Palm Springs Art Museum Criticized for Staying “Neutral” in Wake of George Floyd’s Killing

An open letter criticizes the museum for staying silent for 10 days and for then offering a “message of neutrality using the artwork of Alison Saar, whose work is far from neutral.”

Palm Springs Art Museum (image via Joe Wolf on Flickr)

LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, an open letter to the Palm Springs Art Museum (PSAM) began circulating online, criticizing the museum’s silence in the wake of George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the subsequent protests. “The Palm Springs Art Museum, which sits on sacred Cahuilla lands, has failed to rise up and use its platform to speak against the racism that is prevalent within its own walls and throughout its broader desert communities. At this point, Silence Equals Complicity,” the statement reads in part.

It goes on to recognize, by contrast, the visible and vocal statements other arts institutions have made. “Institutions all over the world are stepping up to this challenge and setting a standard for the communities they serve and for the rest of society,” it reads, citing the Getty, the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum as institutions that have issued demands for justice and declarations of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other activists. It is worth noting that several of these institutions were originally called out for their initial lackluster or misguided responses that rang hollow to many, only to then acknowledge their shortcomings and issue stronger statements. 

Penned by Andrea Romero, a former Curatorial Assistant at the Palm Springs Art Museum, the letter has accrued over 200 signatures from artists, curators, educators, and other art world professionals. These include artists Sebastian Hernandez, Eamon Ore-Giron, and Gabriela Ruiz, as well as employees and volunteers from the Getty, MOCA, the Broad, and PSAM itself. One of those signatories was Karen Lofgren, a Los Angeles-based artist who was included in a five-woman show, Brave New Worlds: Explorations of Space, curated by Mara Gladstone, the museum’s only curator of color, at PSAM last year.

The show I was in was very diverse… There are some efforts being made,” Lofgren told Hyperallergic, referring to the fact that the exhibition featured two Asian American artists, one Latina artist, and one African American artist. “That said, all institutions need to look at themselves in terms of cultural equity, in terms of staffing. The curatorial staff has to be willing to look for new work, reach out to diverse communities… For them to remain relevant, they need to address it,” she said. “This is an opportunity for institutions to take a hard look at themselves… Silence at this moment is deafening.”

Adee Roberson, who was also included in Brave New Worlds, echoed Lofgren’s sentiments, both about her experience of the show and the need for greater action. “Personally, I had a show there and everything went well,” she told Hyperallergic, adding, “I think this is one of the many institutions that needs to work on this.”

When emailed for comment, PSAM’s director, Louis Grachos, directed Hyperallergic to his response to the letter posted on June 9. “We join in your call for an end to systemic racism and unite in the commitment that Black Lives Matter. We also acknowledge that expressions of sympathy and solidarity are not enough. It is also critical to continually learn from community feedback,” it reads.

Grachos then outlines some of the steps the museum took to recognize the recent events, including an Instagram post of a work by African American artist Alison Saar on June 3, and a statement posted to their homepage on June 5 reading: “Palm Springs Art Museum condemns racism in any form. We reject racial violence, discrimination, and injustice taken against Black communities. We reaffirm our commitment to maintaining an environment that respects all peoples.” It continues: “Museums are complex organizations and are often slow moving, and we acknowledge that we all have more work to do.”

The museum’s posting of the Saar image finds a parallel in the Toledo Museum’s criticized action of hanging a banner featuring a Saar work outside its building. PSAM also disabled comments on its Saar post, in a similar move to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which disabled comments on one of its Instagram posts, leading to claims of censorship.

“The museum posted a message of neutrality using the work of Alison Saar, whose work is far from neutral, and disabled the comments for almost an entire day when they received backlash from the community for their weak message to the public,” Romero wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. “As the leading cultural institution in the Coachella Valley, the public expected much more from them than an Instagram post that emphasized reflection without action and support for ‘all voices.’ In his response letter, Grachos said that comments were disabled because attacks were being ‘leveled at an individual member of staff personally,’ and pledged that the museum would ‘do better for our community as we work together to bring about change.'”

“It’s a lot of empty rhetoric, performative allyship,” Romero said of the museum’s overall response. “If they are committed to taking action against racism in and out the workplace, they would commit to more concrete demands that the community has been making. Commit to reforming financial models, the toxic organization structures, centrally placed power in the executive staff and museum boards. A better response would have been releasing critical information to the public, museum demographics, ensuring that the museum body matches the demographics of the United States. There are a lot of things that are still not addressed.”

Romero’s issues with the museum go deeper than recent events, dating back months to her stint as a curatorial assistant. As she told Hyperallergic, she was fired via email on October 25, two days after she requested a meeting with HR to discuss her conflicts with new Chief Curator Rochelle Steiner, who was hired last August. “Steiner wasn’t a resource or an ally,” Romero told Hyperallergic. “In the email that [HR] sent me, they said that my performance wasn’t meeting expectations, that Steiner needed someone with executive assistant experience, which wasn’t in my job description. As a person of color, you learn to let it go. You never get closure or resolve things.” Rochelle Steiner did not reply to a request for comment emailed to the curatorial department. Hyperallergic also emailed Scott Slaven, Director of Marketing at the Museum, but did not receive a response by publication time.

Romero’s description of “toxicity on behalf of the executive leadership” was elaborated on by a statement sent to Hyperallergic by David Evans Frantz, a former Associate Curator at the museum from August 2018 to January 2020. “Decisions by leadership about museum priorities were rarely discussed or shared with staff. It was a constant struggle to center exhibition, collection, and programmatic discussions on historically marginalized artists and communities. Efforts to address injustice and racism within the institution were largely performative, resulting in little tangible or long-lasting change. The work environment was particularly toxic for POC colleagues,” he writes. 

“I genuinely hope the museum will listen, learn, grow, and take concrete steps in response to the public letter’s call to action,” his statement concludes. “Now more than ever we need institutions that are responsive, caring, and boldly anti-racist.”

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