LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, a small group of Cal State University Long Beach students held a silent protest outside the offices of Scott Apel, the University’s Vice President of Administration and Finance. Inside the office, Apel was meeting with Kimberli Meyer, the former director of the University Art Museum, who had been fired on September 11, just days before “American Monument” — a work dealing with police violence — was set to open. This meeting was the second stage in Meyer’s appeal to be reinstated.
The work was composed of 25 vinyl records featuring audio recordings related to the deaths of African Americans killed by police. In response to Meyer’s firing, the artist behind “American Monument,” lauren woods — who considered Meyer a collaborator — had taken the records and “paused” the work, writing in a statement: “American Monument can only resume its co-creative process when restored, which can only happen with Kimberli Meyer retained as director of UAM.” (As per her request, woods’s name is written in lowercase.)
Holding signs reading “#Unpause American Monument” and “Monumental Racism,” the protestors — a mix of art students and members of La Raza Student Association — made it clear that they saw a connection between Meyer’s firing and her project of combating white supremacy and racism on an institutional level. It is a connection that the administration has denied. “[T]his decision was part of a longer-term process,” wrote College of the Arts (COTA) Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette in a statement.
“We want the administration to be held accountable for their actions,” said Joanie Ellen, an MFA student who was part of the protest. “We want them to meet Kimberli and lauren in the middle and have some sort of restorative plan.”
“I feel like it’s a suffocation of the 25 people that the Monument represents, their last accounts, the last words they spoke,” said MFA student Nicola Lee. “On top of that, the school has a majority non-white population. Where are our voices in all this?”
Last month, the CSULB School of Art Concerned Students of Color and Allies penned an open letter to Dean Parker-Jeannette, CSULB Spokesperson Terri Carbaugh, and California State University Employees Union (CSUEU) Chapter 315 President Jennifer Moran, addressing their “growing concerns … regarding the handling of race-relations and inclusivity within the UAM, the College of the Arts, and the School of Art.”
“If you will not hire people who look like us or share our experiences as people of color then at the very least administration, faculty, and staff must be trained to recognize unconscious bias,” the letter states.
“American MONUMENT was the first artistic project facilitated by the UAM that many of us at the School of Art felt truly reflected those practices in a way that was relevant to us. Learning about Kimberli’s anti-racist initiatives enhanced our excitement for it. We were starting to feel included,” the letter continues.
It concludes with an expression of support for Meyer and woods, and for CSULB alum Melissa Raybon, who wrote an October 8 open letter expressing her frustration with UAM staff as a Getty Multicultural Curatorial Intern there in 2017.
Moran, representing only for the California State University Employees Union, and not the University, provided Hyperallergic with a response to the students’ letter. “While CSUEU believes the termination was necessary, we do not believe the University met their responsibilities to the UAM staff and campus community by choosing such a time to execute their decision,” the letter states. “We fully acknowledge the loss you [the students] feel at Kimberli’s removal and the pause of American MONUMENT.”
Moran goes on to express support for museum employees, stating, “UAM staff have done an exceptional job in a complicated situation, the circumstances of which have been beyond their control. Both in preparation for this project and after the announcement of its pause, staff have shown a commitment to public service and continually work to do right by the artist, lauren woods, with respect to her wishes for American MONUMENT and her co-collaborative process.”
She concludes by noting that “institutional and social change does not depend on one person. It is only from collective effort that collective action can be achieved. The UAM remains dedicated to inclusion and upholding social justice.” As part of a “dedication to equitable representation for artists of color … and the needs of diverse communities,” she cites last summer’s Zines Are Us program, and Call and Response, When We Say… You Say, an exhibition set to open in January organized by Slanguage Studio. According to the UAM’s website, the Wilmington-based collective will invite community-based arts groups to respond to objects pulled from the UAM’s permanent collection.
Beyond the letter and silent protest, students have created artworks in response to the events surrounding the UAM. About a week after Meyer’s firing, Lee donned a black body suit and face mask and stood in front of the museum, transforming herself into a “Human Freedom of Speech Wall.” During the three-hour performance, she invited the public to write messages with white markers on her body. “Don’t suppress our voice,” “Believe in Yourself,” “Reinstate Kimberli” were a few of the messages people wrote. Lee says Dean Parker-Jeannette thanked her for activating the space.
A month later, the administration held an afternoon of healing yoga alongside performances and activations of outdoor sculptures by students. Chris Velez, a BFA student, sat at a table with stacks of the letters from Raybon and the Concerned Students of Color, as well as woods’s statement on why she paused her artwork. Velez also included a questionnaire he wrote exploring allyship, with prompts such as: “How can one be an ally to a culture outside of their own?” and “What are ways an institution can maintain an anti-racist (anti-white supremacist) agenda?” He felt it was important to share information about the controversy at the museum, which much of the student body may not know about. “The longer the school waits it out, they’re winning,” he said.
Another BFA student, Ashley Galvan, used a class project to try to bring attention to the situation, which she herself was unaware of until a professor told her about it. “If I as an art student didn’t know about it, and this affects my area of expertise, then not many students outside of the art scene were aware,” she said. Galvan bought 25 thrift store records, tore off the labels, and wrote the names of the individuals featured in “American Monument.” She hung them from a tree in a central plaza on campus where they stayed for a week.
Last month, Meyer and woods sent a letter to University President Jane Conoley, Dean Parker-Jeannette, and UAM Advisory Board, proposing a “parallel museum,” that would exist at the current site of “American Monument,” offering “a new mode, next to but not overtaking, the existing system, allowing for independent structures, agendas, actors, procedures, and cultures … The parallel Museum will administratively support the monument, stewarding it and facilitating discourse and exchange between students, faculty, campus staff, local stakeholder community members, public intellectuals at large, and the curious public.”
Meyer and woods see this as a way to “unpause” the work without moving it to another institution. “We believe that the first iteration of American MONUMENT must be produced with students in a higher educational setting and that the CSULB community is the one. We are already here. We are already tied together,” the letter reads.
So far, the university has not issued a response to the proposal, according to Jeff Bliss, executive director of Media and Digital News, Office of Public Affairs & Government Relations at CSULB.
As for Meyer, she says she left her meeting with Apel without resolution. She was told to expect a letter from the administration within 20 days. “He asked me, ‘Do you really want to come back here?’” Meyer recalled. “I would, because I believe this work is important. I want to do the work, and I’m committed to that.”
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