‘We Were Tired of Asking’: Why Open Letters Have Become Many Activists’ Tool of Choice for Exposing Racism at Museums

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, art workers across the nation have been writing open letters to advocate for change at museums.

Black Lives Matter, Philly Real Justice, and thousands of Philadelphians rallied on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The resistance formed across the country with speed and fury. 

In Richmond there were late night brainstorming Zoom calls. In San Francisco, hours-long FaceTime strategizing sessions and iPhone group chats stretched late into the night. In New Orleans, days were bookended—before work and after dinner—with exhaustive group calls and virtual meetups. And in between all of this, websites were constructed, social media campaigns hammered out and calls made to local and national media.

While the US became embroiled in its largest protest movement ever following the murder of George Floyd, another reckoning was taking hold in the art world. Hundreds of workers at dozens of the nation’s top museums—artists and frontline staff, curators and gallery attendants, educators, historians and more—engaged in their own series of organized protests.

By way of a flurry of damning open letters and petitions addressed to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Akron Art Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Guggenheim in New York City, and others, hundreds of staffers called out what has been described as a decades-long culture of racism within the American art world. 

The allegations have resulted in the resignation of top officials, verbal promises to make systemic changes in policy and hiring practices, and a seemingly full-throated commitment to equity throughout some of the country’s top museums.

“America is changing, and museums need to change with it,” said Jennifer Williams, a former youth and family programs manager at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Williams, along with five other former staff members formed the group #DismantleNOMA, and penned the open letter condemning the museum’s “plantation culture” and issuing a list of demands.

Parlor at Greenwood Plantation (St. Francisville, Louisiana), August 2014. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photo by Roman Alokhin.

The idea of openly addressing the museum in a public letter first came to Williams last October after learning of plans to permanently install “The Greenwood Parlor,” a historical exhibition devoted to the interior of a former plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. “I was literally watching a monument to white supremacy being installed,” she said. “The New Orleans Museum of Art considers itself a cultural convener. In word, they say they are a community space. We wanted to hold the institution accountable to that. If you say you are this community space, are you going to really be that?”

The breaking point for Jane Wood, who resigned as the museum’s manager of visitor engagement in September, came when she noticed a lack of concern for the way the few Black staff at the museum were treated by its human resources department, including its attempt to ban dreadlocks and its uneven enforcement of paid leave and bereavement guidelines when it came to Black employees. “There were clear different sets of expectations for Black and LGBTQ staff,” she said. 

By March, when Williams herself tendered her resignation citing issues of diversity and inequity, the idea of a public reckoning began bubbling up again. Two months later, after consulting with current and former museum colleagues, Williams, Woods and four other authors began organizing.

Altogether, the authors say they represent part of the 30 employees who have resigned from the museum in the past two years due to a toxic and racist work environment.

“We would literally spend hours on Zoom calls. Some lasted for as long as five hours,” Woods said of their meetings. “And this is time we’re finding in between our daily lives. We all have our own employment situations, our own life situations. The challenge was to find time. To make time.”

After 10 days of “pretty fast and furious” writing and editing, the cohort decided to release the letter the morning of June 24 on a website they had procured, in addition to Twitter and Instagram. 

“Not only is there a recently installed plantation exhibition on display at the museum, but there also exists a plantation-like culture behind its facade,” the letter read.

“We were tired of asking,” Williams said. “We wanted a radical change of leadership, of thought, and of direction.”

The letter went live, purposefully, moments before the museum’s customary 10 a.m. staff meeting.

“I don’t think I slept the whole night before,” Williams said. “And the seven days after I just couldn’t sleep well.” 

Aside from the draining task of churning out the letter in such short order, there was added pressure, Williams and Woods said, of knowing they were signing their names to a document calling out some of the most powerful people in an insular, closely-knit local community. 

In a statement posted to its website, the museum issued an apology to the DismantleNOMA movement, its staff, and the New Orleans community. In response to demands, the museum also committed to closing the Greenwood Parlor exhibit, acquiring more art from Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color from the local community and increasing the diversity of its board of directors.

A bike seen next to a Change.org mural in Madrid. Photo by John Milner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Exposing institutional inner workings

Since nationwide protests began in late May, several major companies and institutions in sports, media, tech, fashion, business and beyond have been slammed by employees accusing them of abusing power. The admonitions have been made public in a variety of ways—tweet storms, media exposés, leaked internal documents. Yet art workers representing several of the published letters say they decided intentionally on the open letter as the most effective way of both giving voice to those who felt wronged and holding those in power to account. 

