SFMOMA Grapples With Accusations of Racism

As leaders resign, the modern art museum struggles to find an equitable path forward.

Affixed to light poles along Third Street between Market and Folsom, the red banners encourage anyone walking or driving toward SFMOMA to “Discover the art for our time” at San Francisco’s premier modern art museum. Like other U.S. museums, though, SFMOMA is shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic. And what greets visitors now at its main entrance is a wooden barrier with large posters that seem to scold the museum — urging dramatic changes like putting people of color in leadership positions, and helping end “white supremacy.”

“We need a museum that destroys white supremacy,” says one of the four posters, while another announces, “We want Black, Indigenous & POC (People of Color) in leadership positions.”

SFMOMA is experiencing the most volatile period in its 85-year history, with several activist groups saying director Neal Benezra should resign for what they argue is the museum’s longtime tolerance of racial discrimination against employees, and for what they argue was the museum’s “racist censorship” of Instagram comments by Taylor Brandon, a Black former staff member.

Using a photograph and words from Black artist Glenn Ligon, SFMOMA’s May 30 Instagram posting seemed to support the Black Lives Matter movement — but Brandon criticized the museum, saying the post was “a cop-out” that appropriated Ligon’s work and let SFMOMA avoid making an explicit overture to Black Lives Matter. Taylor, who left the museum’s communications department in March, said SFMOMA’s posting reflected her 15-month experience there, and Taylor accused three SFMOMA higher-ups — Benezra; Ann von Germeten, chief marketing and communications officer; and Nan Keeton, deputy director of external relations — of “weaponizing their own black employees” and of being “profiters of racism.”

SFMOMA deleted Brandon’s comment and disabled comments on the posting, which led to an outcry on social media, to Benezra’s June 4 public apology and the re-enabling of the post’s public comments (“Taylor was right, and we have taken action to correct our mistake”), and to the July 2 departure of Keeton, who had reportedly defended the deletion and had viewed Brandon’s comments as “potential threats.”

Brandon and other activists have continued to push for major changes at SFMOMA — and for Benezra’s departure — through the group No Neutral Alliance, which includes Black artists who withdrew from SFMOMA’s website project called #MuseumFromHome. A group of former museum employees called xSFM0MA has also called for Benezra’s resignation. And the group published a petition in early July that said Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, should resign after reports emerged he’d told staff members it would be “reverse discrimination” if the museum avoided collecting the work of white artists.

Change the Museum, an Instagram account that publishes anonymous accounts of people who work or have worked in museums and experienced racist behavior, released a post that said Garrels had said to staff, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” Garrels announced his resignation in a staff email on July 11 and reportedly apologized for “any hurt I may have caused,” and also reportedly said that “I do not believe I have ever said that it is important to collect the art of white men. I have said that it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men.”

Garrels is one of SFMOMA’s most accomplished curators, and as Benezra noted in his announcement of Garrels’ pending July 31 departure, Garrels had led the museum to diversify its holdings and acquire the works of such artists as Black painter Alma Thomas.

Garrels’ resignation has engendered fierce finger-pointing on social media, with conservative national voices who have large Twitter followings — like that of George Washington University law scholar Jonathan Turley and Reason editor Robby Soave — saying SFMOMA’s acceptance of Garrels’ resignation essentially amounted to cowardice and capitulation to outside pressure. A spate of SFMOMA members say they’re canceling their memberships because they say Benezra didn’t do enough to defend Garrels and keep him on staff.

SFMOMA didn’t reply to SF Weekly’s request for comment on these and other recent developments, which include the layoff of at least 55 staff, and the departure of three other high-ranking SFMOMA staff members: Marisa Robisch, director of human resources; Cindi Hubbard, manager of recruitment; and von Germeten, chief marketing and communications officer, whom Brandon had cited in her comment on SFMOMA’s May 30 Instagram posting.

In the wake of ongoing pressure from No Neutral Alliance and other groups, SFMOMA has begun what it’s calling a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” plan that, among other directives, will have staff undertake anti-racist and implicit-bias training; will prompt the museum to begin investigating current employee complaints of discrimination and harassment and review past complaints; will lead to the hiring of a Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging; will lead to a paid intern partnership with a consortium of three historically Black colleges and universities; and will lead to a long-term programming partnership with one or more Bay Area-based Black arts organizations.

