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Protest letter urges New York art institutions to rectify ‘egregious acts’ rooted in white supremacy

Signatories cite “unfair practices”, unequal pay and lack of diversity

An open letter to New York City’s Cultural Institutions

A coalition including current and former employees of New York cultural institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum today issued an open letter protesting what they called the exploitation of minority staff members and a culture of “covert and overt white supremacy”.

The letter, signed by more than 200 people, some of whom were anonymous, states: “We write to inform you that we will no longer tolerate your blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward black/brown employees that reflect the oppressive tactics to keep black/brown employees maintained and subordinated.”

The protest emerges against a backdrop of demonstrations across the US and abroad against racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other violence against black Americans by police officers. Museums have released statements in recent weeks outlining their commitments to racial equality and deploring police brutality. But some critics have argued that the institutions themselves are exemplars of white exclusionism in their hiring, employee retention practices and exhibition programming.

The Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter. Other institutions whose current and former employees are represented among the signatories to a lesser degree include the Metropolitan Opera, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others. Many signatories are simply listed as “allies” to the cause rather than current or former employees.

“We write to inform you that we will no longer conform to your forced silencing when we complain about the lack of commitment to the well-being of black/brown employees and patronising, yet dismissive responses we are provided when we report bullying/work-place hostility, unfair practices, unequal pay, lack of growth…etc,” the letter states.

It calls for the immediate removal of “ineffective, biased” administrative and curatorial leaders to “demonstrate good faith of the board for real, systemic change”. It also demands the creation of an office prompting diversity and equity with a lead officer who reports directly to the board chairman of each institution, the use of search firms seeking out new employees of colour, and the preparation of an annual report on diversity statistics.

The signatories call for a review of “terminations both voluntary and involuntary” involving employees of colour. And it seeks the adoption of “a zero-tolerance policy” for any “racially charged” statements by staff members and a quest to recruit new board members for each institution to reflect New York’s racially diverse population.

Museums are currently under pressure not only to embrace the protests that have unfolded across the US but to demonstrate a commitment to hiring and retaining employees of colour, championing diverse artists and rectifying past policies governing the acquisition of works from countries that have endured looting or were exploited by colonialism.