saving money on non-personnel costs.

The Art Institute letter was the only one I found signed by live, breathing staff people with names. I’m glad to see that in an extraordinarily tough, awkward time, the Art Institute has a culture where people aren’t afraid to say what they think. They don’t hide behind anonymity, and that’s a credit to them. It’s a credit to the leadership, too. The director, James Rondeau, was a curator at the AIC for years. He’s respected, and he respects the staff.

Third, if I were the director of a museum where the staff circulated letters like this, I’d be deeply embarrassed. Trustees should be aghast. In 2020, after years of complaints about pay equity and minority recruitment in the culture world generally, museum leadership appears to have been caught with its head in the sand.

The National Gallery petition proposes to amend its mission statement to acknowledge “the foundation of the nation and its art collection in racial capitalism.” This demand introduces the petition along with the hashtag “dismantlethenga,” and this is too bad. The proponents envision the museum as a combatant in a civil war and a social, economic, and political revolution. They want to redefine the museum to advance some kooky ideas. They want the American art galleries reinterpreted along the lines of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” the two bibles of fake, poisonous history.

They want museums on the barricade. This is crazy. That’s not going to happen unless and until the country explodes. My take is that museum staff who want a museum system “founded on an anti-racist, abolitionist, and decolonial ethics of care” don’t really want to work in the art world. They want to protest. They want museums to become advocacy groups for big social issues, but that’s not what an art museum does. These staff belong in community organizing or special-interest lobbying.

What I’m saying is that they need to be canned.

Museums have a specific mission: the care of art and its interpretation and the edification of the public. The people sending out these letters don’t care about art, exhibitions, scholarship, or the public. They don’t care that most people come for contemplation, refreshment, civic pride, arts education, or the love of beauty. They see the museum as a platform for pontification.

“White supremacy” is the coin of their realm. This isn’t 1950, though. I’ve evoked one of my grandfather’s old saws — “you can’t beat dumb animals” — to excuse people who should know better but don’t. Taking aside the kooks, many of these people are badly educated, at least in American history. They’re manipulated. People are frightened. They’re overwrought and anxious because their museums are cutting jobs. Few of them, functionally, can work from home. People do and say strange things under duress, and the reckless, isolating, morale-obliterating lockdown has created nothing but duress except for those at the very top who can work via Zoom. The bottom line is that these are not all bottomless-pit people. Many of these complaints have the ring of truth.

I detest their contempt for the country, but they have specific grievances. They say the work environment in museums for people of color is unfriendly. I’ll put aside the hyperbole about violence, back-breaking work, and plantations. It’s juvenile. A guard at the National Gallery walking around a room full of Fragonards isn’t like a field hand in Louisiana in 1859. They do have specific grievances on pay, transparency, attitude, mentoring, promotions, and fairness.

And some museums, in response to these complaints, concede that the staff are right. “We all recognize,” the Met leadership said, “that progress on these difficult issues is long overdue.”

“Degas at the Opera” is the new exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, but the museum has an internal staff opera, too. Pictured: Visitors enter the Degas exhibit at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, which reopened after months of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What about specifics? The National Gallery petition makes two good points. I suspect that the museum has been a boys’ club for a long time. The recently retired director, Rusty Powell, was there for 25 years. It’s a conservative, hierarchical place, and he was an old-school director. I know well what it’s like to work in a place where the director is king. That was the near-universal model for museums. If you were a WASP with an Ivy League degree in the museum boys’ club, as I was, life was good.

I don’t know how people are paid at the National Gallery. I can say with certainty, though, that in the high-end museum world, women were underpaid and usually got the short end of the stick in projects. The new director, Kaywin Feldman, is the first woman to run the place. She has been there for a year. She’s building her own team, as she should, and this team includes some very good, high-level appointments of women. She’s making many overdue, positive changes. The National Gallery petition’s snark about her offends me. It’s mean-spirited and unfair.

A big part of the National Gallery’s petition concerns the guards, who are almost entirely African American. The atmosphere there sounds like a snake pit, with lots of favoritism within the corps of guards and condescension on the part of the program staff toward the guards — condescension that seems more class-based than race-driven. This has been an issue at the museum for years. The guards are unionized, and that might be part of the problem.

Overall, I wish senior program people such as curators, editors, and fundraisers were kinder to guards and took time to recognize their work. I was the director of two museums and a curator at another and loved the guards. They were good sources of intelligence on how visitors responded to art in the galleries. They were also well-informed gossips. Physically, it’s not easy work. They deal with all types of people with patience, and I suspect that, in Washington, they’re very much treated like the servant class in a uniquely Southern way.

I wrote a few weeks ago, after the brutal death of George Floyd, about complaints from the Getty staff that the Getty president, James Cuno, wasn’t as indignant as he should have been. He didn’t use the “white supremacy” or “systemic racism” lingo, which is correct on his part since these are clichés used by outrage pimps, and I don’t know what they mean. “White supremacy,” “systemic racism,” and “Black Lives Matter” are now phrases we absolutely must say as if they’re prayers.

Black Lives Matter is both a slogan and a group. The organization called “Black Lives Matter” has a website and leadership. It raises money. It’s got a graphic identity. It’s a brand. In slapping the banner headline “Black Lives Matter” on, say, an open letter from a museum director about the George Floyd killing, a museum is endorsing a group, its positions, and, alas, its leaders, since there’s a law called “guilt by association.” I know arts people can be naïve, but did anyone think about this?

