(Photo: Framis via WikiCommons)

Some of the city’s cultural establishments are facing a deep reckoning, as New Yorkers speak out against institutionalized racism within the arts.

In an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Opera, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and others, current and former workers, as well as members and allies called out discriminatory treatment and lack of restorative measures within museums. At the time of publication, the letter had garnered almost 500 signatures. Among them are art critic Aruna D’Souza, as well as curators like Cris Scorza who formerly worked for the New Museum, MoMA, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum; Elizabeth Grady of the Met; and Howie Chen of the Whitney and MoMA PS1. The letter states, “The repeated response of ‘we have a lot of work to do’ coupled with the lack of any real change can no longer be considered a failure, but an insult.”

Similar to recent fashion and media company reckonings, museums are facing scrutiny for posting on social media in a way that critics deemed virtue signaling. Last week, when artist Dread Scott’s piece “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” (2015) went viral on Instagram, many New York galleries shared the black and white flag to their feeds. Critics believed the action wasn’t enough, calling it a performative measure. The letter stated, “You present to the public as an inclusive and supportive environment, but you are all BUT inclusive. You sweep the turmoil and abuse under the rug, while accepting dollars provided by the government and well-meaning donors.” 

Among other actions, the letter calls for the creation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offices and hiring practices that “reflect the City’s diverse population.” Demands also extend to long-controversial artifacts originally belonging to black and indigenous peoples; the letter urges institutions to repatriate stolen objects and condemn the act of looting art. The call comes at a time when many institutions are reconsidering the art they exhibit; on Sunday, the Museum of Natural History issued a statement that it will remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from its steps. The statue has been controversial due to its portrayal of Roosevelt on horseback, as Native American and African figures walk alongside. “The statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing,” the statement reads. Mayor de Blasio backed the museum’s move, saying, “The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.”

The New York big-art scene has long been rife with racial inequality— as it is across the nation. As Bedford + Bowery recently noted, one study of 30 prominent American museums revealed that work by African-American artists accounts for just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and just 7.6 percent of exhibitions.

Staff demographics look similarly white-washed. Last fall, the Guggenheim hired Chaédria LaBouvier, the first black woman to curate a solo exhibition at the museum since it opened in 1939. LaBouvier’s exhibition, “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story,” was centered on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 piece, “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart).” The work was a tribute to Stewart, a 25-year-old black man who died of strangulation or blunt-force trauma after being arrested for writing graffiti at the First Avenue subway station. 

Yet LaBouvier was not invited to participate at her exhibition’s closing panel. She still attended and sat with the crowd. “What has gone down is so violent,” she said from the audience. “How do you have an institution which for 80 years has never hired a black person to come in and curate a show… You have a panel that is hoisted on that intellectual labor, that intellectual credibility, on the penultimate day of the exhibition and say that it’s not about the Basquiat show?”  

This month she tweeted of her experience: “Working at the Guggenheim w/ Nancy Spector & the leadership was the most racist professional experience of my life.” A museum spokesperson responded, stating, “All staff and guest curators follow standard guidelines for every exhibition we present; we disagree with Ms. LaBouvier’s claims that she was treated differently.”
New York’s art world culture, for all its progressive connotations, remains perhaps not much different than Basquiat’s own era. In Widow Basquiat, Jennifer Clement’s account detailing the artist’s life, Basquiat is described walking through MoMA with a water bottle, sprinkling droplets as a hex on “the temple.” “This,” he said, “is another of the white man’s plantations.