The George Floyd Protests Spurred Museums to Promise Change. Here’s What They’ve Actually Done So Far
Which institutions are following through on their commitments and which are dragging their feet?
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, museums across the country began making pledges to initiate change within their walls. In emails and social media posts, institutions impugned racism and acknowledged their own complacency in systems that perpetuate it. They preached solidarity and inclusivity. They vowed to take a good hard look in the mirror, to reject silence, and to listen and learn.
Important though those statements were, many wanted even more to see action. Some institutions offered concrete plans, including, for example, staff trainings, inclusivity committees, and more diverse programming goals. But many also appeared content to rely on platitudes, or only delivered tangible plans after being called out for their passivity.
Below, we’ve collected various institutional pledges and checked in with them to see what progress they’ve made so far.
New Orleans Museum of Art
In late June, an open letter penned by six former employees of the New Orleans Museum of Art accused the institution of propagating “a plantation-like culture behind its facade” and for having a homogenous, mostly white staff. The letter, which began with the words “DISMANTLE NOMA,” cited a permanent installation called “The Greenwood Parlor” as an example of the museum’s insensitivity to racism. In response to the letter and public outcry, the museum posted a statement with both short- and long-term goals.
- Institute facilitated staff conversations
- Develop an internal task force for inclusivity
- Improve hiring practices with a commitment to expanding diversity
- Hire an independent, outside ombudsperson for employee relations
- Increase the representation of BIPOC on board membership to 25 percent in each year over the next three years
- Commit the rest of the museum’s 2020 art acquisition funds to acquire works by BIPOC artists
- Close the “Greenwood Parlor”
- Issue regular progress reports
Where things stand: The museum has brought on an organization to facilitate diversity and equity training with staff that began this month and launched new systems for visitors to share questions and feedback. The institution is currently reaching out to community stakeholders and partners for “broader input on ‘The Greenwood Parlor,’” and implementing a new process for employees and individuals in the community to provide input on museum projects through an external group of advisors.
San Francisco Museum of Art
Former employee Taylor Brandon accused the museum of deleting a critical comment she made on an Instagram post that pictured the artwork of Glenn Ligon. In her comment, Brandon called out the museum for not supporting Black employees and mentioned specific names of upper managers, which SFMOMA claims violated Instagram’s terms of service. After a public outcry, the museum re-enabled posts to the original image and apologized. Following the incident, Nan Keeton, deputy director for external relations, left the museum, as did the recruitment staffing manager, and the director of human resources.
A month later, senior curator Gary Garrels resigned from his position after a former employee complained on social media that Garrels had said that, despite a recent push toward collecting work by artists of color, SFMOMA would continue to acquire works by white men, because not doing so would amount to reverse discrimination. Former employees created a petition calling for his resignation, and Garrels stepped down shortly thereafter.
- Create a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan by December 2020
- Hire a director of employee experience and internal communication and a director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging
- Investigate employee complaints of discrimination and harassment, and conduct a review of past employee complaints
- Begin anti-racist and implicit bias training for all staff
- Revise exhibition review process through a “DEI lens”
- Launch a paid internship program with three historically Black colleges
- Build gender neutral restrooms in staff spaces and, eventually, the entire museum
- Develop long-term programming partnerships with Black arts organizations in the Bay Area
- Share a breakdown of the racial and gender diversity of museum staff, trustees, and collection
Where things stand: The museum is currently interviewing candidates for the two director positions and, this week, is speaking with consultants to oversee anti-racist and implicit bias training for staff. Administration has begun investigating complaints of discrimination and harassment, past and present, and is in the process of revising its exhibition review system. The staff’s administrative bathrooms are now gender neutral. Two paid interns from historically Black colleges and universities are working remotely with the curatorial team this summer.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
When the Met’s new director, Max Hollein, sent a letter declaring the museum’s commitment to diversity and support of Black Lives Matter, it was accompanied by a reproduction of Glenn Ligon’s artwork Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored). In an Instagram post, Ligon called out the museum for not asking his permission to use the work, writing, “could y’all just stop, or ask me first?” Hollein apologized personally to the artist.
The Met’s chairman of European paintings, Keith Christiansen, was also the subject of public criticism after he posted an image of a French archaeologist on Juneteenth with a caption decrying “revolutionary zealots” who tore down monuments during the French Revolution. The underlying message—that contemporary protesters dismantling monuments to racist historical figures are comparable zealots—prompted outcry from staff and the public. In response to internal demands, the museum issued an institution-wide 13-prong anti-racism and diversity plan, including a $3 million fund to support the effort.
