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Protestors at a demonstration in Philadelphia.

“We Can Do Better,” Claim US Museums Criticized for Hollow Signs of BLM Solidarity

As the ongoing protests over George Floyd’s death, police brutality, and racism roil the United States, museums across the country are being called out for not doing more to condemn racist policing and to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many art institutions have issued statements about racial injustice that have been criticized as “vague” or “throwaway” comments, and have been slow to directly confront the May 25 killing of Floyd by white Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. Among the museums that faced backlash was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which apologized for its first statement in response to the nationwide uprisings. On Twitter, Getty president Jim Cuno wrote: “We heard you. Thank you. We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values than we did yesterday.”

It continued: “We are outraged at the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and at the violent deaths of far too many more Black Americans. We share the anger and anguish of everyone in Los Angeles and the nation over yet another life senselessly taken.”

Another California museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, also came under scrutiny after it attempted to hide a critical comment on its Instagram post showing a Glenn Ligon artwork. Rather than mention the current unrest or Floyd’s death, the museum featured a quote by the artist: “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” It has since apologized, and echoing the Getty, said, “we can do better.”

For some, the statement rang hollow: What does “doing better” really mean? “Maybe start by admitting you deleted a comment by a Black employee, for no reason other than that you didn’t like it,” one person commented on the apology. Another asked the museum to hire more people of color for board and leadership positions, and a third commenter argued the museum should demonstrate its commitment to using its platform to “impact change” by protecting the jobs of employees of color during the pandemic.

In New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art once again found itself at the center of the ongoing debate about the role of museums during these turbulent times. Images of tear gas canisters made by Safariland and used by the authorities against protesters in Minneapolis have been circulating on social media. The museum’s former board vice chair Warren B. Kanders, the CEO of the defense company, was only forced out of his position at the institution last summer, after months of protests over his ties to arms manufacturing. 

“Black lives matter,” the museum wrote on Twitter on Monday. “The Whitney stands in solidarity with our community—staff, artists, neighbors, supporters, and visitors—and with protesters nationwide in denouncing racism and police brutality. . . . The past is here with us, and it’s a past filled with racist violence, aggression, intimidation, and discrimination. Unless we face and address the past, there can be no future for any of us.”

People have also aired doubts about whether social media users and institutions embraced posting a black square for Blackout Tuesday, on June 2, because it was “trendy.” Chaédria LaBouvier, who organized a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last year, called out the museum for sharing such a post. On Twitter, she wrote: “Get the entire fuck out of here. I am Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator in your 80 year history & you refused to acknowledge that while also allowing Nancy Spector to host a panel about my work w/o inviting me. Erase this shit.” LaBouvier was referring to a panel discussion on the exhibition “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” (2019), which she was excluded from. The show was centered around Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting The Death of Michael Stewart, which commemorates a young black artist who was killed by New York City Transit Police in 1983.

In a letter published by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), executive director Chris Anagnos wrote: “During this moment when the deep wounds of racism are again laid bare, it is hard not to be reminded of how many issues in our society are unresolved and unattended. And likewise it reminds me how much work we all need to do to heal these divisions. As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough. We have dabbled around the edges of the work, but in our place of privilege we will never live up to the statement that ‘museums are for everyone’ unless we begin to confront, examine, and dismantle the various structures that brought us to this point.”

As institutions scramble to respond to recent events—and as some rethink statements—others acted through programming. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, of which Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch served as founding director, rolled out a new, free, digital program, “Talking About Race,” comprising interviews and videos with activists and role-playing exercises on race, racial identity, bias, community building, and systems of oppression. 

The only US institution to take direct action amid the unrest has been Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center. The institution declared on Wednesday that it would no longer contract the Minneapolis Police Department for events until it “implements meaningful change by demilitarizing training programs, holding officers accountable for excessive use of force, and treating communities of color with respect.” Many are now wondering if the move will have a ripple effect. “This is a start,” one person commented on the center’s Instagram. “Keep going.”

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