Opinion

After a Director Is Fired and a Work of Art Paused, We Must Demand Social Justice

Controversy swirling around the firing of Kimberli Meyer and the pausing of a major work of art is currently distracting us from the conversation we need to have about art and social justice.

The artist lauren woods speaking about “American MONUMENT,” (2018) at the University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach (photo by Linda Pollack)

LOS ANGELES — Suffocated by all the noise around the recent incident at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) is the discussion of an important artwork that would have featured the recorded voices of twenty-five black subjects, a mere sampling of many who have died an unnecessary death by police brutality.  “American MONUMENT,” (2018) a project by lauren woods (who spells her name all lower case), has been pulled by woods until her collaborator, Kimberli Meyer (who was until early September the museum’s director), can resume the role of stewarding this complex production. On a plinth in the center room of the University Art Museum (UAM) at CSULB, where “American MONUMENT” is displayed, are 25 pedestals, each carrying a turntable on which an acetate record would have been silently spinning, waiting for a visitor to put the needle down and activate the art. The installation includes sounds taken from public records of what a black victim killed by the police said, or what was said about them around the time of their death. If such a record does not exist, the viewer placing the needle on the record would discover deliberate silence. The records though are gone. Actually, according to the artist, the piece is “paused.”

As a work of institutional critique “American MONUMENT” explores the role of race in the reproduction of the social order, how it is interpreted by legal discourse, enacted by law enforcement, and systematically perpetuated. The work brings a refusal to sensationalize the spectacle of black death to bear on the questions of the construction of race and violence. Unfortunately, at CSULB, the work triggered the very issue it intended to disclose.

Controversy swirling around the firing of wood’s collaborator and the pausing of a major work of art is currently distracting us from the conversation we need to have about art and social justice. Heartbreaking for me is that the students on our campus are being deprived of a profound experience. And the students know it.

I am not a disinterested party. I am the museum and curatorial studies professor on campus. I am also the recipient of many communications from past and current students, expressing anger and dismay over the loss of an art experience and damage to our reputation. I have been working with the campus museum since 2006, and I am very familiar with its institutional culture. Nevertheless, there are many positive things to say. Students in the School of Art boast an outstanding record of job and terminal degree studies placement, in which the opportunity to work with a professional accredited museum, and access to actual art, plays no small part. The university art museum places our campus on par with research institutions.

I have a long-standing collaborative relationship with Meyer. Since she assumed her position on campus in 2016, students have been placed at the front and center of our dialogues. Separately and together with woods, we all debated the significance of Meyer’s proposed focus on disrupting structural white supremacy. Since identity politics is a topic in my scholarship, I prodded Meyer on whether race, rather than class, should be the issue on the table. The artist and I also had conversations on the work of the scholar Adolph Reed Jr., who argues for a focus on class politics. Ultimately, Meyer insisted not only on the focus on race, but on uncompromisingly referring to the problem as that of white supremacy.

Kimberli Meyer at the University Art Museum 2017 (photo by Sylke Meyer)

Meyer’s practice included acknowledging that we are on indigenous peoples’ land, actively cultivating relationships with ethnic studies departments, and attempting to actively change the “climate,” an institutional code word for racial relations.

As part of her plan, Meyer wanted to engage the staff, and herself, with the topic as an intellectual and cultural problem. After all, it is the human element that animates the institution and must therefore be part of a systematic analysis of its role in upholding white supremacy. In the summer of 2017, the CSULB office of Equity and Diversity advised Meyer to back away from staff meetings focusing on structural racism in general, and to concentrate instead on art programs, in particular the lauren woods project. According to the Equity and Diversity office, CSULB staff cannot be forced to go through anti-racism training. It must be elective.

[Editor’s note: Hyperallergic followed up with CSULB regarding this claim by Professor Shaked. Terri Carbaugh, the head of the Public Affairs office responded: “she [Meyer] was directed to work with HR. Members of her staff had complained to HR some of her ‘anti-racism staff exercises’ were making them uncomfortable.” Meyer corroborated this, and made clear that indeed she approached the employees she supervised and engaged them in discussions about white supremacy, and queried them about the potential of inviting outside groups to come in and work with staff on anti-racism and anti-bias training. Meyer acknowledged that the conversations made some staff uncomfortable, and related that none were required to further engage in any training as a result of those initial conversations.]

That advice did not arise spontaneously — it was prompted. In the coming months Meyer would be subject to stresses from individuals at multiple institutional levels regarding “American MONUMENT.” Yet, when fired six days before its launch, the university insisted that the exhibition and the firing were not linked. Nevertheless, it is clear as day that even if ostensibly they were not previously related, well then, they sure are related now. In juxtaposing the two events, the university administration has performed what can be described as a curatorial act, bringing into relief a connection that they will never be able to undo.

An outcry in Meyer’s defense from the campus and arts community prompted the administration to reveal a cause. There were “operations” issues, an official statement declared, initially misspelling Meyer’s name, as if driven by an unconscious need to rouse further attention. The community was not satisfied. “Operations” issues are a suspicious cause for firing a director who had almost fifteen years of stellar performance with a complex set of international institutions, as Katie Grinnan, who has worked with Meyer before, testified at the Dean’s townhall meeting. Instead, Meyer was hoisted to the ranks of several other radical women leaders in the arts who have recently been fired from their jobs, such as: Helen Molesworth, Laura Raicovich, and María Inés Rodríguez.