“Museums can be really good at obscuring and keeping things internal,” said one of the writers of the open letter condemning a culture of racism and sexual harassment against the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, who asked to remain anonymous. 

Published on June 21 by the VMFA Reform Committee, a group of former and current employees, the open letter and petition, posted to Change.org, was one of the first letters this summer to be published decrying a culture of racism and white supremacy at a museum in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

“That obscurity is one of the ways [museums] hurt people. Having a public letter brings it all out to the forefront. It creates public awareness.”

Woods agrees. “An exposé would have been wonderful, but what the open letter adds is the opportunity to get testimonials from people from all walks of life and for people to add their voice.” 

In each of the open letters released, workers and supporters have been able to add their own personal stories of perceived wrongdoing, adding, the authors say, to the veracity of the claims.

“The letter format is a tool that’s been used a lot,” says Taylor Brandon, a former communications associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and one of three authors of a letter condemning the museum for deleting critical comments she left on its Instagram post about Floyd’s death.

“As opposed to just saying ‘this was wrong,’ it’s saying, ‘this is what’s wrong and here’s what you need to do moving forward.’” 

The NURE Collective.

Within days of the museum’s deleting Brandon’s post (and an ensuing uproar on social media), members of the NURE Collective, an all-Black group of artists whose work was being showcased at the museum, withdrew their work from view and reached out to Brandon to speak out on her behalf.

“We felt used by SFMOMA,” said Yétundé Olagbaju, a member of NURE and one of the SFMOMA letter’s authors. 

“I feel like they explicitly worked with us because we are a collective of all-Black individuals. Then to turn around and be disrespectful to a Black person like that, who is sort of in our extended community? It felt disrespectful.” 

So Brandon, Olagbaju, and Arrington West, NURE’s founder, banded with Brandon and other local Black artist collectives to form the resistance group No Neutral Alliance and to draft the framework of a letter that began as a condemnation of Brandon’s censorship, but grew into much more. 

Over the next 10 days, the trio interviewed current and former SFMOMA workers (some employed as far back as 30 years ago), drafted and edited the letter in a shared Google document, strategized how to sufficiently include the voices of the artists who felt they had been infringed upon, and designed a media plan ensuring the letter would find the largest audience possible. 

“It was divine,” Brandon said of the way the group of strangers gelled instantly in writing the letter. “It felt like magic.” 

The museum response

By July, museum staffs across the country had written nearly a dozen letters decrying racist practices, including at the Palm Springs Art Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and a New York consortium representing the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and others. The letters called for a host of solutions, from the resignation of leadership and collaboration with outside consultants on racial equity to more equitable hiring practices. 

In a statement on its website, SFMOMA acknowledged “longstanding inequities at the museum,” its role in censoring Brandon, and laid out plans to release a “specific, measurable, time-bound” diversity and inclusion plan on its website by December.

Since being called out by the open letters from No Neutral Alliance and XSFMOMA—a multiracial group of current and former employees who also penned a letter decrying racism at the museum—at least four SFMOMA employees have left.

Nan Keeton, the museum’s deputy director of external relations resigned on July 2 for her role in erasing Brandon’s comments. A little more than one week later, Gary Garrels, the museum’s chief curator (and one of the most prominent curators in the country) also resigned after an XSFMOMA petition calling for his ouster was published on Instagram.

A demonstrator raises his fists while marching in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP.

A demonstrator raises his fists while marching in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP.

And while some museums, like SFMOMA, have seen the resignations of top officials, the authors of many of the letters say there have not been enough good faith steps made toward changing a system of impropriety in the weeks since their outcries became public. Brandon, Olagbaju, and West say any efforts by SFMOMA that do not include the resignation of the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, cannot be taken as meaningful. “You would just be inviting people to a burning house,” West says. 

VMFA Reform says they are still waiting for the museum to do “the bare minimum” and acknowledge its issues of racism and harassment publicly. In New Orleans, Woods and Williams are still waiting for a response from the museum’s board of directors—let alone a chance to meet with them.

“We are not looking for incremental change or change to happen over time,” Williams says. “We are talking about today. We are demanding radical change and we are demanding it now.”

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