Brandon tells SF Weekly that these measures are still not enough — that she and members of No Neutral Alliance were initially rebuffed in their attempts to personally meet with Benezra, and that SFMOMA’s new plan borrows from much of their demands without acknowledging that influence — even as SFMOMA’s July 14 announcement uses this language as one of its new dictates: “Museums and cultural organizations are not (and should not be) neutral.”

In answering Benezra’s early-June request to meet with No Neutral Alliance, the group insisted that SFMOMA provide a list of everyone attending, a written agenda outlining the museum’s goals for the meeting, and the ethnic and racial breakdown of staff and of exhibition works. SFMOMA’s new diversity and inclusion plan pledges to produce a racial and gender breakdown of staff members, and SFMOMA eventually acceded to No Neutral Alliance’s three conditions for meeting, but Brandon says meeting in close quarters under the threat of COVID-19 ultimately precluded such a get-together, and that SFMOMA already understands the group’s specific demands for change. No Neutral Alliance has published its correspondence with SFMOMA and Benezra, who spoke with Brandon and issued a verbal apology for the May 30 Instagram censorship.

“We called for the full resignation of Neal, and our reason for that is he took full responsibility for the actions that transpired. He called me and said, ‘I’m sorry. This is on me; I take full responsibility for it, and it was wrong,’” says Brandon. “We can call for the resignation of certain people … but who’s to say that new people in those roles means the structures of those spaces is going to change? Because part of what sustains institutions is their structure, so even if you put a person or color in certain spaces, that doesn’t automatically mean those people won’t play into those structures that already exist.”

When she worked at SFMOMA, Brandon says she was offended when SFMOMA was looking to reduce spending and decided to cut some marketing funding for its retrospective of Dawoud Bey photographs, “Dawoud Bey: An American Project,” which opened on February 15. Taylor says she was distressed that SFMOMA wouldn’t give Bey’s exhibit, which features decades of photos of Black Americans, the same kind of expansive marketing that it gave to other exhibits like last year’s blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibit. After Brandon spoke up in a staff training about race, SFMOMA eventually added back $20,000 in marketing for the Dawoud Bey exhibit, she says. But von Germeten, the then-chief marketing and communications officer, diminished Brandon’s contribution and claimed credit for the idea in other staff meetings, says Brandon, who’s 27 and worked at SFMOMA as a marketing associate. “There was no recognition for my contribution,” she says.

Speaking about the Dawoud Bey exhibit, Brandon says that, “At SFMOMA, they rank their shows by color — so blue shows are the big shows like Andy Warhol, and then you go down from there. There’s green and so on. Originally, Dawoud Bey was a blue show but then they had to make budget cuts and there was only one show that was moved — and that show was the Dawoud Bey exhibition. So of all the shows they chose to take money from, they took it from the Black show. It was disheartening to see the show get less money. To me, if that artist is less known, doesn’t it make more sense to give money to that exhibition? … It’s the shows of minority artists that are getting cut, that are losing funds, that don’t have educational programming.”

“That’s part of the reason,” she adds, “that I resigned in March.”

The turmoil and calls for accountability that have enveloped SFMOMA are also enveloping other major American museums, where artists, curators, and activists are raising accusations of racial bias and mistreatment of staff, and accusations of biased exhibition decision-making. New York’s Guggenheim has opened an investigation into staff complaints that the museum has fostered a “culture of institutional racism.” Among the major accusations: Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator to curate a Guggenheim exhibition – last year’s “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” – said that Guggenheim Artistic Director Nancy Spector intentionally co-opted her research and retaliated against her, and that “the museum’s leadership just watched.” At Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Director Jill Snyder resigned in June after apologizing for canceling an exhibition of drawings by Shaun Leonardo that depicted police brutality and legal injustice against people of color. And at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, former staff members have accused museum administrators of a “culture of racism” that resulted in retaliation and terminations, and a work force that is predominantly white, without any Black curators. The Smithsonian’s top administrator, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is Black, told the New York Times that he’s reviewing the complaints, and that he will “try to get to the bottom of it … There is no room for racism at the Smithsonian. Too many times, I was the only Black person in the room and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Linked to these other actions, SFMOMA’s developments can be understood as part of a nationwide dialogue and a nationwide reconciliation of change against the backdrop of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, art historian Bridget R. Cooks tells SF Weekly. “It’s a day of reckoning that has come to so many museums,” says Cooks, an associate professor in the Department of Art History and the Department of African American Studies at the University of California at Irvine. “I think Black Lives Matter is a movement, but for many museums it’s just a moment. And it’s ‘trending’ for them. It’s timely but it will pass in their understanding. Since it’s trending and other people are doing it and museums are very competitive with each other, they need to post something that says, ‘We’ve been in solidarity.’ And that is opening them up to the exposure and accountability of current staff and past staff to say, ‘How dare you. That is an outrageous lie. And I have the experience to prove it.’ Some museums are putting out posts without having consulted people who work at the museum. So even the way they’re handling what they’re perceiving as a moment and not a movement shows how ill-equipped they are to lead their museum to connect with the different factions within the institution. And then they’re trying to create this united front that’s really exposing hypocrisy to the public.” 