- Assess the institution’s own history and present practices
- Require anti-racism training for all staff, volunteers, and trustees
- Hire a chief diversity officer within four months
- Commit to hiring BIPOC candidates to department head and senior leadership roles
- Invest in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing BIPOC candidates and staff across the institution
- Provide resources for community building and staff mentoring
- Diversify the collections and its narratives
- Implement new policy for working with LGBTQ-, BIPOC-, women-, and veteran-owned suppliers by the end of fiscal year 2021.
- Increase the number of minority- and women-owned investment firms that manage the museum’s investment assets
- Increase the representation of BIPOC individuals on the board of trustees
- Carry out annual diversity audits
Where things stand: The Met has completed anti-racism training for department heads. Thanks to a recent gift from Adrienne Arsht, all Met internships will also now be paid. According to a spokesperson, “many other activities are in progress as reflected in our Commitments.”
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
In late June, 70 former staff members at MOCAD wrote a letter to the board calling for the removal of chief curator and executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, citing multiple instances of racist behavior. The writers of the letter, who chose to remain anonymous, claim that they had seen Borowy-Reeder commit “various racist micro-aggressions, mis-gendering, violent verbal outbursts, and the tokenization of marginalized artists, teen council members, and staff.”
The letter followed the departure of three Black curators from the museum in the previous eight months. Borowy-Reeder was suspended by the board before being fired outright on July 29. “We have no tolerance for harassment, discrimination, or abuse in any form,” the museum’s board wrote in a letter following the move.
- Working on “concrete actions and initiatives to deliver on our mission of being representative of the entire community”
- Considering “suggestions that have been made for changes in how we operate”
Where things stand: Elyse Foltyn, the chair of MOCAD’s board, said in a statement to Artnet News that the museum has established a special review committee to propose ways to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. It is “pursuing immediate and necessary actions to increase the diversity of the nominating committee, executive committee, and board,” and “assessing how the employee voice can best be heard by the board.” The institution is also in the process of updating the MOCAD bylaws to revisit all protocols, including those that say employees can render complaints “related to the museum and its management.” It is also amending its employee handbook and benefits to assure employees are treated equitably. The museum has recently begun offering its employees parental leave.
Whitney Museum of American Art
The Whitney is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, a firestorm of criticism ensnared its biennial for its inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of lynched teenager Emmett Till in his coffin. At the next biennial, in 2019, protesters and participating artists boycotted the show in opposition to board member Warren Kanders, who owns Safariland, a producer of tear gas. (He eventually resigned.) Then, when the George Floyd protests engulfed New York streets, the Whitney boarded up its High Line-adjacent building, at a time when other local museums were offering their lobbies to aid protesters.
To celebrate Juneteenth, assistant curator Rujeko Hockley partnered with Instagram for a virtual exhibition celebrating Black artists, telling The Cut, “Art and protest, both, help us do this ‘freedom dreaming.’” In late July, the museum commissioned American Artist to create a digital work, part of an ongoing series titled “Looted,” which virtually “boarded up” the very artworks posted online.
- Re-examine exhibitions and programs to ensure they address the art and experiences of people of color
- Review staff and organizational structures “through a lens of racial equity”
- Institute additional anti-racism and unconscious bias training
- Board of trustees will add greater diversity and review its governance
Where things stand: “A process is underway to develop a plan that looks at all areas of our work (staff, program, audience/community, and patrons/board),” a representative for the museum told Artnet News. “The plan will highlight important steps already taken over the past few years and set a path forward for the institution to achieve the goals outlined by [director] Adam Weinberg in his letter. Over the next 14 months we will debut 10 exhibitions largely devoted to the work of BIPOC artists. In addition, we’ve made progress in working to identify and engage the best partners to facilitate anti-racism and unconscious bias training sessions for 100 percent of our staff, which we expect will begin by early fall.”
The Getty Museum
After the museum posted a vague message on social media stating its support for “equity and fairness,” followers quickly sounded off on the lack of a more meaningful statement that explicitly mentioned George Floyd or Black Lives Matter. In the wake of the criticism, Getty CEO James Cuno issued an apology that expressed remorse for its previously bland words, and promised a more responsible stance in the future. An open letter to the Getty’s board addressed the systemic racism and underlying inequities that exist within the institution, describing the newly created DEI council and task forces as lacking funding or support. Signatories also noted the overwhelming majority of white people holding senior positions and asked that the Getty ensure its own community adheres to the values it claims to espouse.
