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  • Aug 04, 2020

MCA Australia Rejects Claims of Racial Discrimination

The exterior of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Image via Wikipedia.

Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is pushing back against a former staff member’s claims about discrimination and racial harassment they experienced at the leading cultural institution. In a statement to ArtAsiaPacific, the museum’s director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, maintained that “MCA has a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion and to providing a safe workplace and culture free from racist, sexist, homophobic and all discriminatory behavior.” Macgregor strongly rejected the allegations by the former employee, Lilly Lai, and said, “All incidents are taken very seriously. We investigate thoroughly and take immediate action in line with MCA policies. The recent allegations have been thoroughly investigated.” 

A former business administration trainee and later gallery host, Lai detailed their time working at the museum in a lengthy and detailed July 3 post on Medium. They write about their struggle to cover living costs on a trainee salary, and its impact on their mental health and professional performance; their experience as a gallery host, including encounters with racist and hostile members of the public; their supervisors’ inability to adequately respond to these recurring incidents or offer meaningful support; and what they perceived to be a declining rate of diversity among the gallery host work force. 

Addressing Lai’s allegations, Macgregor told AAP that the museum is “conscious that [the Front of House team] can face difficult situations and have a rigorous training program and methods to support them in place.” The MCA sent a copy of its gallery host guidelines for responding to inappropriate comments or actions by visitors. This document includes de-escalation tactics as well as emergency procedures if the host feels physically threatened. The policy also outlines how team leaders are meant to support and debrief gallery hosts after a hostile encounter, and create a record of the incident. Outlined in the policy’s appendix are guidelines for cases where “a visitor refers to your race, or gender, or some other protected characteristic, in a way which makes you uneasy, or which is disparaging or discriminatory.” The advised response for gallery hosts is to “tell the visitor it is not appropriate for them to talk to you in that way, and call [on the staff radio] the [team leader]” for assistance. 

AAP contacted Lai to find out if they were ever trained according to these guidelines in how to handle racially demeaning, hostile, or threatening situations. Lai replied that the October 2017 guidelines they received from a supervisor “outline a number of scenarios, none of which include a visitor being racist or discriminatory toward you as a host. Advice is however provided for ‘sleazy’ visitors.” Lai also noted there was no specific mention of policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff or culturally and linguistically diverse staff within the MCA Host Handbook they were sent while an employee.

In correspondence with AAP, Macgregor also brought attention to the MCA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Policy, which is overseen by the museum’s Indigenous Advisory Group and was first adopted in August 2015. According to the MCA, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff has “substantially increased as a result of this plan” and its “commitment to diversity and inclusion also aligns with our Code of Conduct, Celebrating Difference: Access, Diversity and Inclusion Plan.” Macgregor notes that the MCA has “staff from diverse backgrounds at all levels of the organisation including our Board and Leadership team. The MCA’s recently appointed Chair is Lebanese Australian.” 

Additionally, Macgregor pointed to the museum’s long history of collecting and displaying artworks of First Peoples of Australia, as well as programs such as MCA Together, which provides opportunities for students and families of refugee and immigrant backgrounds; Art is for Everyone Weekend, a free two-day event attended by more than 3,500 people; and a collaboration with the queer arts festival FAMBO.

Responding to Lai’s criticism of the traineeship’s low salary, the MCA noted that the Business Administration Trainee program is managed by the museum but supported by the national job-recruitment nonprofit MEGT and the Australian Government. The salary is paid at the National Training Wage, which is “determined by the highest level of school completed by the successful applicant.” The MCA notes that in the 17 years of the program’s existence, more than 30 people finished their training and it has a 100-percent completion rate. 

The MCA employs more than 200 staff members, half of whom are full-time, and says it has a “well-defined performance management process” that “begins with listening to staff and ascertaining why they may not be performing in accordance with their position description.” The MCA maintains that its staff job satisfaction surveys have rated over 80 percent for the past five years.