I’m not sure what special insight a museum in, say, Los Angeles, can contribute to a case of police brutality in Minneapolis. Actually, I’m very sure it has no special insight. If museums are expected to comment on front-page news, why aren’t there banner letters about black-on-black violence? Six hundred innocent African Americans have died in random gang shootings in big cities in the past six weeks alone. Why aren’t the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins, and a dozen other museums as chagrined and mortified about these deaths, among them many children, as they are about George Floyd?

A few months ago, I wrote a review of an exhibition of Women’s March posters at the Poster House in New York. It was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen, with bad art, curatorial self-aggrandizement, and no scholarly merit. The exhibition celebrated the Women’s March, whose leadership by then had been exposed as anti-Semitic and fatally aligned with the Nation of Islam. “Black Lives Matter” sounds good. “Deutschland Über Alles” might be a catchy tune, too, but what’s under the hood?

I’m appalled that Getty staff members would badger Cuno, as distinguished a museum director as they come, on the content of his response to the George Floyd murder. It takes a heap of arrogance and smug self-righteousness to not only demand that a director take a public, institutional stand on a law-enforcement crisis in Minneapolis — not an arts issue — but then dictate the words he should use. It’s disrespectful and hubristic.

It’s also a function of the lockdown. Staff members are not focused on their jobs.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2017. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim petitions are fascinating in that they target individuals, specific curatorial situations, and specific institutional policies. The senior leadership at the Guggenheim is immersed in its scattered branch museums, among them the painful Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, where the museum is collaborating with a homophobic, misogynist feudal state that uses forced labor.

The Guggenheim director, whom I like, has been there for a long time, as has the chief curator. The regime is probably more hierarchical and autocratic than younger staff want, but I don’t see the letter as a random power grab by junior staff. Theirs isn’t a compliant, unquestioning generation. They’re not willing, grateful flunkies. That everyone in the curatorial department — except the chief curator — signed a stinging, detailed petition shows the problems there are deeply felt.

I disagree with some of the specific grievances at the Guggenheim, but “that’s the way it is” isn’t an explanation people accept anymore.

SFMoMA is a bubbling cauldron of discontent on many fronts. It’s got a huge $18 million deficit, which means the staff needs reimagining, not right-sizing. The chief curator, Gary Garrels, who is a great curator, put his foot in his mouth at a presentation to the staff on future acquisitions.

Last year, Garrels led the museum’s program to sell a $50 million Mark Rothko painting to create an endowment dedicated to buying art by African Americans, women, Hispanics, and Native Americans. I think buying art by these artists is fine and overdue, but raiding the permanent collection is a terrible idea. Garrels updated the staff on the museum’s progress in collection diversification, observing that, “by the way, this doesn’t mean we won’t be buying work by white men.”

Flippant, I would say, but now Garrels is out of a job. What he said surely isn’t a hanging offense but, again, he and the director have been there for many years. The museum, which I love, has terrible financial problems. It’s San Francisco, so the zeitgeist is Bolshie, or, as a commenter called it in an article in the local newspaper on the Garrels mess, “batshit crazy.” The director’s pay package is $1 million. A clique probably runs the museum.

A man wears a surgical mask before entering The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, March 12, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

After weeks of turmoil, and festering boils now exposed museum-wide, where are we? The Met in New York City is leading the way with a 13-point plan. It’s a big museum and research institution with a million moving parts. It’s like a university, and Dan Weiss, its president, was once president of Haverford. Its plan sounds like what colleges have prescribed when facing tempests over race — and, as we know, none of these plans seem to work. College campuses are angrier and more race-obsessed than ever.

At the Met, there’s going to be lots of “implicit bias” training for staff, the trustees, and volunteers. I hope they use good consultants who actually know something about psychology since lots of implicit-bias theory is quack science. The plan promises a $10 million acquisitions endowment to buy work by black and Hispanic artists. The museum will broaden its vendors and money managers to include businesses owned by women and people of color. It’s going to reinterpret the African, Oceania, and Near Eastern galleries, too.

The biggest cultural change at the Met will involve hiring. The Met has a long tradition of inside hiring and quietly recruiting people without open, advertised job searches. I suspect that many of the big civic museums do the same thing.

The Met is going to hire a “chief diversity officer.” I was surprised the place didn’t have one already. I think everyone agrees that recruitment, fair pay, and mentoring there are big issues that need work. SFMoMA is hiring a director of employee experience and internal communication as well as a director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. It sounds as if some of the staff there think they need a cruise director, a hand holder, and intercessor. Both positions will cost a lot of money. I think what SFMoMA is going to create are two HR bureaucracies that are segregated by identity, and that’s a bad idea, especially when it’s truncating the staff.

I don’t know anything about the market for fundraisers, editors, tech people, or PR people. I do know that recruiting talent to diversify curatorial departments by race will prove extremely difficult. There are very few art-history majors and Ph.D. students who are African American, Hispanic, or Native American. That’s the reality. The demand might be there, but the supply isn’t.

The Met will recruit interns and entry-level curatorial staffers, it says, from historically black colleges. I looked at the art-history and art departments of a dozen of these colleges. They’re very modest, where they exist at all. If the big museums have targets for hiring curators of color, and they take whatever warm bodies come in the door, then they’ll have some serious problems. The big museum curatorial departments have high standards for scholarship, relationship building, and productivity. These won’t be relaxed.

It’s a big mess, but many of these specific personnel problems aren’t intractable if handled in a spirit of fairness, openness, and dogged commitment by leaders, and that includes the trustees. “Just make the problem go away” isn’t the right response on their end. The revolutionaries among the staff need a shove out the door. Overall, the directors need to take ownership and stay focused.

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