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Local museums responses to racial injustice and the road ahead

Like many other affected businesses, San Francisco museums have remained closed since the shelter-in-place order went into effect mid-March. During this time, museums have had to quickly adapt to the fast-moving and competitive digital world; transforming their on-site collections and programs into engagement experiences. Recognizing the value of staying connected, many local museums have used this as an opportunity to revamp their social media presence and offerings.  

At the same time, these institutions have not remained immune to the COVID-19 economic hit, resulting in massive layoffs and furloughs. Amidst all of the daily distress and tension caused during the pandemic, on May 25 the brutal killing of George Floyd was recorded in a 9-minute video forcing everyone, including museums, to publicly engage in much needed and overdue dialogue. 

The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the global anti-racism protests pushed all kinds of organizations and businesses to take a stand in what is to be a critical point in our history. Across the nation, museums’ social media and homepages flooded with statements, some of which were met with criticism, controversy, and pressure to do more. Some argue that these statements of solidarity mainly seemed “performative” and other critics like Hollan Corter called them “self-aggrandizing and too little too late.”

Local museums like MoAD (Museum of African Diaspora) and The Mexican Museum participated in #BlackoutTuesday, while others shared artwork by Black artists and posted messages of solidarity from the institutions’ leaders. In response, people raised concerns about museums’ slow responses, “vague statements,” and their participation in perpetuating oppressive systems within their own organizations. 

For many, museums’ written statements are only scratching the surface of a larger problem within their systems. As stated in ArtNews, critic Antwaun Sargent turned to Twitter and wrote,  “do black lives matter on your curatorial team or board? Do they matter in your collections and shows? they have to earn the right to say black lives matter.”  

Museums like the Asian Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have publicly promised to work on addressing anti-racism in their own museums’ foundations. In their written statement, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (de Young and Legion of Honor) have committed to “dismantle the racist systems” internally and to provide “an action plan.” As of today, no such plan from any of the museums has been publicly released. 

Illustration: Gus Reyes

The Asian Art Museum said that the first step was “to look within” and to face the history of how museums came to be—in their case addressing who they obtained most of their collection from. After much local and national pressure to reexamine the people behind our public statues, Director Jay Xu announced the removal of Avery Brundage’s bust who “espoused racist and anti-Semitic views.” In an interview for The Art Forum, Dr, Xu said  “Examining the record, asking hard questions, and rewriting the story is what a museum does.” 

One of the more controversial topics surrounds SFMOMA’s alarming use of censorship towards Black former employee, Taylor Brandon. On May 30, SFMOMA posted Glenn Ligon’s “We are Black and Strong (I)” as a response to George Floyd’s death, in which Brandon commented and called “a cop-out.” Brandon expressed her criticism of SFMOMA’s use of Black artists’ works and voices “during a surge of Black mourning and pain.” Since then, SFMOMA has apologized for the highly criticized decision to delete her comment and disable new ones.

The incident was followed by a wave of support to Taylor, which included a letter by current and former SFMOMA employees who disapproved of the museum’s “racist censorship” and urged all museums “to learn from the mistakes SFMOMA has made.” Brandon, Nure Collective, and a few other Bay Area collectives formed No Neutral Alliance as a “direct opposition of SFMOMA’s racist censorship” with the goal to destroy “anti-Black foundations of museums.” No Neutral Alliance has recently announced their residency with the African American Art & Cultural Complex and their project, “The Truth is at Stake.” Their mural project will “speak to the continued struggle of Black folks working within museums and large cultural institutions” and they invite any Black artists/arts professionals to email NoNeutralAlliance@gmail.com to share their experience.

In light of the public unfolding events happening in museums, former and current employees across the country are feeling empowered to speak their truths and collectively take actions to hold the institutions accountable. Social media has given a space to amplify voices among people from various backgrounds to share their lived experiences, break isolated conversations, and fuel the passion to move museums forward. With more people speaking up, there is a clear pattern in the problems all museums face internally and the repeated behavior that causes harm. The road to progress is long, difficult—and at times painful—but change is exciting, inevitable, and necessary for the existence of museums to continue. 

My name is Maria Egoavil and I am an employee at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young and Legion of Honor. Before joining the Public Programs team in May 2019, I interned in a few other Bay Area Museums, and since then have gained much insight through personal and work experiences. Through these articles, I hope to shed some light on important work, conversations, and issues that are currently happening in our local cultural institutions that affect our communities. 

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