In a statement to AAP, Lai wrote: “MCA Australia has to this day not reached out to me since the publication of my essay. However, the Director and staff have responded to comments about and media coverage of the stories from myself and other staff swiftly and with strong denials. I am concerned that rather than being open to conversation and change, the MCA simply wants to deny the experiences of myself and others. I want a public formal acknowledgment of my essay, that this was what I experienced. I’m scared that if I do not receive this, it will set a precedent going forward that the MCA Leadership team can ignore allegations of misconduct, and theoretically will be able to continue to treat current and future employees the same way they treated me.”

While repudiating the individual experiences and larger systemic problems raised by Lai, Macgregor acknowledged that the museum has a social responsibility to its employees. “Racism is abhorrent,” she wrote to AAP. “Unfortunately, it is not a thing of the past in Australia and other countries throughout the world. It is still deeply felt and experienced by many. While the MCA has worked strenuously to ensure a safe workplace for everyone, we can and should do more.” To that end, the MCA says it will solicit staff feedback as part of its strategic planning process for its 2021–23 Strategic Plan and its Access, Diversity and Inclusion Plan 2021–23. 

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

The MCA also disputed specific facts drawn from the article in the Sun-Herald newspaper that AAP reported on. A corrected and amended version of AAP’s article is posted here

AAP’s questions and the MCA’s responses are reproduced below in full.  

Does the MCA plan to take concrete steps toward addressing the systemic issues that arise when BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] employees feel that their concerns are not fully understood by their non-BIPOC supervisors? 

We can find no evidence of any systemic issues at the MCA. Nevertheless, as part of our ongoing commitment to ensuring a diverse, safe and inclusive workplace and to update our policies and procedures, we are seeking staff feedback on how we can support the wellbeing of our staff and artists of colour. This is part of the MCA’s strategic planning process and will feed into our new Strategic Plan 2021 – 2023 and Access, Diversity and Inclusion Plan 2021 – 2023. Listening to MCA staff is a first step. 

However, in Australia the term BIPOC is not an appropriate term. Christine Evans, MCA Board member and Chair of our Indigenous Advisory Group raised this with us recently in an email:  

‘Many of my Aboriginal, academic colleagues, and community members find the acronym, BIPOC, problematic. Firstly, the sequencing reduces the status of Indigenous Peoples as First Peoples of our Countries/Places, to being one group among many. Secondly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have actively remained separate from policies of multiculturalism in the past, in order to maintain cultural integrity as First Peoples, recognising the implications of acts of ‘othering’. Some of this can be linked to Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Theory.’

Does the MCA plan to provide training for its staff members on how to address forms of racial discrimination from both their interactions with members of the public and with fellow employees?

The MCA has implemented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness training for all MCA staff as per the MCA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, to improve cultural awareness and protect staff from discrimination.  

In 2018 and 2019 the MCA organised training from an external provider for MCA Hosts. The training was to help them respond to difficult situations when visitors make inappropriate comments to give them tools to de-escalate potential issues. 

Following the initial training in 2018, the MCA developed a guide to assist Hosts with inappropriate visitor behaviour and comments, including racial discrimination.   

The MCA has an organisation-wide Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Policy and Procedure and we ensure all staff have appropriate training to deal with discrimination of any kind.  

We have had advice on further anti-discrimination training that we will be organising for all staff as part of our ongoing training program. 

How can an institution like the MCA offer support to staff members from economically, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds to create an equitable workplace?

One issue that the MCA addressed 17 years ago was the lack of diversity in applications from young people from economically, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds through the establishment of the Business Admin Traineeship program. Over 30 trainees have completed this programme—for further details see the information attached.  

Ensuring that all programmes take account of diversity is also critical, as is training. Our policies make it clear that staff can bring a support person to meetings with their manager. 

MCA policies include: a Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Policy and Procedure, the MCA Code of Conduct, and our Celebrating Difference: Access, Diversity and Inclusion Plan

The MCA also offers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness training, and in the past three years we have run Front of House staff training in how to manage visitors who express racist or other discriminatory views. There is a procedure that gives staff support when any incident happens. 

