Activist employee group demands resignations of three Guggenheim leaders

But support for the statement, alleging “oppressive behaviours” by director, chief operating officer and chief curator, is unclear

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York

Three months after accusing the institution of racism, an activist coalition of current and former employees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York expanded its critique of the museum today and demanded that its director, chief operating officer and chief curator resign.

In a statement addressed to the museum’s board of trustees and staff and to their own allies, the group, called A Better Guggenheim, said that the director, Richard Armstrong; senior deputy director and chief operating officer, Elizabeth Duggal; and artistic director and chief curator, Nancy Spector, should be removed if they do not step down.

The group invokes a 29 June letter it submitted to the board listing 22 calls to action in response to the institution’s “white dominant culture and toxic work environment.” “Nearly three months later,” it says in today’s statement, “the board has yet to respond to our letter, or to our five follow-up messages, except to call our request for timely action ‘unrealistic.’”

However, the June letter ultimately drew 225 signatories, and the statement released today had none. It is therefore unclear how much employee support the group has for its demands. Contacted by email, A Better Guggenheim said only that its “organising group,” composed of current and former staff members across departments, composed the statement. Asked how many people that involved, the group replied by email: “Due to the museum's record of retaliation, we cannot confirm that information at this time.”

The document calls for the board to take “urgent” action by pursuing the three resignations. “Through their complacency, the board has demonstrated their support of leadership’s negligent and oppressive behaviours,” the group writes. “It also betrays their belief that they bear no responsibility for the injury these behaviours cause to staff or the Guggenheim’s survival probability.”

A spokeswoman for the museum says it has no comment on the group’s statement. Last month, the Guggenheim unveiled a plan to adjust its recruitment and hiring practices, seek a more diverse board, acquire more works by minority artists and reach out to a wider audience.

The statement presents a detailed indictment of the three targeted Guggenheim officials. It accuses Armstrong, who has led the museum since 2008, of “nurturing a culture of unchecked racism, sexism, and classism across all departments, levels, and locations associated with the Guggenheim”, sanctioning the berating of employees and the instilling of fear, and making “haughty, sexist comments”.

Duggal, the statement complains, abruptly introduced layoffs as “a first resort” to reduce operating costs within months of taking office in July 2018 and turned again to job cuts after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic this year, showing “an unceasing lack of humanity”. (Today, the Guggenheim announced another reduction in staff, saying that it was immediately eliminating 24 employees and that eight others had taken voluntary separation packages as it restructures into a “leaner organisation”. “Amid these changes, we stand by our DEAI (diversity, exclusion, accessibility and inclusion) plan and remain committed to moving forward with a more diverse and inclusive organisation and culture,” Armstrong said in an email to the staff.)

The employee group also asserts that Spector has “unquestionably bolstered the museum’s white supremacist foundations” while instilling “a culture of fear that has been nourished by her abuses of power and her penchant for widespread revanchism”. It particularly cites her alleged treatment of Chaédria LaBouvier, an outside curator who organised a 2019 Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Guggenheim and later described it “the most racist professional experience of my life”.

The Guggenheim has hired a lawyer to investigate the handling of the Basquiat exhibition curated by LaBouvier.

It “remains clear that the leadership of Richard Armstrong, Elizabeth Duggal and Nancy Spector has deprived staff of their right to a safe, respectful, and humane workplace,” the statement concludes. “Therefore, for the future of the museum and the safety of its staff, they must be removed from their positions.”

The museum has been closed since mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic and plans to reopen on 3 October.