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Anti-Racist Imperatives for the National Gallery of Art

Your taxpayer money funds an institution known to Black employees as the “last plantation on the National Mall.”

#museumsarenotneutral

An Open Letter to the National Gallery of Art and the US Public

“The mission of the National Gallery of Art is to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art, at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.”

We write to ask the National Gallery of Art how it can exist, contented, to be known by its own employees as the “last plantation on the National Mall.”

Standing in solidarity with #ForTheCulture, #DismantleNOMA, and the Akron Art Museum, We, the people, representing current and former employees at the National Gallery of Art, present a united front on the museum’s institutional misconduct.

We write to express our outrage at your exploitation and unfair treatment of employees identifying as BIPOC, LGBTQ, or womxn. You are the so-called nation’s art museum and the steward of this country’s “culture.” Indeed, you define what domestic and international visitors understand as American history and culture. You set the standards. You are an institution paid for with taxpayer money and held in the public trust; it is time that you act with the responsibility that has been gifted to you. Your existence is not a given.

Employees, former and current, have already approached museum leadership with their concerns. 

We refer to the 1, 2, 3 articles by the Washington Post already published naming the museum’s hostile culture of harassment, racial and sexual, and retaliation against employees for speaking out. We refer to your horrific Glassdoor reviews. We refer to the EEO cases at the NGA used as examples for other agencies. The NGA has failed even to provide a safe space for visitors with its reckless staffing and leadership.

This is just the information that is available to the public. The NGA has refused requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for further research by journalists on allegations of discrimination. Behind closed doors, we have observed the complicity of your press office, who dismiss coverage of the museum’s racism as nuisance and slander.

We write to demand the museum’s accountability to complaints regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ablism at the Gallery, both from employees and visitors, beyond copy-pasted content of the federal harassment law sent as letters of apology to congressional officials. And if you, of the Board or museum leadership, cannot do this yourselves, we ask members of the U.S. public, who fund this institution with their own taxes, to educate themselves on not only the allegations against the NGA, but the Gallery’s repeated attempts to suppress these allegations. We ask for the public to get curious about where their money is going, and to step up in advocating against the museum’s culture of abuse.

White supremacy is written into the Gallery’s mission statement, which calls for the literal preservation of US history. We call for the NGA to rewrite its mission in understanding the foundation of the nation and its art collection in racial capitalism. “Preservation” as an initiative, without a specific commitment to anti-racism, reads no different than the excuses used to keep Confederate statues intact around the country.

We write to inform you that your use of the hard labor of Black employees in particular, in Facilities, Maintenance, Security, and your cafeterias, with the expectation that they remain complacent with the status quo, is over. We write to remind you what you already know, that your own BIPOC employees describe their work experience at the museum as being treated like “the help.”

We ask you to answer to taxpayer money wasted on managers that do not show up to work. We demand that you overhaul systemic corruption, included but not limited to, the thousands of dollars doled out in illegitimate overtime, appointments based on favoritism, private events masked from the public, and the lack of transparency as to which employees have been appointed in the trust, and which under federal law, subject to different rules. If a federally-funded institution with EEOC oversight can’t get its act together, how can we even begin to have conversations with privately-funded institutions?

We ask that Director Kaywin Feldman, who has not taken radical action to correct and dismantle these issues at their root, dedicate herself fully to this work. We ask for more than lip service about the power of art and focus groups that serve only to maintain brand integrity. Her leadership at the MIA did not undo the systemic failure that allowed for the predatory existence of “bad apples” in leadership positions beneath her to perpetuate a hostile work culture. Despite what she herself advocates, employee reviews of the management underneath her at the MIA remained the same for a decade. We believe in Kaywin’s desire to make the museum relevant to all visitors. However, that work should begin by first making the museum relevant to all employees. To eradicate systemic workplace violence, the NGA does not need any more letters, surveys, panels, or committees, that result in the same inaction year after year. We need Kaywin to acknowledge how white supremacy works on an institutional level, and take the radical steps necessary to change this reality. We need her to stand up in solidarity with other leaders on the mall like Lonnie Bunch. Beyond this, we need her to hold accountable the bureaucratic upper and middle management that refuse to take responsibility in creating a safe work environment.

We refer to the demands of, and stand in solidarity with cultural institutions in New York in declaring that:

“We are demanding that you acknowledge your participation in this systemic oppression, which complicity damaged the lives of the many Black/Brown employees who have suffered in silence, who have left their jobs without other means of income, who have suffered health issues, who have worked tirelessly and effortlessly all to be compensated significantly less than white employees, while working in a perpetual state of fear.”

“We write to inform you that we will no longer tolerate your blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black employees that reflect the oppressive tactics to keep Black employees subordinated.”

“We write to inform you that we will no longer conform to your forced silencing when we complain about the lack of commitment to the well-being of marginalized employees and patronizing, yet dismissive responses we are provided when we report bullying/work-place hostility, unfair practices, unequal pay, lack of growth…etc.”

“Like other museums around the country, we are demanding the dismantling of the systemic oppression that you readily participate in while demanding the back-breaking work product of Black/Brown employees.”

