How should museums in the United States respond to the ongoing protests against racial injustice and police killings of Black Americans? Many museums have chosen to react to the nationwide protests by posting artwork by Black artists on social media together with a quote from the artists and/or a short statement of solidarity. While some on social media have congratulated these posts, others have criticized them as mere lip service and demanded more from these public institutions. And in one case, a museum is accused of silencing criticism from a former employee by disabling comments on a recent Instagram post.
On Saturday, May 30, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) posted an image of artist Glenn Ligon’s silkscreen “We’re Black and Strong (I)” (1996), a nuanced work that critically approaches the 1995 Million Man March, led by Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. (The march was criticized for excluding women, who were asked instead to observe a “day of absence.”)
The image was captioned with a quote from Ligon, saying, “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” The post did not include any additional statement from the museum.
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We strongly support the value of FREE SPEECH, and we encourage dialogue and voices heard! In case you missed it, SFMOMA deleted our member’s comment last night. [EDIT: We would like to clarify that Taylor Brandon, identified as a union member on our last IG post, is actually a former employee, having resigned in March in response to racism in her department. However, her departure doesn’t make her any less a member in our hearts.] #sfmomaunion #opeiulocal29 #solidarity #blacklivesmatter #brownlivesmatter #unionstrong
Taylor Brandon, a former marketing associate at SFMOMA, responded to the post with a critical comment on Saturday. “This is a cop-out,” Brandon wrote. “Using black artist/art to make a statement that needs to come from the institution. You don’t only get to amplify black artists during a surge of black mourning and pain. Having black people on your homepage/feed is not enough.”
Brandon continued to scrutinize top officials at the museum — Chief of Marketing and Communications officer Ann von Germeten; Deputy Director of External Relations Nan Keeton; and Director Neal Benezra — and accused them of “weaponizing their own black employees” and of being “profiters of racism.”
Later that day, SFMOMA removed and disabled comments on the post.
In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Brandon called SFMOMA’s reaction an act of “total censorship.”
“It’s not something new, it only brings to light what already exists,” she said.
A worker at SFMOMA who spoke with Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity echoed Brandon’s grievances against the institution and its leadership. “I am very disappointed, although not surprised, at SFMOMA’s response to the criticisms they’ve received over the weekend,” they said.
“Ever since I started working at SFMOMA, I have watched leadership tokenize their non-white employees all while trying to silence them by implying that their concerns, frustrations, and experiences are not real,” the worker added. “The events that transpired regarding the Instagram post highlights leadership’s inability to recognize the racism within museums amongst employees and donors.”
SFMOMA has not replied to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, but on Monday, the museum reopened its original post to comments and posted an updated statement that said:
We can do better. Our social media post on Saturday should have more directly expressed our sadness and outrage as an institution on the ongoing trauma and violence that continues to disproportionately affect Black lives.
“We apologize,” the statement added. “We recognize that African American people and communities of color are especially impacted and suffering right now.”
In the caption text, the museum intimated that Brandon’s comment violated Instagram’s community guidelines for naming SFMOMA officials, though she was not directly named in the apology. The museum posted a link to its community guidelines on its website, adding, “We do not and will not remove or disable comments unless they violate those specific parameters, including comments directed at private individuals.”
In response, Brandon told Hyperallergic, “SFMOMA is a non-profit organization whose information is public online. Everyone I named is in a public-facing role and the department that they’re in is external relations.”
Brandon departed from SFMOMA in March against the backdrop of a debate with her supervisors over the museum’s recent Dawoud Bey retrospective, which opened in February (now closed due to COVID-19). Brandon said that she vocally criticized the museum for not allocating enough funding to marketing and educational programming for the exhibition in comparison to the funds that were put into the traveling Andy Warhol retrospective Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again last year. “I called them out on it, but they didn’t listen,” she said. “I felt completely silenced.”
Now, many on social media are rallying behind Brandon to defend her critique of the museum. The SFMOMA union posted a screenshot of Brandon’s deleted comment, writing that “Censorship is racist!” and adding, “We strongly support the value of FREE SPEECH, and we encourage dialogue and voices heard!”
“Non black art people — start speaking up and protecting black people,” the union wrote. “Folks are about to get laid off anyway so what are you protecting… cause it’s not a job.”
A plethora of comments on SFMOMA’s Instagram castigated the institution for silencing Black voices.
“Oh my god, SFMOMA. Do better,” one commenter wrote. “Maybe start by admitting you deleted a comment by a black employee, for no reason other than that you didn’t like it. Their comment violated no guidelines. Learn how to take accountability and responsibility. It’s not difficult.”
Today, SFMOMA posted on its Instagram a statement on behalf of artists Leila Weefur and Elena Gross in which they voice their “principled disagreement” with the museum. The post is part of the artists’ collaboration with the public artist lecture series Heavy Breathing, for SFMOMA’s Community in Residence program.
“SFMOMA’s apology fails to acknowledge that their act of censorship, in deleting and disabling comments on their May 30th post, is a silencing act that is complicit with and enables systemized violence against Black individuals,” they wrote.
“SFMOMA leveraged the words and work of black artist Glenn Ligon, rather than offering a direct statement condemning violence against Black communities,” they said, calling their position with SFMOMA’s Community in Residence program “an opportunity to amplify dialogue with artists and the public.”
Many in the comments commended the artists but also chastised the museum for failing to acknowledge Brandon in their apology.
The anonymous SFMOMA employee told Hyperallergic, “At this point, the only thing SFMOMA can begin to do to reconcile this situation is to publicly apologize to Taylor Brandon, and past and present Black employees; as well as, provide a donation to an organization that supports people on the frontlines fighting against racism.”
Meanwhile, several other museums have gotten into hot water for posting empty platitudes or tone-deaf responses to the protests on their social media accounts.
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles issued an apology for posting a message that failed to mention George Floyd and Black lives but stressed that the museum stands for “equity and fairness” and hopes for “justice and peace for all, and a spirit of caring for one another.”
Similarly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York amended an Instagram post that originally shared Faith Ringgold painting “Freedom of Speech” (1990) and a quote from the artist, but nothing more.
A commenter responded, “Say what you NEED to say w your chest. Not these loose allusions or references.” The Met acknowledged its mistake in a reply to the comment and added a few lines: “The Met stands in solidarity with the Black community. We see you, we are listening, we support you.”
This confusion speaks of a culture of tokenism and an unresolved problem of representation at art institutions, according to Brandon.
“Museums create this facade of being in support of Black artists but in reality, they’re not,” she said. “They’re tokenizing these artists and commodifying them.”
“If there is a Black exhibition that is going to be on view, it’s usually Black employees or employees of color who are fighting for this exhibition to get the resources it deserves,” she added. “They’re the ones putting their neck on the line.”
Correction 6/3/2020 4:09pm EDT: An original version of this article misstated that Leila Weefur and Elena Gross are the organizers of Heavy Breathing. This is incorrect; the pair is currently collaborating with the lecture series as featured artists.