As demonstrations against racist violence continue, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is at the center of controversy for asking faculty not to affiliate with the school in their activism activities. A website launched today, changeatpafa.com, brings together five independently authored open letters of concern from PAFA alumni, undergraduate students, graduate students, post-baccalaureate students, and the school’s Alumni Council.
Collectively, they express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; condemn the school’s non-affiliation policies; and demand concrete actions, such as the immediate termination of PAFA CEO and President David Brigham. They also advocate for various measures to foment inclusivity, representation, and diversity in PAFA’s faculty and curricula.
“PAFA has had many important artists of color pass through its doors; the school is not far from being a leader in diversity,” Eustace Mamba, a student who was involved in writing the undergraduate response, told Hyperallergic. “We just need an administration and board that admits their white privilege, and ushers in a new era.”
Within two hours of the site going public, the letters garnered more than 300 signatures of support, including from notable alumni and community members including Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ken Lum, and Didier William.
“We assert that civic involvement is inseparable from institutional participation, whether as students, faculty, staff, or administration,” writes PAFA’s graduate student body. “Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter movement extends far beyond a political affiliation. This is a human rights crisis. PAFA’s inability to fully support this movement is reprehensible.”
In early June, nine PAFA faculty signed an online petition addressed to Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council calling on city leaders to reinvest police funds into human services. Four days after the petition went live with nearly 3,000 signatures, PAFA vice president of human resources Lisa R. Biagas sent out a memo reminding staff to maintain their “civic involvement” activities, such as petitions and demonstrations, separate from their roles at the school.
“As we all continue to participate in our democracy, I want to remind you that we do so as private, individual citizens, and that we do not represent ourselves by our PAFA affiliation or titles in these forums,” Biagas wrote in the email, which was shared with Hyperallergic.
The administration’s directive prompted outrage and backlash from different factions of the PAFA community.
Yikui (Coy) Gu, president of PAFA’s Alumni Association Council, penned an open letter to the Board of Trustees on the council’s behalf and then tendered his resignation, he told Hyperallergic. “We collectively and wholeheartedly reject your tone deaf and unacceptable stance to disassociate from Black Lives Matter. We believe that Black Lives Matter. Period,” he wrote.
In an op-ed for the Inquirer, Samantha Mitchell, a Philadelphia-based artist, writer, and PAFA alum, said that while non-affiliation policies are not uncommon in private institutions, “enforcing one only after faculty express their support of BLM speaks to what — and who — PAFA considers a priority.”
Two alumnae of the school, Melissa Joseph and Chelsea Nader, shared a statement with Hyperallergic titled “A letter to our (#toowhite) Alma mater.” In it they refer to the recent incident at PAFA as “the most blatant in a series of failed attempts to address institution-wide instances of racism, sexual misconduct, and inequitable working conditions,” and call for its current leadership to be replaced with “anti-racist, diverse leaders.”
“By linking the school’s policy to ‘protect and preserve individual employees’ rights to hold and freely express mainstream as well as unpopular views’ with BLM, PAFA is essentially declaring institutionalized racism to be an ‘unpopular opinion’ rather than the human rights violation that it really is,” Joseph and Nader write.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, PAFA shared a letter from Brigham that was sent today to faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
“The last week has been a painful time of reflection for me. I have thought of myself as a champion for diversity and inclusion, particularly by recognizing the achievements of artists of color and women artists, but recent press, emails, and social media posts demonstrate that I have fallen short of my own beliefs and PAFA’s stated Core Values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Brigham writes in his letter.
The school’s president goes on to acknowledge the work of PAFA’s Belonging Task Force, which conducted a campus survey and developed a 29-point plan of recommendations. These include hiring a DEI coordinator and at least two full-time faculty members from communities of color and conducting an audit of the university museum’s permanent collection to identify works made by or owned by people associated with slavery or racism.
“I am committed to the sweeping changes that must happen at PAFA and throughout our society to ensure that Black people have equal access to human rights, social justice, economic opportunity, education, housing, health, and human services,” Brigham says.
But faculty and student distrust in the institution is deep-seated. Allegations that PAFA mishandled a 2016 incident of sexual assault, for example, are cited by members of the PAFA community as egregious examples of administrative failure. All the letters written by members of PAFA’s community call unwaveringly for Brigham’s resignation, and the alumni’s missive also asks Dean of Students Anne Stassen and Dean of the School Clint Jukkala to step down or undergo a “comprehensive review with possibility of termination.”
“Not allowing the school and faculty to stand firmly in support of BLM is not only failing to recognize the civil rights of all humans, but it is actually leaning into the white supremacist ideologies. We went to this school, so we feel a responsibility to make clear that this is not what we stand for,” Joseph, who graduated from PAFA’s MFA program in 2018, told Hyperallergic.
“My hope is that David resigns,” Nader added. “In doing that it will create room for the diversity that we are looking for to happen. The old guard is holding back the institution, and it’s sad to see. David is so stuck in his white privilege that he can’t even see how dangerous his statement was. Including BIPOC and other POC voices is key to the success of our society as a whole.”