Cooks, whose book, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, narrates the history of Black people and American museums, says there are “two separate things that are being exposed right now. We can talk about racism and exclusion in terms of the exhibition programming that museums have. Are they showing all white artists? Are they all white male artists? Is it the same kind of narrative of art history that is exclusive of other races? The other thing that it’s exposing is the institutional environments of the staff. These are separate things but absolutely related.”

“People,” Cooks adds, “are calling this moment ‘an awakening,’ but many of us have been awake for a very long time. What’s so strange to me and annoying is that this is also a moment that exposes the privilege of people who have been in a social, economic, psychological position to be asleep for all this time. People who have been asleep are now waking up.”

Given the volatility of California’s coronavirus spikes, and state and city government’s back-and-forth edicts about business closures, it’s unclear whether SFMOMA will open again this summer. For now, the “destroy white supremacy” posters are still plastered across its entrance, but even their presence is a source of controversy. 

SFMOMA contemporary art curator Eungie Joo and SFMOMA associate curator of photography Erin O’Toole commissioned the project, say the project’s two Bay Area artists, Marcela Pardo Ariza and Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera. In an email interview with SF Weekly, Pardo Ariza and Rodriguez Rivera say that by working with O’Toole and Joo, an internationally recognized arts curator who they say is SFMOMA’s only curator of color in a leadership position, they’re working to change the way SFMOMA exhibits work and change who’s in leadership positions. The four posters, which huddle right next to large SFMOMA advertisement for its Dawoud Bey exhibit, are similar in approach to the posters that Pardo Ariza and Rodriguez Rivera created for a project they call “This Is Weird Without You,” which involves wheat-pasting words of expression on temporarily boarded-up exteriors of San Francisco businesses. The SFMOMA poster project’s title: “We Need an Anti-Racist, Transfeminist and Intersectional Museum.”

“We think it is important to see the project as an artwork that utilizes public space to engage in institutional critique and documents the moment we are currently in,” they say. “The museum is being called to truly engage in urgent and ongoing anti-racist work, which made this a historical moment to collaborate in a non-hierarchical way with Eungie Joo, the only POC curator in a leadership position in the museum and her long dedication to the work that she’s been doing for more than 20 years to uplift and center international artists and to reimagine the museum as a place to interrogate, present and record contemporary art practices. We wanted to work with her as an accomplice within the institution to continue to push for systemic changes.”

Critics of the poster project have posted comments on the artists’ Instagram accounts, with one commenter saying the project was “commissioned by the oppressor” and is a “stab in the back” to Taylor Brandon’s activism, while another critic says the posters should announce SFMOMA’s involvement. Pardo Ariza and Rodriguez Rivera say the criticism is misplaced since “what is happening on Instagram is what white supremacy wants us to do and has historically done, which is to put BIPOC folks against each other to distract and maintain their power,” while adding that, “It is disheartening that the commission aspect of it has taken away from the messaging, when we are all advocating for fair and equitable labor practices for artists and art workers, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis that is affecting folks in myriad of ways.”

The project, they say, was “developed in conversation with other local artists, mentors, cultural workers, educators, and activists who are dedicated to implementing systemic change within art and cultural institutions in the Bay Area and beyond,” and they say that the posters honor the work of No Neutral Alliance and other groups.

In the several weeks since Pardo Ariza and Rodriguez Rivera put up the posters across SFMOMA’s boarded-up entrance, passers-by have apparently marked them up with red crossings and the like. Some of the markings look like graffiti. Someone appears to have written a rebuttal on the poster that begins, “What about . . . .,” but the message’s red wording has faded enough to obscure the rebuttal’s precise message. Another passer-by’s message on that same poster is still clear. In all cap letters, in all black wording, is this: “DO BETTER.”

On that point, everyone involved in SFMOMA’s future would probably agree.

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