Microsoft’s Ad Agency Asked Artist Shantell Martin to Paint a Black Lives Matter Mural While It Was ‘Still Relevant.’ Her Response Shook the Internet

Artist Shantell Martin says the incident is an example of "performative allyship."

Shantell Martin in front of her work at the 92nd Street Y. Photo: Taylor Dafoe.
Shantell Martin in front of her work at the 92nd Street Y. Photo: Taylor Dafoe.

The advertising firm McCann and its client, the technology company Microsoft, are facing swift blowback after asking the artist Shantell Martin to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on the plywood-covered windows of a shop on 5th Avenue in Manhattan “while the protests are still relevant.”

The offer, which Martin publicized on her social media accounts, came from a McCann employee asking the artist to paint the mural while “the boards are still up,” giving her just four days to complete the job.

“We love your work and would be very excited to partner with you as a Black artist in the New York City community,” the email reads.

In an extended comment on the email published on Instagram, Shantell wrote:

“Here’s an example of what it’s like to A) [be] reminded of my Blackness, B) how Black pain and oppression is commodified with performative allyship C) what systematic racism looks like within corporations.”

She added: “MOST IMPORTANTLY D) apparently the folks at @microsoft and McCann Erickson feel that that the #blacklivesmatter Movement and protests will not be relevant after this weekend. Education and Accountability must occur in order to see REAL change. Supporting equality only when it’s popular is in itself a form of racism.”

Since Shantell’s post went viral, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, Chris Capossela, and McCann’s CEO, Harris Diamond, posted public apologies on Martin’s Twitter feed, but the artist told AdWeek that she had not been contacted directly.

Martin is no stranger to working with advertising agencies and other companies, having successfully sold her signature black-and-white line drawings to companies like Vans, Facebook, and the rapper Kendrick Lamar.

She’s also no stranger to racism, telling an AdWeek reporter that she was once barred from entering a building for a meeting while her white assistant was let in.

“Those are the day-to-day things we have to deal with as Black people,” she told AdWeek, adding that “at least three” other artists contacted her saying they got the same email from McCann.

Update: Martin sent a statement to Artnet News following publication. It reads:
Obviously, I didn’t share this lightly. I took some time to digest it but after a few days, I really felt that I couldn’t sit silent. As an artist, that does have an extensive background with working with institutions, agencies, brands and other entities, I felt that I was in a position to really share it with the intention of not “slamming” the parties behind the email, but with the intention of shedding light on why and how these types of things happen. It goes without saying that capitalizing on what could arguably be the biggest Civil Rights Movement in the World is unacceptable from corporations, especially when there is a lack of real action and support behind their motivations. 
It’s not to say that they shouldn’t play a role, but it has to come from an authentic and meaningful place that is followed through with real action, internally and externally. 
 
Another thing that should be addressed, and hopefully will change, is the way that artists and creatives are exploited during these times. 
Unlike the relationship with athletes and their sponsors, the model of brands working with artists is very transcationary and doesn’t invest in the career and success of the artists themselves.
 
We can create models where such relationships and partnerships work, it just takes time, commitment, and hard work. 

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