American art museums are in crisis, facing pandmic losses and charges of racism

Emilee Geist

Controversies seem to erupt almost weekly, and the criticism comes from multiple points of view. Museums are being challenged to diversify their collections, and many are finding it a difficult tightrope to walk. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent decision to sell works by Andy Warhol and Clyfford Still in […]

Controversies seem to erupt almost weekly, and the criticism comes from multiple points of view. Museums are being challenged to diversify their collections, and many are finding it a difficult tightrope to walk. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent decision to sell works by Andy Warhol and Clyfford Still in an effort to diversify its collection — as well as to raise staff salaries and fund equity, diversity and access programs — was met with strong opposition from those who saw the works as part of Baltimore’s cultural heritage.

Museums also are being urged to present topical shows that address social justice issues. But last month, the National Gallery of Art in Washington ignited a firestorm by postponing a retrospective exhibition devoted to the influential Jewish American artist Philip Guston, in part out of concern that some of Guston’s imagery, including figures in Ku Klux Klan-like hoods, might offend audiences.

Due to open this year, the Guston exhibition — a collaboration with Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston — has been put off for at least two years. Guston, a dedicated anti-racist who influenced generations of artists, Black and otherwise, used his paintings to protest white supremacy. Thousands of people in the art world, including many prominent Black artists, signed a petition calling for the show’s reinstatement.

National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman said the museum had work to do before it would be ready to present the Guston show. “I am convinced we can’t do this show without having an African American curator as part of the project,” she said.

Museums find themselves in an intense battle against a double pandemic: trying to manage the financial stresses of a coronavirus landscape while responding to accusations from inside and out that they are bastions of white supremacy. One crisis asks them to redefine their operations to account for dried-up revenue, disrupted exhibit schedules and fewer visitors. The other demands that they re-examine their core values and what it means to serve the public.

“When you hear the term ‘white supremacy,’ you kind of shy away from it,” said Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “But when you take one step back and look at what I would call the logic of selection of the institution, and the centuries-long support for the idea of the excellence of a certain culture, you see that there are mechanisms embedded in our institutions that basically, yes, support and foster [white supremacy].

“I think we need to acknowledge that. This current time allows you to take a step back and look.”

The demands begin with increased representation, in collections and on staffs. But activists also want museums to examine their acquisition practices, confront their racist and sexist histories, and sever ties with problematic donors. They seek a wholesale accounting of the past and present, and a new vision for the future.

“The tension is between the traditions that need to be maintained and the ones that get in the way of being a 21st-century institution,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, a historian and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Even the evolution of the demands shows progress, he said, noting that he smiles when he hears calls for museum collections to reflect their communities.

“I was whispering that for years and now people are yelling it,” Bunch said. “Even the most radical ideas force us to reimagine, and that is a powerful tool.”

Protests and resignations

The petitions and open letters started coming in June, not long after the killing of George Floyd in police custody.

“We write to inform you that we will no longer tolerate your blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees,” began one open letter to New York City’s cultural institutions by local art workers. An open letter posted by Boston Arts for Black Lives announced, “This is not a call to reform historically white and white-dominant museums; this is a call to unmake them.”

Another from current and former employees at the National Gallery of Art alleged sexual and racial harassment and systemic corruption at the federally funded museum. “You are an institution paid for with taxpayer money and held in the public trust; it is time that you act with the responsibility that has been gifted to you. Your existence is not a given,” they wrote.

In the first of an unrelenting series of controversies (and a forerunner to the “Philip Guston Now” postponement), the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art in February canceled a scheduled exhibition of drawings by Shaun Leonardo, an Afro-Latino artist. Leonardo’s works are based on media images of Black men and boys subjected to police brutality. One of those boys was Tamir Rice, who, in 2014 at age 12, was fatally shot by police. His mother, Samaria Rice, privately expressed her distress and anger over what she saw as the exploitation of her son’s image. As a result, museum director Jill Snyder called off the Leonardo show.

After Floyd’s death and the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, Leonardo spoke publicly about the cancellation, calling it “an act of censorship” and complaining that the museum had not given him any opportunity to engage with the community. Snyder, who is White, apologized for failing to allow Leonardo the chance to engage with the local community before canceling the show and resigned. But she did not disclose Samaria Rice’s objections, and so the narrative of a White museum director censoring a Black artist prevailed.

Museum protesters have also targeted specific leaders. Staff at the Detroit Institute of Arts called for the resignation of director Salvador Salort-Pons and sought “an independent investigation into the multiple accusations of poor leadership, work hostility, racism, sexism and sexual harassment over the past five years.”

“We are taking very seriously the petition and all the allegations,” Salort-Pons said. “Calls for change are always helpful. We need advice and ideas from both inside and outside the museum.”

Even liberal-minded leaders are feeling the pressure.

“We are in the middle of an outrage and cancel culture, and that’s challenging as a leader,” said Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “What I ask of my staff who complain is to be part of the solution. Please come in and be part of the change you want to see.”

Helen Molesworth, a former chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, said she read statements by museums in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the critics’ letters of demands “with great sadness.”

“I find both sets of documents to be performative, formulaic and issued with a tin ear to their own use of language,” Molesworth said. “Issued not in the spirit of a real reckoning. One is defensive and the other is destructive.”