View of CSULB’s University Art Museum (photo by Kimberli Meyer)

In the days that followed her firing the debates based on speculation, were clarified by another type of institutional spokesperson. In a statement defending the staff from “hurtful” false narratives pushed by the media and the administration denying the staff’s right to speak, the president of the California State University Employees Union Chapter 315, Jennifer Moran, spoke on behalf of her clients. In doing so Moran probably breached several rules herself, since she is also the development coordinator for the Dean’s office, and spoke out of turn in the middle of an appeals process. Nevertheless, she inadvertently revealed the extent to which the culture of the UAM echoes that of the state and its police.

Apparently, Meyer has failed because of her “disregard for needed compliance to union and university rules, regulations, restrictions, policies and procedures,” corroborating woods’s conclusion that the firing “is tied to her trying to do a different type of practice!” As woods also underscored: “this is what institutional violence looks like.”

The lion’s share of Moran’s objections rest on the fact that Meyer did not involve the Long Beach or University police. But why would a project focused on critiquing systematic police brutality turn to the police for the alleged necessary protection? We should be talking about the fact that black subjects are killed at a sharply higher rate than any others in the United States. We should be asking who gets to call the police, and who has to fear the police. At the Dean’s town hall meeting the general misunderstanding of the work was reflected in the words of a senior museum staff member who claimed that the degree of collaboration between woods and Meyer was “not always transparent.” How curious: months of research orchestrated by Meyer with students and staff on campus, and at the museum, resulted in reams of information that were supposed to go on display. Meyer met weekly with a team of two interns from the College of Liberal Arts, a museum studies graduate, one museum work study student, and a staff member, often FaceTiming with woods who directed the research about more than 200 victims she had initially identified. Together they generated a set of template letters and guidance for how to follow cases. Students created and worked on shared files for each victim, amassing basic data, new media reports, documents, videos, and sound files. They utilized a Freedom of Information Act letter-generating platform to send out requests to civic and law-enforcement offices. They tracked responses in a Google doc, and students followed up on their own cases. By the time lauren arrived in July, they had a lot of data. As faculty member Craig Stone underscored: “Kimberli is everywhere in the show, she has signed on all the freedom-of-information requests!”

Complaints about last-minute changes and late deliveries should not even raise an eyebrow for anyone familiar with contemporary art making and museum work. These are standard procedure. Bringing them up as failures on the part of Meyer must refer back to the question: is this what we should be discussing now?

If staff were allowed to speak, what would they say? Would they actively advocate for “American MONUMENT” to come back? The question is critical because, as former student Breanne Bradley said, “they seem to have moved on to the next project.” If museum staff at the UAM are committed to restorative justice, as they claim, they should advocate for Meyer’s return, whether they personally want it or not. Combatting structural white supremacy takes putting one’s comfort aside.

If the administration would step up and take responsibility for the damage they themselves created, what would they do? After all, the staff union did not fire Meyer, they merely advanced some easily refutable causes. How do we know that these are actual causes, not alibi? After all, as Barbara Fields so brilliantly identified, racism is the means, not the end: “the object was to produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco, not to produce white supremacy.”

What if Meyer’s firing is related to a real estate deal she was unwilling to accept? Responding to the administration’s push to place the museum in downtown Long Beach, Meyer had argued that a public institution should not pay rent to a private developer. Raising more questions is the timing of her firing, four hours after she delivered upon a $10 million donation – the largest in the museum’s history, and second highest campus-wide donation.

[Editor’s note: To the assertion that Meyer delivered this donation, Carbaugh replied “Not 100 percent a fact. Kimberli did engage in many external relationships with university donors and the $10 million was part of that ongoing engagement work. The campus continues to have conversations with the donor. There is no signed gift agreement at this time.” Meyer replied to this by explaining that she had worked with the donor for years and had essentially secured a verbal agreement to make the donation and had brought together the donor, her representatives and her lawyer for the first time and connected them to the university’s development office with the understanding that the university would finalize the transaction.]

If the staff and the administration are truly committed to Meyer’s vision of exposing and eliminating white supremacy, a watered-down version will not suffice. As graduate student Andrea Guerrero told Hyperallergic: “They can’t keep the project moving forward because they weren’t in support of the project.”

To overcome the racism embedded deep in our consciousness and our society, much more is needed than compliance with the rules. We find repeatedly in endless studies that the rules are written by the status quo, to protect the status quo, and that the status quo upholds white supremacy. Our job as intellectuals, artists, and art professionals is to question the rules. If we don’t start here we will not get to the next question of a much broader abolitionist project — which should be the critical work done at the university. Critical art takes vision, flexibility, and personal largess to extend oneself beyond one’s petty grudges. To assume that the system protects us is to assume privilege. To wield it is to reinscribe what “American MONUMENT” seeks to combat.

Editor’s note: Regarding Shaked’s contention that Meyer’s firing likely has something to do with her opposition to a plan to expand or move the UAM to downtown Long Beach and enter a relationship with a developer that would see the university paying rent to that developer, Carbaugh countered that “there had been talks, and there are talks about downtown student/faculty low income housing, but the UAM appears to have dropped from the discussion.” Shaked responded to this by citing two articles from 2017, one from the Press-Telegram, and the other in the Long Beach Post. Shaked also wrote: “Plans of opening a museum branch as part of a downtown development have been in the works for years, and have been openly discussed at faculty meetings, with the entire faculty of the Art Department present, several times during the tenure of the previous museum director, Chris Scoates. Last year I attended a retreat with the UAM Advisory Board and staff at the architects’ offices downtown and we all walked over to the proposed site. The general feeling of unease expressed around these open discussions was that the university will eventually want to use the campus space for other purposes, which would be a clear pedagogical mistake.”

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