- Recruit, hire, mentor, promote, and retain BIPOC staff
- Senior leadership will work with Getty’s DEI Council, task forces, and ideas and actions team
- Provide diversity, equity, and inclusion report at every board meeting
- Tie progress against goals to the annual performance evaluation of senior staff
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion work plans with goals, strategies, timelines, and resources will be shared with Getty staff on an ongoing basis, starting with the Board’s September meeting
Where things stand: The institution had no updates on progress made, noting that the “Getty board of trustees meets in mid-September” and they “anticipate having something to share around that time.”
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
LACMA was one of the few institutions that participated in the #blackouttuesday social media initiative on its website, and went dark for a week to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The message was posted on Unframed, LACMA’s blog, and echoed broad sentiments opposing historical injustices and standing against violence.
- Create a series of “Racism Is a Public Health Issue” programs
- Looking at every exhibition to expand the “representation of women-identified artists and artists of color and clarify embedded colonial histories”
- Organize a series of internal discussion groups, reading groups, and lectures around the “umbrella theme of decolonizing the museum”
- Reinstall the permanent collections in the David Geffen Galleries considering the “narratives and objects of art history in terms of the values we hold in the present”
Where things stand: “For LACMA, there is a renewed urgency to our efforts to move quickly to diversify the collection—and to make those efforts visible,” a representative from the museum told Artnet News. The institution has held two programs in its ongoing “Racism is a Public Health Issue” series so far: “Addressing Prejudices Against Asian Americans During the COVID-19 Pandemic” on May 7 and “Examining the Impact of Police Brutality on Black Communities in the Age of COVID-19” on July 21. The next program is set for September. The institution is planning a year-long series of programs showcasing recent acquisitions, with a “majority of the works shown created by BIPOC artists.” The programs will be accompanied by “discussions among curators and guest speakers,” the representative added. “The Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to end structural racism are sure to be recurring themes.”
In June, 22 members of the Guggenheim’s 23-person curatorial team sent a letter to the institution’s leadership demanding action in addressing what they called an “inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.” They also asked leaders to apologize to Chaédria LaBouvier, who in 2019 became the first Black curator to organize a solo show at the Guggenheim. “Working at the Guggenheim w/ Nancy Spector & the leadership was the most racist professional experience of my life,” LaBouvier wrote on Twitter. (Spector is currently taking a three-month sabbatical.) The curator’s letter goes on to castigate the museum for failing to “respond adequately—whether through statements or programming—to the global protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd.”
“We recognize the importance of developing inclusive programming, deepening community engagement, and diversifying our collection and exhibitions, staff, and board of trustees,” the museum’s director Richard Armstrong said in a statement on June 9—two weeks after Floyd’s murder. Armstrong pledged to create “paths that lead to a more inclusive and diverse museum and workplace,” but was otherwise largely devoid of concrete goals. Since then, the museum has made its full Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion (DEAI) plan publically available.
- Launch Connection Groups to allow staff of shared backgrounds and interests to come together, discuss relevant topics, and share resources
- Develop antiracism and culture statement for the museum
- Expand paid internship program and recruit first-generation college students, students receiving financial aid, and BIPOC students
- Hire cabinet-level position to advance the work of the DEAI Action Plan
- Train hiring managers and review hiring procedures to remove biases
- Promote job opportunities and internships with historically Black colleges and universities
- Develop new organizational structure and procedures to review grievances and complaints
- Set goals for diversifying board composition
- Reassess requirements for joining the board
- Establish a special committee to oversee an independent investigation of LaBouvier’s accusations
- Examine exhibition history over the past 25 years and acquisitions history over the past 10 years through the lens of racial equity and diversity
- Acquire work by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous artists, especially including those of marginalized ethnicities, gender identities, and sexualities
- Identify a list of artists, artworks, and movements to be prioritized for acquisition
- Dedicate a percentage of the Library and Archives acquisition budget to publications featuring BIPOC artists, curators, and scholars
- Provide training for all staff in the American Disabilities Act and Universal Design for Learning
- Increase BIPOC artists, scholars, and other presenters within public programs
- Schedule ongoing training for frontline staff on implicit bias, cultural competence, accessibility, museum de-escalation scenarios, and trauma-informed practice
- Increase the visibility of BIPOC curators, artists, and educators on social media channels and website
Where things stand: The museum has established a DEAI committee and created and shared its DEAI plan with the public.
“We are proud of the progress we’ve made while acknowledging that we have much work to do,” Armstrong said in a statement to Artnet. “The board of trustees has expressed their support of and commitment to working together with me and our staff to realize the plan.
Editor’s note: This article was updated August 17 to reflect the Guggenheim’s new DEAI plan.
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