“We’re human beings,” she added. “We have the capacity for more complexity than this moment seems to suggest that we have.”

Lost in the outrage, several museum leaders say, are the gains made in recent years, including a network of paid internships, academic programs aimed at minority candidates, the hiring of chief diversity officers and implicit bias training. Chicago and Detroit have hired consultants, while the Met, in July, released a long document promising to reassess its history, mandate anti-racism training, appoint more candidates of color to leadership positions and aim their exhibitions at a more diverse audience.

Some Black professionals in the field are skeptical. “You cannot authentically connect with a diverse public if you hold contempt for people of color and fundamentally do not think that they are as human, worthy, good, creative, brilliant or qualified as you are,” said Chaédria LaBouvier, who made history last year as the first solo Black curator of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she organized a Jean-Michel Basquiat show.

During the course of that 2019 exhibition, LaBouvier fell out with the Guggenheim’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, and in June went on Twitter, describing her experience at the museum as “the most racist experience of my life.”

“That disconnect and dislike are things the public can pick up on,” said LaBouvier, who says her public criticisms paved the way for this year’s grass-roots campaigns against museum leaders. “It’s why these spaces feel so unsafe and unwelcoming to people of color, as workers and museumgoers.”

On Oct. 8, the Guggenheim simultaneously announced that Spector was leaving the museum after almost 35 years and that an independent investigation had found no evidence of racism against LaBouvier. In an email to The Washington Post, Spector pointed to her long-standing focus on diversity, including her work to expand the permanent collection and present exhibitions that featured “a number of artists and guest curators of color that were unprecedented in the museum’s history.”

Carmen Morgan, director of ArtEquity, a nonprofit group that works on diversity and equity issues and was hired by the Art Institute of Chicago, said that in their work with cultural organizations, she and her colleagues “don’t know the culture until we talk to people on the front lines or the entry-level staff or the people of color.”

When they do, she said, they hear stories about “everything from subtle micro aggressions — ‘I’m not listened to,’ ‘I’m interrupted’ — to more overt behavior that needs immediate action. Mostly, it’s, ‘I was being tokenized again.’ Or, ‘I was the only one in a meeting and everyone turned to me to answer the questions and speak on behalf of the entire community.’ Or, ‘They wanted to make sure that I made the rounds with all the board members so that they could see the face of a person of color.’”

Such experiences, Morgan said, are “extremely alienating, and the emotional labor that a lot of the staff have to perform is well outside of their job descriptions.”

‘It’s not sustainable’

The call for fundamental change within art institutions has become only stronger as autumn sets in and the pandemic refuses to go away. “It’s not whether you need to change,” said Nina Simon, president of Of/By/For All, a nonprofit that helps cultural organizations serve their communities. “It’s a question of what do you choose to do.”

Simon is concerned that severe economic pressures will undermine the work she believes is vital. Almost one-third of American museums are at risk for permanent closure, according to an American Alliance of Museums survey released this summer. The AAM survey found that 80 percent of museums received federal Paycheck Protection Program funds early in the crisis and still 44 percent have had to furlough or lay off staff. The survey also found that more than half of museums had less than six months of operating reserves on hand to combat a crisis that has entered its eighth month.

Many that have opened are struggling. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the first major American art museum to reopen in late May, estimates that its earned revenue — money from parking, retail and restaurant sales — will be down 30 percent, said director Gary Tinterow. Since the Cleveland Museum of Art reopened June 30, it has attracted just one-quarter of the visitors it had during the same period last year. The Met estimates it will lose $150 million in revenue from last March through next June.

Others are still in limbo. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) retrofitted its bathrooms and entrances to be touchless in anticipation of a July opening, only to remain closed because of state coronavirus restrictions. The Smithsonian has reopened seven museums and the National Zoo, but its most popular sites remain shuttered indefinitely. The Smithsonian’s virus-related losses hit $49 million last month, while 237 employees were laid off earlier this month.

“From a financial standpoint, it’s not sustainable,” said Cleveland Museum of Art Director William Griswold. “But on the other hand, I believe this is not forever and it’s better for us to be open than closed.”

No one knows when a vaccine — the key to the return to large-scale gatherings — will become widely available, making it difficult for directors to schedule exhibitions with any confidence. Should they greenlight expensive exhibitions without the guarantee of full capacity? And if they don’t, can they manage without the financial gains associated with them?

“They desperately want to serve their communities,” said Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which reports that three-quarters of its member institutions have reopened. “How long is this going to go on? I don’t know. But this is a marathon.”

There will doubtless be more conflicts, missteps, resignations and criticism, as museum leaders grapple with reforms and advocates publicly hold them to account. The Guston controversy illustrates the fault lines. The museums may have intended to be sensitive to Black audiences and museum staff, but many perceived the move as patronizing.

Charles Gaines, for example, a noted Black artist and one of thousands who called for the show’s reinstatement, criticized the museums for “inventing a population of people they think they are protecting. But they don’t have a clue as to who this population is in reality since they are responding to an ideological fantasy of their own creation.”

LACMA Director and chief executive Michael Govan, meanwhile, sees this year as pivotal, predicting the kind of self-reflection that leads to lasting change.

“This is a permanent inflection point,” he said. “We will never go back to the way it was.”

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