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It has been over two weeks since Kimberli Meyer was abruptly fired from her position as director of the University Art Museum (UAM) at Cal State University Long Beach, but many questions still remain. Although the Dean of the College of the Arts, Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, released a statement saying that the “decision was part of a longer-term process,” many in the CSULB community felt that it was linked to American Monument, a work by artist lauren woods (the artist’s name always appears in all lowercase as per her request) that deals with police brutality and was scheduled to open at the UAM just six days after the firing. In response to Meyer’s dismissal, woods “paused” the work until a “restorative process” can take place.
In an attempt to provide some clarity, Dean Parker-Jeannette and Maria Coltharp, Registrar & Curator of the Permanent Collection, held a question-and-answer session for students and faculty earlier this week. “Muzzled,” as Coltharp put it, by the university’s confidentiality rules, however, the event seemed to provide little resolution for most of the frustrated attendees. According to woods, she was not invited to be a part of the discussion, and had already returned to her home in Dallas when the event was announced.
Parker-Jeannette and Coltharp professed their support for Meyer’s anti-racist practice, which she had made clear was an important part of her role when she was hired in 2016. “The next [director] must have that vision,” said Parker-Jeannette.
This prompted a student to ask what support Meyer was given to pursue her racial justice agenda, to which the Dean replied that she had been in dialogue with Meyer for the past two years, although she acknowledged, “I was not aware of how deep the collaboration had been between Meyer and woods.”
In response to several students’ requests for clarification on the reasons for Meyer’s firing, Parker-Jeannette and Coltharp said they could not comment due to privacy regulations, and a suggestion was made for a follow-up forum with members of the administration, such as the president or provost. An email inquiry to an administration representative on whether this was under consideration was not returned.
Aubry Mintz, Director of the School of Art, addressed the lack of information, cautioning the community not to jump to conclusions. “I understand the perception that is out in the world,” he said, “but it is a one-sided discussion on the internet. There is probably another side to the story as well.”
Aside from the reasons for her firing, several attendees brought up both the timing and secrecy surrounding it. Todd Gray, professor emeritus, said he found out about the firing via a message on his phone. “From the outside,” he noted, “it seemed like it was not a personnel issue but a bureaucratic cover-up of the issues being raised in the show.”
“I’m just dumbfounded that the administration was so tone deaf as to release Kim six days before an exhibition and not be prepared for the fall out, not take into account how this will appear,” he continued when reached by phone after the forum. “There are consequences to this action. It was so ham-fisted the way it was handled.”
Professor Alison O’Daniel also expressed dismay regarding the lack of openness, saying the situation had special relevance to a class she’s currently teaching “on authorship and who gets to tell their stories, so the firing of Meyer feels incredibly on the nose for all of us,” she told Hyperallergic via email. “It’s spun around the ways we’re dealing with these topics from out there to right here. The absolute reigning confusion, the lack of transparency feels bad, just bad.”
Stepping back from the details of this specific situation, students with whom Hyperallergic spoke described issues that go deeper on an institutional level. Melissa Raybon, a CSULB graduate, worked on woods’s American Monument during the summer of 2017. “I spent a lot of time with the museum staff as a Getty multicultural intern, a full three months doing research for lauren’s show. As a half-black, half-chicanx woman, my own personal experience was that I was uncomfortable a lot of the time [working at the UAM],” she said, adding, “there was a lot of backlash against lauren’s project.”
“They can’t keep the project moving forward because they weren’t in support of the project,” followed Andrea Guerrero, a graduate student in art history, “and they don’t have enough cultural reference to be able to, in a just way, communicate the content of this work to the public.”
Gray also spoke to the conservative bent of the museum’s exhibitions in the past. “Historically, the museums programming has reflected the status quo,” he wrote via email. “Kimberly and the previous director that she replaced investigated new territories. While I was teaching there it was a rare occurrence for a person of color to have a solo exhibition.”
An exhibition currently on view in the Student Art Gallery attempts to deal with this underrepresentation of people of color in the arts. Titled Raced and Othered, it features the work of several MFA students of color, to present their “shared experiences as marginalized people in a predominantly white environment. Rather than ‘pause’ the work like had happened at the UAM, the curators, Álvaro D. Márquez and Alan Vidali, decided to keep the show on view. “We, the curators, feel it is important for the student community to stay engaged in this difficult, but necessary, work of holding space for experiences that are often time overlooked and dismissed,” their statement reads.
As for Meyer, she is awaiting her appeal, and looking forward to working with Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra Jr. of Slanguage Studio on their upcoming exhibition if the administration decides to reinstate her. Titled Call and Response, When We Say… You Say, the exhibition slated for January was the second show organized by Meyer for the UAM, and has robust programming based around community engagement, as did American Monument before it was put on hold.
“I acknowledge the difficulty in all of this,” Meyer told Hyperallergic. “Making challenging artwork within a bureaucratic structure is a tall order. Asking the administration to stretch is hard. I appreciate that. Maybe I just pushed too hard, too fast.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the exhibit Raced and Othered was extended in light of American Monument. This is incorrect; the curators chose to keep the exhibition on view in light of the events. This has been amended.