Art

Racism and Sexism Accusations Torpedo the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Exterior of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2007. (Photo: "Indy-Art-Museum-Szmurlo.jpg" by cszmurlo is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Cropped.)
A curator quits, citing PTSD, and then the director leaves over racism charges.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is in the news, and not for one of its many glories. It’s one of the country’s great museums, and Indiana’s biggest, with a lovely collection, distinguished buildings, and renowned horticultural gardens. It stepped into radioactive doo-doo over . . . what else but race! And the mess claimed the scalp of the CEO. Charles Venable, the CEO since 2012, got the push. “We are ashamed,” the board of trustees said in a statement. “We have ignored, excluded, and disappointed members of our community and staff.”

The board plans to hire an independent evaluator to examine charges of racism and unfairness at the museum.

What tripped the wire of this particular explosive? The museum was searching for a new director, or, more precisely, a new director to replace the old director, who is now the CEO, except that he quit.

It was the widely circulated job advertisement for the new director slot that set Geiger counters rattling. It said that the new director would:

maximize unique programmatic opportunities, working closely with the curatorial, education, and public programs divisions to animate the permanent collection galleries in innovative ways that attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.

It’s a diarrhetic phrase, I know. It’s not even the entire sentence! The job description was composed by the museum and its high-paid search consultancy, m/Oppenheim Associates. The ad ends with a call for a director with “a sense of humor, grace, and perspective.” I’d add formidable patience, the kind it takes to read all six pages of blather.

It was “traditional, core, white audience” that tripped the wire.

Earlier this week, after the furor started, over 100 IMA staffers from all departments signed a letter demanding that Venable go. At an all-staff meeting in January, workers raised questions about the “traditional, core, white audience” term. Venable defended it. The staff is smarter than he is. In their letter to the board, staff said discrimination was indeed a big, unaddressed problem. They acknowledged Venable’s leadership in stabilizing Newfields’s finances. They were sick of suffering in silence and were honestly embarrassed by the incendiary “core, white audience” term and neither knew how to explain it to family and friends nor wanted to do so. Good for them.

What have we come to? Yes, a dumb thing to say, shortsighted and wrongheaded. How did we get to the sad, ugly point where museum directors are parsing audiences by race?

A museum-director friend told me a few years ago that the pursuit of diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility — now an acronym called DEIA — took most of her time. She moaned and groaned — DEIA is agnostic on things such as art and scholarship — but she sees herself as a good liberal. She doesn’t realize what a minefield and a racket this will become.

Her museum website denounces systemic racism, the amorphous bugaboo these days. And her museum is still closed because of the COVID scare, even though no case of the Chinese coronavirus has been traced to a museum, anywhere. “A” is for accessibility, and, sorry to state the obvious, but a museum is not “accessible” if it’s shut. It’s a sublimely perfect and perverse case of “E” for “equity,” since everyone is barred.

Venable has been at Newfields, the name of the museum and its spacious park, for about ten years. He approved the language of the ad. The search consultant circulated it. The IMA is now in a predicament — museum staff in the newspapers, mortified, begging forgiveness, and with no leadership — for two reasons. One is the “traditional, core, white audience” debacle.

The other is a lingering, explosive, and deeply informative personnel issue.

In 2019, the IMA hired Kelli Morgan as an associate curator of American art. Morgan had just gotten her Ph.D. not in art history but in African-American studies. She’d won a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and had some good museum experience. She’s African American, and the museum wants to hire more people of color in program positions. So does every other museum.

I think the goal is good. I believe in hiring by merit, with no racial preferences.

One problem museums face in hiring people of color is the supply of African-American art-history scholars. It’s tiny. Like every other cohort of Ph.D. holders, or holders of any advanced art-history degree, there are mediocrities and neurotics, reducing the pool from tiny to microscopic. And many holders of advanced degrees want to teach, not work in an office.

I think I’d like Morgan. She came to art history later than most, as I did, and seems both expansive and grounded. She’s a person of principle. I read her dissertation. It’s not bad, but it is what it is. It’s a critical-race-theory dissertation that foregrounds race and power in the interpretation of all American art. Morgan believes that racism pervades all human interaction.

Didn’t anyone at the museum look at her dissertation? A cardinal rule in hiring a new curator is “read that dissertation,” or at least skim it. A dissertation presents a scholar at his or her most dogmatic. If nothing else, it’s the best writing sample.