The demands listed below have been echoed by many. Together we stand in solidarity to demand more of our cultural institutions. As the movement builds, we will update our demands to reflect the full scope of systemic abuse at the hands of those selected in the public trust to steward our nation’s art and heritage. We offer these demands all staff and the Board should implement in good faith:

  1. We demand that the NGA stop all forms of performative allyship, tokenism, and virtue signaling immediately. Instead, we demand a public apology on nga.gov and all social media avenues to all BIPOC, LGBTQ, and womxn-identifying former and current employees who have experienced discrimination and aggression at the hands of the institution, as well as an apology to visitors for failing to provide a safe space. 
  2. We demand that the NGA announce and implement anti-racism as an explicit part of its mission; structural changes that come out of this new mission are to be supported by policies, procedures, and budgets that are aligned with clearly articulated equity outcomes. We ask that you denounce past institutional bias in curation, any looting that led to acquisition of BIPOC artifacts or artwork, and cultural appropriation by artists in service of establishing the nation’s art collection.
  3. We call for the immediate removal of Administrative and Curatorial leadership accused of harassment and hostility to demonstrate the museum’s genuine commitment to systemic change. 
  4. We demand a mandatory, formal, independent investigation separate from in-house processes into all complaints made to HR, EEO, and museum leadership, as well as the institutional responses and follow-up even to those complainants that “won” their case, regarding racial bias, homophobic bias, gender bias, and sexual harassment in the past five years, during both Kaywin Feldman and especially Rusty Powell’s tenure. This review must include allegations made against the slew of managers who retired in the wake of Rusty Powell’s departure from the museum. The NGA must also immediately respond to FOIA requests from news outlets and watchdog organizations regarding allegations of harassment, of which the museum has previously avoided release under the guise of its semi-private funding status. It is hypocritical to invoke your semi-public, federal status to receive taxpayer funding, and invoke private status when demanded accountability. Outside organizations have every right to review your institutional structure, while employees who have endured harassment should not be silenced for speaking out about the injustices they have endured. A report of these findings should be compiled and made available to the public on your website by January 1, 2021.
  5. We demand that the NGA create and equitably fund a permanent Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion department separate from the federally-mandated EEO office and AFGE union representatives. This office should include, but not be limited to, two support staff positions and an Ombudsman, who will serve as the liaison between the office and staff. The office should be provided an adequate budget to perform market research, data analysis, provide bi-annual anti-racism/anti-bias training, and hire consultants as needed. Employing only one EEO officer to deal with the museum’s culture has been ineffective so far and, moving forward, will only result in the burnout of that individual.
  6. We ask that you set a cultural standard of anti-racism and anti-harassment as the nation’s art museum. We mandate that all department heads follow clear guidelines on anti-racism and anti-bias recruitment, retention, and review practices. Stop hiding behind federal anti-discrimination law as a given, and ensure that you, personally, practically, are working to create a culture of safety. Implement a zero-tolerance policy of any staff saying racially-charged statements and/or participating in any racially charged activities. Any employee caught in this regard should be terminated immediately.
  7. We demand that you hire more Black curators.
  8. We demand that you hire and retain a cohort of Black individuals on the board of trustees and in leadership positions in the staff. 
  9. We demand that you stop recruiting Black employees disproportionately to fill service positions in the name of “diversity” numbers. Make public the reality of and change the caste system that keeps majority Black individuals in positions of service to the majority white administrative staff. Acknowledge the disproportionate workplace injuries and chronic health issues that affect BIPOC staff. Open avenues and minds to retaining Black staff in white-collar positions.
  10. We ask you to support local BIPOC arts and cultural institutions, of which so many in DC that the Gallery could have supported all this time, by forming meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships and sharing resources and platforms. We demand that you actively support local BIPOC artists and creators by acquiring and exhibiting their work.
  11. Support the movement to defund the police by removing the Gallery’s own police officers. The Gallery in-house security force has time and again been called out as a cesspool of harassment and corruption. Destroy the militaristic dependence on a chain of command, and create a real culture of safety. Do not take away jobs from the 98% veteran workforce, but provide veterans with new, different opportunities.
  12. Create a career track for BIPOC employees with clearly defined goals and processes for advancement within the institution that is approved by an office dedicated to inclusion and equity. This includes supporting BIPOC interns and developing a talent pipeline not only with DC’s rich HBCU network, but also artistic talent from Wards 7 and 8.
  13. We call for transparency in institutional operations, internal communications, acquisitions, and collections. Immediate review of past and current acquisition practices with the purpose of re-homing art and objects that were coerced from Black and Indigenous peoples. Transparency in your very exhibit design about the damaging history of Manifest Destiny that allowed for the creation of artwork hung in the museum’s permanent American Art collection. Curatorial transparency about the artists who abused BIPOC individuals or appropriated others’ work to secure their own fame. And so on.
  14. We demand systemic overhaul of bureaucratic corruption, including but not limited to, falsified timesheets, questionable overtime pay, favoritism, and “long lunches” that benefit white staff, while Black staff in the lowest-earning positions are penalized for being minutes late to work a shift. 

We find these demands to be reasonable and necessary if this institution wants to become a cultural institution rooted in the 21st century. Failure to internally and externally address and meet these demands will result in public protest of the NGA’s systemic practices of hostility and its treatment of Black employees.

Our anger will no longer be suppressed. We are taking you to task on your inability to uphold your employees’ human rights and support their complete well-being, to ensure the safety of your visitors, and to protect against the abuse of your taxpayer funding. We are signing anonymously to protect ourselves from your proven culture of retaliation, but we will reveal our names to you in due time if you prove yourselves committed to genuine change instead.

Signed,

Anonymous National Gallery of Art, former

Anonymous National Gallery of Art, current

Anonymous National Gallery of Art, former

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