In early August an email was sent to the University Art Museum (UAM) staff at California State University, Long Beach on how to address the concerns of students and museum guests around an upcoming exhibition titled American MONUMENT on police violence. On October 1, this email was leaked by Jennifer Moran, the California State University Employees Union President to the Long Beach Post. In the email, recently fired UAM director, Kimberli Meyer writes, “In general, we should be generous with these kinds of questions — our goal is to bring people into the fold with this show. Ideally, Scoti should be the one that addresses concerns of POC, and I should be the one that addresses concerns of the white people.” By “Scoti,” Meyer was referring to Curator of Public Engagement & Participatory Practices at UAM, Catherine Scott.
Moran leaked the email as an example of Meyer’s “problematic management.” Ever since Meyer was fired one week before American MONUMENT was set to open at the museum, there have been speculations that the university pushed her out because of the project’s controversial nature; the artwork consists of 25 record players with audio documenting the deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, among others. In protest of Meyer’s firing, the artist behind American MONUMENT, lauren woods (who uses lowercase for her name), paused the installation. The university, however, insists that the firing had nothing to do with the exhibition. “The decision to terminate Ms. Meyer had accrued over longer period of time,” Terri Carbaugh, CSULB Spokesperson, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic.
According to Meyer, the email in question emerged from a conversation between herself and woods. In an email to Hyperallergic, Meyer said, “Lauren and I had extensive discussions on her work in Dallas, which included general strategies and tactics for social justice activity. We had specifically discussed how different community concerns about American MONUMENT should be addressed.”
Regarding Meyer’s August email, Moran told Hyperallergic, “her written instructions made a work assignment along racial lines and would have required staff to racially profile others.” She continued:
Her directive placed them in an untenable position and required them to engage in a practice they felt could be potentially harmful and leave them liable to accusations of bias and racism. This stands in stark contrast to our university’s non-discrimination policies and commitment to anti-racist values. Again, I believed (and continue to believe) that Kimberli had the best of intentions. The delivery of those intentions fell short in this situation. From the union’s perspective, this email was indicative of a larger pattern of problematic management and communication on her part.
Catherine Scott, referenced in the Meyer email, was unable to make additional comments, citing being bound to a confidentiality agreement.
“Of critical importance here is to account for the emotional labor this kind of work demands. Hundreds of hours were devoted to individual conversations explaining the context and content of the work to people who had never thought much about race and police brutality,” wrote Meyer, “helping them through their own emotions around the work, and assisting them in accepting the possibility of change. I attended many high-level administration meetings, and responded to unprecedented requests for exhibition content.”
The report published by the Long Beach Post paraphrases Moran’s concern that “no one informed the University Police Department about the exhibit, given that it could cause a reaction in the community.’”
“Moran informed Campus Police of the artwork six months before its launch. She claimed that the artwork was a potential health and safety issue, possibly drawing violent white nationalists,” wrote Meyer in her email to Hyperallergic. “First, there is no evidence that these kinds of exhibits create such demonstration of violence. Second, let’s put the concept of safety into context, recall the cases American MONUMENT takes up, and ask: with whose safety we are really concerned?”
According to woods, campus police were invited to and attended meetings regarding woods’s project and were concerned if the project would address cases involving Long Beach City police. She also says she submitted FOIA requests for information regarding three specific cases involving police brutality in the Los Angeles area but they went unanswered and are instead represented in American MONUMENT with silent audio on the vinyl records included in woods’s main gallery installation.
“To feign color-blindness, anytime, but especially while mounting a major new artwork about black lives and police brutality, is both disingenuous and inefficient,” Meyer said. “Cultural competence is key to building, presenting, and stewarding American MONUMENT.”
In a statement from the union, it stresses that it supports Meyer’s commitment to social justice: “Kimberli’s director’s vision of anti-racist policies was, and continues to be sincerely respected and supported by UAM staff. Her conceptual legacy is honored with continued constructive conversations about systematic oppression and exhibitions that uphold social justice issues. Narratives to the contrary are factually inaccurate and defamatory to UAM staff.”
Melissa Raybon, a CSULB graduate who worked full-time as a Getty Multicultural Intern in the summer of 2017 doing curatorial research for woods’s installation, described her experience in an email to Hyperallergic. “During my internship, in a last effort to gain support for the anti-racist rhetoric so desperately needed at the UAM, I made an informational art piece, outside of the work I was required, to be presented to the staff at the first ‘Mission and Vision’ meeting,” she wrote. “During this meeting there was vocal backlash against Kimberli’s plan, the staff did not and continues to be in denial to the fact that they were indeed problematic toward communities of color and subsequent artwork that would be on display because of Kimberli.”
She continued, “I cannot tell you how it feels as a womxn of color to experience leadership legitimately aimed at promoting the narratives and well being of people of color in a just light and then watch that leadership be ripped away and taken completely out of context in the media.” Raybon has since penned an open letter to the California State University, Long Beach Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Division of Administration & Finance, Office of Equity & Diversity, College of the Arts, Office of the Dean, and University Art Museum, linked here.
Correction: The previous headline for this article stated that California State University, Long Beach leaked the email; it was the California State University Employees Union, Chapter 315 at California State University, Long Beach, that leaked it. This has been clarified.