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  • Jun 03, 2020

United States Museums Criticized for Attempts at Solidarity

Screengrab on Instagram made by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.

In response to the protests over the spate of police killings in the United States of African Americans, Tuesday, June 2, became #blackouttuesday across social-media channels, with more than 28 million tagged posts. Joining the trend, many cultural organizations in the country posted black squares or artworks by Black artists in solidarity. Yet, many of America's leading institutions were called out by followers for their own hypocrisies on racial and economic justice issues. 

Over the previous weekend, several of California’s major museums were rebuked for their lackluster or tone-deaf responses to the social unrest. Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) posted a short video of Barbara Kruger’s billboard on the side of its Geffen Contemporary space. The text work Untitled (Questions) (1990/2018) begins: “Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose?” Hundreds of commentators replied to the post, and to MOCA’s director, Klaus Biesenbach, arguing that the museum should have posted an artwork by a Black artist instead of Kruger's work. Furthermore, as of late June 2, MOCA still had not issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign, nor has it made any direct reference to the protests in the city, which has been placed under a 12-hour long daily curfew, from 6pm to 6am, since Monday. 

Likewise, the Getty Museum, Los Angeles’s prominent research organization and luxurious hilltop museum, was skewered over its May 31 post of blue sky over the building’s white roof with the text: “Our hearts go out to our beloved Los Angeles community and all those around the nation feeling the pain of this moment.” The Getty, in the caption wrote, “We stand for equity and fairness, and we share your hope for justice and peace for all, and a spirit of caring for one another.” Nearly 250 commentators condemned the museum’s decision to not directly address the protests or their root causes. In response, Getty president James Cuno apologized in a separate post on June 1, saying “We heard you. Thank you. We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values than we did yesterday, and we apologize.” In the same post, the institution explicitly acknowledged the killing of George Floyd and the “systemic violence and oppression” faced by African-Americans, adding that “At Getty, we have much more work to do.”

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was also lambasted for its initially vague reaction to the protests on May 30 when it posted an image of Glenn Ligon’s screenprint-on-canvas We’re Black and Strong (1) (1996)—showing raised fists silhouetted against a white banner—and a quote from the artist: “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” Followers noted that SFMOMA had deleted and then disabled comments to stop the tide of negative responses—including one by a former communications associate Taylor Brendon, who labeled the museum’s post a “cop-out” for “using black artist/art to make a statement that needs to come from the institution.” On June 1, SFMOMA posted an apology saying its post “should have more directly expressed our sadness and outrage as an institution at the ongoing trauma and violence that continues to disproportionately affect Black lives.” Activists and commenters nonetheless questioned the museum’s hiring policies and whether it was actively collecting artworks by Black artists. 

In New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was called out for its #blackouttuesday post, in addition to an earlier post on June 1 of portraits by Dawoud Bey. The photographs were created around the 50th anniversary of the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Commentators asked the Guggenheim how its practices were extending beyond simply stating solidarity. Many noted that the museum has not had a Black curator in its 80-year history until Chaedria LaBouvier was named a guest curator of a 2019 Basquiat exhibition. Commentators noted that LaBouvier had previously alleged that the museum treated her poorly, including an incident where the museum’s chief curator Nancy Spector did not invite LaBouvier to speak at a panel discussion on the closing day of the exhibition. Many commenters also noted that the Guggenheim tried to stop its employees from forming a union and has been stalling on negotiations over healthcare costs.

Elsewhere in the US, many museums have remained largely silent. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) posted an image of The Cradle (1950) by John Biggers illustrating a mother huddling with her four children with the caption “In these times we seek solace in the art of John Biggers.” Biggers was the first African-American artist to enter MFAH’s collection with this work, which won the 25th Annual Houston Artists Prize. However, as one commentator noted, Biggers himself was refused entry to the prize ceremony for his award as African-Americans were only permitted inside the premises on Thursday evenings under Texas’s Jim Crow-era segregation laws. 

Other institutions posted black squares but no explicit texts taking an institutional position. In Miami, the Pérez Art Museum did this with a short statement reading “We hear you, we see you, and we are with you,” and adding that it was compiling a “list of resources” on its website. The Art Institute of Chicago posted a black square with no text, following its post from the previous day featuring works and a quote by Charles White, along with a short statement from the museum saying that it stands in solidarity with the black community. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago similarly posted a black square and the day before a work by Nick Cave about the 1992 beating of Rodney King, but made no references to the recent police killings of unarmed black Americans. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh similarly posted a black square and a hashtag after an earlier post about Noah Davis and the recent 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. 

Several of the country’s prominent private museums have also chosen to be silent or oblique in their statements. The Rubell Museum, a showcase in Miami of the private collection of property developers Don and Mera Rubell, last posted a few days ago an image of Mera Rubell watching artist Amoako Boafo at work during a November 2019 residency. Los Angeles’s The Broad Museum, housing the collection of Eli Broad, published an image of another of Glenn Ligon’s artwork, Double America 2 (2014), depicting an illuminated sign with “America” written upright and upside down. This was accompanied by a quote from the artist about “an unequal distribution of forward momentum in America.” Meanwhile, the Brant Foundation pledged “to support our communities and learn with our peers on new ways to make a difference,” and Miami’s Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) also posted a black square with no statement. However, the Momentary and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Arkansas, both funded by the Walton family of the Walmart fortune, posted lengthy remarks from Rod Bigelow, the museum’s director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, and Momentary director Lieven Bertels about the organizations’ efforts to “eradicate racism and discrimination.” 

As protests continue across the country, activists and social media followers will likely continue to scrutinize not only the public statements of museums, but also of their efforts at internal reforms and reflections in the months and years ahead, as the US faces a long overdue reassessment of its social inequalities. 

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

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