Floyd Case Forces Arts Groups to Enter the Fray


The apologies keep coming.

After the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., allowed the police to use its property to stage a response to a protest over George Floyd’s death, its director asked the police to gather elsewhere and issued a public apology.

When the Getty was criticized for putting out “vague” social media posts calling “for equity and fairness” that failed to mention Mr. Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, its chief executive pledged to do better.

The language of contrition was similar from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art after it was criticized for responding to Mr. Floyd’s death with an Instagram post: an image of a work by the artist Glenn Ligon — who is black — without any statement from the institution.

“We can do better,” the apology said. The museum followed up with a second apology days later for having disabled comments in response to criticism of its initial post.

For decades, cultural organizations have generally opted out of politically heated debates, positioning themselves as neutral territory and preferring to let the artists they present do the opining. As civic institutions often supported by taxpayer dollars, they have historically eschewed political allegiances.

But this time is different.

In the period of protests, many arts organizations have entered the fray. Some of their public messages have been commended as better than silence; others criticized as tone deaf and too little too late.

Such efforts to meaningfully contribute to the conversation are especially sensitive because many of the institutions are led by white executives who answer to boards largely made up of wealthy white trustees. That composition has long fueled suspicion that arts organizations are inherently resistant to — or incapable of — real change.

“It’s not enough to issue these toothless statements,” tweeted Adrianne Russell, a writer, museums specialist and former employee at the Nelson-Atkins, “and that’s why I wish museums would just be quiet unless they’re going to tell the truth.”

Many of these cultural organizations did not respond at all when Amadou Diallo was shot dead by the police in the Bronx in 1999 or Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. But this time around, the approach has changed, whether it’s because the politics of the moment have triggered advocacy or because the multiple fatal encounters with the police can no longer be ignored.

“They’re using language that they’ve never used before in terms of racism and white supremacy,” Melanie A. Adams, the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, said of museums. She has worked as a facilitator of workshops on topics related to museums and race.

Ms. Adams said that she had noticed a shift in museum attitudes after the shooting of Mr. Brown in 2014 and believes some of the change may be attributable to more young activists working in institutions. The challenge, she said, will be sustaining the discussion that currently feels so urgent. “Sometimes with these situations, for the next few months we’ll all wave the social justice flag, and then we’ll go back to our corners,” she said, “I’m hoping that’s not going to be what happens this time.”

Mr. Hollein said he has apologized directly to Mr. Ligon.

The Museum of Modern Art will present a special screening of Mr. Jafa’s 2018 “akingdoncomethas” — more than 100 minutes of black church services — on June 13 and has posted a list of organizations that fight racism and support equality.

“We can change the stories we tell in the galleries and we have to do the work to make sure the institution reflects the richness and diversity of our country,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director. “This is a moment of reckoning.”

Many arts leaders agree that the most effective response is institutional change — hiring more staff members of color; diversifying the board; presenting a range of programming.

“We need to revisit deeply everything — our organizational structures, the programs that we value, what exhibitions we should be doing,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of the Nelson-Atkins who used to head El Museo del Barrio. “The actions speak more than declaratory statements.”

At the same time, change can cost money and some of the institutions pledging to diversify both their staffs and the moneyed boards that support their work are already facing severe financial problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Laura Raicovich, the politically outspoken former director of the Queens Museum, is currently working on a book due out next year, tentatively titled “The Myth of Museums: Why Cultural Institutions Can’t Be Neutral in an Age of Protest.”

In 2018, she stepped down after clashing with her board over an event sponsored by the Israeli government and over what, she believed, was her public support for young undocumented immigrants.

She said that museums should abandon the pretense of a united front. “It’s time for institutions to drop the monolithic responses,” she said, “to be more transparent about the different conversations happening inside of a museum.”

James Cuno, the president of the Getty Trust, said he was comfortable with having had to revise his museum’s statement in response to criticism. “It was extremely important that our staff brought it to our attention,” he said. “It was the way institutions should work.”

The Guggenheim Museum, which did not have a black curator on staff until last year, has for several months been working with an outside diversity consultant, its director, Richard Armstrong, said. Its statement of support for Blackout Tuesday drew criticism from Chaédria LaBouvier, who organized the Guggenheim’s Basquiat show last year as a guest curator. She has said her experience at the museum was fraught with racism. Among the examples she cited was her exclusion from a museum panel that discussed the exhibition she designed.

Mr. Armstrong, speaking broadly in an interview, said that the museum should strive to be an ethical leader but that there invariably would be missteps.

“One of the missing links in our moving forward as a culture is a greater sense of forgiveness. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve tried as much as possible to address them and we will go on making mistakes.”



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