The MCA Board and Leadership team encourage all staff to develop their potential within a culture which promotes equality, respects diversity and values the contribution that all employees make to the MCA’s success.

The Leadership team is also responsible for monitoring and reporting to the Board on the MCA’s progress in achieving diversity and inclusion.

How does the MCA ensure that its public spaces and galleries are accessible and welcoming to people from all backgrounds?

MCA gallery Hosts for our exhibitions and public programs are trained to be welcoming to visitors of all backgrounds. 

The MCA has a longstanding commitment to access and inclusion. The work we do in this area is diverse, below are a few recent examples:

In light of the many conversations about the decolonization of museums, has the MCA began a process of shifting its approach to its collection of art, its displays and exhibitions, and public programming and education? 

The MCA’s exhibition program is testament to its commitment to diversity.  For example, the next major MCA exhibition is by Australian-Chinese artist Lindy Lee. Previous exhibitions include: Yinka Shonibare, Kader Attia, Shahzia Sikander, Tatsuo Miyajima, Yayoi Kusama and Sun Xun to name a few. It is entirely emblematic that the exhibition held alongside Sun Xun, was a major retrospective of First Peoples artist John Mawurndjul’s bark works, the first exhibition of a First Peoples artist’s work to be held in language first, and translated into English, which highlighted the parallels between these two very diverse artists’ practice.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy ensures that First Peoples perspectives are interwoven throughout the organisation’s objectives. Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy is one of the most comprehensive in Australia.  

More than 30% of exhibited works annually are by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. An Indigenous Advisory Group advises the MCA on matters concerning the collection, display and interpretation of First Peoples works. 

The MCA has active Public Programs and Learning teams which schedule on site and online programming for diverse audiences of all ages. We are committed to keeping up-to-date with current research and best practice to ensure we create culturally safe and supportive learning environments for students.

Our Artist Educators are trained in delivering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and we work to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Learning Framework, which underpins everything we do. The MCA applies the cultural learning framework to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artworks and programs to provide a perspective that is informed by cultural knowledge and relationships. We offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Learning programs for primary and secondary students.

Last year the MCA hosted the annual CIMAM conference for directors and curators of modern and contemporary art museums with the theme The Twentieth Century Art Museum: Is Context everything?  Listening to indigenous voices emerged as a key criteria for reconsidering the role of the museum. 

The MCA is currently hosting part of the Biennale of Sydney, which for the first time in its 45-year history is directed by a person of indigenous heritage and reflects a multiplicity of strong First Nations perspectives. Has this sparked any reflections on the MCA’s institutional practices or mandate? 

(Please note: It is the first time the Biennale has had a sole curator who is indigenous. In 2000, Hetti Perkins was part of a curatorium and in 2012, Gerald McMaster co-curated.) 

The MCA is proud to be hosting the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN from Artistic Director Brook Andrew. Representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives has been priority for the MCA since its inception. Brook Andrew also curated the exhibition Taboo which was commissioned by and presented at the MCA in 2013. 

The MCA has a Senior Curator - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions and a Curator - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs, and 34% of works in The MCA Collection are by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The MCA has had an Indigenous Advisory Group since 2003 which responds to the ten objectives within our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy, which has been in place since 2015.  This policy is one of the most comprehensive by any arts organisation in Australia. 

On 16 March 2020, as part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, The MCA hosted aabaakwad 2020, a four-day gathering of Indigenous artists, curators and thinkers. This was a unique opportunity for curators and artists from all over the world to take part in open, informal and dynamic dialogues around contemporary Indigenous art practice globally. 

Aabaakwad 2020 encouraged dialogue and new ways of thinking around issues of diaspora, borders, sovereignty, the decolonial, food and water sovereignty, languages, the power of objects and restitution/repatriation and healing, trauma and transformation – issues which are central to NIRIN.

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