I wouldn’t have hired her. The IMA has a good American collection. It has Hopper’s fantastic Hotel Lobby, from 1943, Inness’s late Rainbow, and Jimson Weed, a billboard-size painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Aside from that, its landscapes, portraits, and scenes of everyday life are, well, everyday. For a scholar trained to look at art through the twin lenses of race and abuse of power, there’s no raw material, or if there’s raw material, it’s far-fetched, given what a curator does day to day.

The collection was bound to be a vehicle with no gas in the tank for a scholar who, like Morgan, describes herself as a social-justice curator. She’s better suited to be an independent scholar or to work for an advocacy group.

At museums (and everyplace else) employees get mad and quit all the time. Partings of this kind are rarely such sweet sorrow, in my experience. Some fits are chronically bad. I don’t know how much mentorship Morgan got — probably none — or what her salary was vis-à-vis that of other curators. I’ve always thought the IMA is a strange place. It’s insular. It feels as if it orbits the earth. High-end culture in Indianapolis seems, and I’m writing as an outsider and a tourist, like one big all-white country club.

Morgan quit, with fireworks. She said the museum wasn’t a “safe and healthy place” for her. She said the museum leadership practiced “unbelievably toxic and microaggressive racial discrimination” and “egregious gender discrimination” focused on midlevel female staff. She said the leadership is incompetent. She also said security, facilities, collection support, and conservation staff were treated in a discriminatory manner. She told the local newspaper she had PTSD from her work at the museum.

She sent her letter to a long roster of staff, museum trustees, and reporters “to raise awareness of how nefarious, rampant, and endemic white supremacy is” at Newfields and the museum world generally.

I admire Morgan’s courage and conviction and, at this point, feel as though I know her.

I’ve read her “collected works” — people in Vermont have time for these things — and think she wasn’t the right person to shake things up at the IMA. She’s no Mary Poppins, or Anna Leonowens, or Jane Eyre, and Morgan and the top brass at the IMA were probably thinking that a Mary Poppins move would work, but Mary Poppins is a fantasy.

I’ve read petitions from museum staffs over the past few months that use the same language: “not a safe and healthy place,” “white supremacy,” “microaggression,” and “toxic.” I’ve read so many that I think they’re clichés now. I want specifics.

And these were petitions. Almost all were anonymous, and nobody actually quit. I’ve known staff members over the years, curators and development directors, who went to the trustees to say their directors were incompetent, and they were right, and they got fired.

Morgan does provide some specifics. I think, piecing reports together, that there were disputes between Morgan and other departments over publicity budgets for her shows. At an acquisitions-committee meeting, a trustee questioned an object Morgan wanted the museum to buy. It was a Roberto Lugo vase depicting Colin Kaepernick and John Brown, suggesting that Kaepernick is our day’s John Brown. The trustee, correctly, proposed that Kaepernick was unpatriotic. I’d call Kaepernick a jerk. He has as much in common with John Brown as he does with Mae West.

“Then it became verbally directed at me,” Morgan told the Indianapolis Star, which, by the way, has a very good reporter in Domenica Bongiovanni, “and not like anything super blatant, but was just like, ‘You have a seat at the table, so you should be grateful.’” Morgan cursed the trustee and left the meeting in tears. The committee later bought the object.

Now, I think Morgan’s behavior is unacceptable, and that’s not racist. And museums use a million calculations when deciding how to spend advertising dollars. The show, Samuel Levi Jones: Left of Center, provides “a striking visual commentary on the duplicitous and oppressive nature of American power structures,” using old encyclopedias, law books, medical texts, and football equipment. The IMA organized and hosted it last year. Morgan said the museum’s publicity budget went toward promoting Newfields’s gardens. That’s not her call. And you don’t cuss a trustee, ever.

Morgan was assigned more gallery space for a big exhibition re-creating a Black Lives Matter street painting done by 18 black Indianapolis artists. It was slated to open next month. Reading the Indianapolis papers, I gather that the show imploded over the “traditional, core, white audience” snafu. It still appears on the museum website as an upcoming show, but the two outside curators who replaced Morgan quit earlier this week. It sounds like a dumb show. Aside from the toxic topic, re-creating street art in a museum setting is very hard to do.

