The entrance steps to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (photo by David Sorich via Flickr)

As demonstrations persist across the nation protesting Black deaths at the hands of police and vigilantes, and calls to defund the police gain steam, cultural institutions are facing criticism over their relationships to law enforcement agencies — from contracting security officers for special events to letting patrols station on their premises.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago has been scrutinized after a 2019 photograph depicting museum staffers posing with a donation check to the city’s 18th District precinct resurfaced on social media. The image prompted questions about the museum’s ties to the Chicago Police Department (CPD), an agency known for engaging in unreasonable use of force whose officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted for murdering Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, in 2014.

An open letter authored by current and former members of the Teen Creative Agency (TCA), the museum’s youth development program, demanded that MCA cut ties with the CPD and “acknowledge the systematic abuse of power and overt brutality exhibited by the police.” The group also accused the museum of profiting from the work of Black artists and cultural workers, noting that TCA itself is composed mostly of people of color who “have always been compensated well below minimum wage.” 

“It has not gone unnoticed that the MCA has yet to mention its support of the Black Lives Matter movement nor has it acknowledged the deep plagues within the black community and how it might help uplift in these times of struggle,” the letter reads.

The museum has since agreed to stop contracting CPD’s services until the department makes significant reforms, though some believe much more work remains to be done. 

Making monetary contributions to the CPD, as well as sustaining any other connections with the department, “are staunchly against the beliefs and efforts of the Teen Creative Agency,” reads the TCA’s letter. The program, which brings together young people ages 15 to 19 to develop projects under the guidance of artists, pledges to be free from “ageism, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, or ableism.”

The petition has garnered more than 2,500 signatures of support as of this writing, and led the museum to take action. When asked about the its promise to cut ties with the police, though, TCA members told Hyperallergic that the move is a sign of progress, but “there has yet to be an action plan laid out for this to be done.” They also stressed that their remaining requests have gone “largely unanswered.”

In a response to the petition sent a day later, MCA Chicago director Madeleine Grynsztejn addressed the MCA’s relationship with CPD, acknowledging that the museum made a donation to the agency’s Memorial Fund in honor of Commander Paul Bauer. The commander, who was killed in the line of duty in 2018, had previously attended MCA Chicago’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2017-2018, sitting on the dais along with the mayor and other public city officials.

But according to Grynsztejn, the widely-circulated photograph that prompted outrage depicts a donation made by the private security firm Securitas to the CPD, not by the museum. MCA Chicago staffers are present in the picture because the donation was made after its Virgil Abloh exhibition last summer, when the MCA collaborated with Nike on the release of exclusive sneakers for the show. Nike “insisted that we consult with the CPD” to determine a plan for security presence around the pick-up of the shoes, said Grynsztejn, and Securitas made a contribution to CPD that was equivalent in value to a pair of the Nike exclusive shoes (~$1,200).

“I acknowledge that sharing an image of the check being handed over, featuring MCA colleagues, sent a confusing message,” Grynsztejn wrote. “We have clarified that message for anyone who asked directly and are grateful that we have the moment to do that now more broadly.”

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The MCA Chicago stands in solidarity with Black communities and protesters in denouncing racial injustice. We honor the lives of Tony McDade, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others who have been unjustly killed by racial violence. We hear you calling out for us to consider what a relationship with the CPD means for this museum and for our larger Chicago community. The MCA is not engaged in any current contracts, ongoing contracts, or special services with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), nor does it fund the CPD. We commit to greater equity, empathy, and justice across our programs, operations, and workplace to dismantle systemic racism. We recognize that we do not have all the tools to do that work alone and, before we go any further in words and actions, we need to work on ourselves first. We pledge to continue public programs that enable us to listen and learn from you. We promise that this is ongoing work we will pursue with vulnerability and courage. Black lives matter.

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In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the museum said, “We stand united against racial injustice alongside those who are using their voices to hold authorities and institutions accountable for their actions. While the MCA is not currently engaged in any current or ongoing contracts, special services, or funding of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), we pledge not to engage in future contracts with CPD until we see meaningful changes that respect Black Communities implemented in our city.”

But while “the unclear ties with CPD was the original call to action, TCA wanted to address other injustices we saw within the museum,” the teen group told Hyperallergic. “Though TCA believes in the representation of BIPOC artists in the MCA, we think they walk a fine line between fetishizing BIPOC pain when they don’t hastily advocate for BIPOC and financially reinvest in BIPOC communities.”

“We also believe that the MCA needs to reevaluate the role of its youth programs in the museum programming: the MCA needs to invest in TCA as they frequently rely upon us yet aren’t considered, compensated, and treated as staff,” they added. “As of now we are considered MCA program participants, yet give our time in and out of designated session days.”

The group has made their demands clear — as well as the consequences the museum would face for not meeting them: TCA will refrain from any work involving 21Minus, MCA Chicago’s annual teen arts festival, until the institution puts forward a tangible plan of action. A representative from the group, Vivian Zamora, told Hyperallergic that the group will continue to meet with museum leaders to advance its plans.

“TCA as a diverse and radical workforce is obviously appalled by the state of our country and our city,” they told Hyperallergic. “Simply put we cannot support the mass death of POC and Black people and anyone or institution that plays into the systematic oppression that is far too prevalent in America.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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