We can only evaluate evidence and what seems reasonable or logical, but Morgan, as a critical race scholar, believes most in lived experience, in “her truth.” If a worker is looking for racism everywhere, he or she will find it somewhere. That search in itself makes for a toxic work environment. What she calls “microaggressions” exist, I’m sure, and they’re the stuff of oafs. The IMA is probably a microaggression super-spreader.

Morgan is a very good, direct writer. After her dissertation, I read an essay she wrote in the Indianapolis Recorder, an African-American newspaper published since 1895. It appeared this past summer, a week before she quit. In her view, white supremacy is the guiding force in museums, and concepts such as neutrality, objectivity, professionalism, and quality are, in reality, weapons to perpetuate racism, injustice, and oppression. Museums were organized in Europe and America, she says, “to codify white identity.” I disagree with her and think a curator who believes these things will fail. Her agenda isn’t focused on art.

She also wrote:

Although I am an Americanist, I am a Black woman from Detroit. This is my worldview. My curatorial philosophy is rooted in a working class, womanist value system that does not uphold white patriarchy as a standard of universality or excellence.

Although I am not a Black woman from Detroit, I certainly agree with her that IMA is a real boys’ club. Every museum director and curator should read her piece, at least to know what thinkers like Morgan believe but also to understand the genuine problems that exist in many museums when it comes to fair pay and unproductive hierarchies. Morgan makes many good points about tokenism, which is deplorable.

She also addresses an issue about which I am passionate — audience building. I was a director of a museum that, before I got there, had a tiny attendance. Over ten years, visitorship there tripled. Morgan is passionate about drawing people of color to museums and knows, unlike most museum directors, that the answer isn’t doing an exhibition here and there and buying a few works of art. It takes an enormous amount of work.

The Boat Builders, 1873, by Winslow Homer. Oil on panel. (Public Domain/via Wikimedia)

A few years ago, the IMA imposed an $18 admission charge. Museums like to charge hefty admissions because they push people into memberships, which raise more money and are the entry-level rung in a fundraising strategy. But admission charges hurt poor people. On the IMA ticket page, the place aggressively pushes memberships, which discourages first-time or infrequent visitors.

The term “traditional, core, white audience” is sad, awkward, and awful. The most insulting thing about it is its implication that all a museum needs to do is dress some windows and put out nice welcome signs to bring the demographic the IMA wants.

On the one hand, a museum (like Morgan’s critical-race-theory dissertation) is what it is. A museum preserves and shows art and educates. It’s not a community center. It’s not a church. It’s not a forum for group therapy. On the other, a museum like the IMA, the city’s and the state’s big civic museum, needs to work assiduously to promote itself as open and welcoming.

I have a case of race blindness, but I’m a product of the ’50s and ’60s, when that was the goal of the civil-rights movement. It’s heartbreaking to see promising, talented young people such as Morgan and a good museum like the IMA making race a divisive cause. The museum needs to look at its work as universally appealing to people with intelligence and curiosity. It can’t succeed if it carves its audience into identity groups. No one can succeed that way. It’s a recipe for rancor.

The IMA did a superb George Platt Lynes show that I saw two years ago. It collaborated with the Kinsey Institute, which owns Lynes’s archives. The Lynes show wasn’t a show for gay people, and gay people certainly don’t need a push to visit an art museum. Rather, it was a show with very good art, presented well, and appealing to anyone who has ever seen himself or herself as an outsider, a loner, or a target. I learned a great deal about Lynes and his circle — American avant-garde culture in the ’30s and ’40s.

Kinsey means sex, and while the show wasn’t startling or disturbing to me, I’d say very few museums would have tackled it. In that sense, it was a brave show. The museum is doing more and better shows after decades of contributing very little to scholarship.

Clearly there’s a terrible internal dynamic at the IMA that involves pay, hierarchy, and working conditions. Out of simple human fairness, these problems need to be addressed. They are internal, though, and of no interest to the art-loving public. Good leadership needs to resolve these issues so they don’t pollute the public arena and take the air out of the place’s creative energy. These community issues are separate. There is no excuse, though, for poorly paying essential people like guards and facilities staff and for treating women unfairly in pay and promotions.

After this week, there’s no more business as usual at the museum.

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