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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (Jeremy Thompson/Flickr)

SAN FRANCISCO — A group of former San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) employees campaigning against institutional racism, collectively known as xSFMOMA,  escalated their demands on Wednesday in an open letter urging a “radical reexamination” of museum governance and the board of trustees.  

The xSFMOMA letter — authored with input from more than a dozen former workers, including some who’ve signed non-disclosure agreements, according to two organizers who spoke to Hyperallergic on the condition of anonymity — lays recent accounts of workplace racism and censorship at the feet of the board.

The 75 museum trustees are “culpable” for the “ongoing violent treatment of BIPOC, disabled, queer and trans employees and the continued development of a white supremacist exhibition and collecting program,” reads the demand letter published on Medium. “You must ask yourself: How has my role and direction on this board allowed or encouraged this harmful behavior?”

The letter is the latest in one of the most dramatic reckonings with institutional racism at any museum nationwide. It started with the censorship of a former worker and has led to resignations by five high-level employees, most recently senior curator Gary Garrels, as accounts of racism and broader critiques of museum leadership surface on social media.

Now, by targeting trustees, xSFMOMA is addressing not only individual managers and policies but also the seat of power, a privileged group of the San Francisco Bay Area’s business elite with say in top hiring, programming, and budget decisions. 

xSFMOMA emerged last month initially to show support for Taylor Brandon, a Black former SFMOMA communications worker who cofounded the similarly aimed No Neutral Alliance after the museum stifled her criticisms of top leadership. The group aims to “ask for things that current workers cannot for fear of retaliation,” an organizer said in a statement to Hyperallergic.

SFMOMA, which did not immediately respond to a comment request, in a statement on Tuesday acknowledged recent criticisms and announced various response measures. The museum is hiring two new directors of employee experience and diversity, inclusion, and belonging; instituting anti-racist training; and piloting gender neutral restrooms, among other steps.

xSFMOMA’s letter deems this response insufficient. “We are calling for a radical reexamination of the governance structure of museums, at SFMOMA and across the United States,” it reads. 

Similarly to campaigns against Warren Kanders and members of the Sackler family, the letter calls for the removal of trustees whose business interests and political donations undermine the museum’s community-oriented work. In their place the letter demands ordinary museumgoers — in numbers commensurate with museum revenue from membership and tickets. (Membership and admissions accounted for a combined 28% of SFMOMA’s revenue in the 2018 fiscal year, according to its most recent biennial report.)

The letter singles out former board chairman Charles Schwab, the billionaire financier and prolific Donald Trump donor, calling for his and his wife Helen Schwab’s names to be removed from Benezra’s endowed title (“Helen and Charles Schwab Director”) and the museum walls. These acknowledgements of their investments, the letter states, make the museum a “necessarily unsafe space for many employees and visitors.”

The letter also alludes to trustees whose wealth derives from “arms production and tools of mass surveillance” as being “fundamentally in conflict with SFMOMA’s supposed mission and goals.” It links to an analysis of SFMOMA trustees’ conservative political donations, Trump administration ties, and war profiteering published last year by the local San Francisco news website Mission Local. More than a dozen trustees or their spouses are senior figures at firms invested in military contractors, the analysis found.

The letter also calls for board transparency, including direct communication between trustees and staff. (Decisions such as approving no-interest home loans for Garrels and director Neal Benezra have lately drawn scrutiny.) Currently, “trustees are sheltered from the realities of the museum’s daily operations by the very leaders who are enacting and enabling harm,” it reads. 

Meanwhile, xSFMOMA wants the board to reconsider SFMOMA’s ongoing commitment to reserve some 60% of gallery space for predominantly works loaned by the Fisher family, whose fortune derives from the Gap brand. The homogeneity of the collection, heavily skewed towards white male painters, has drawn renewed criticism following Garrels’s comment that not collecting white artists would be “reverse discrimination.”

The letter restates earlier demands related to limiting executive compensation and hazard pay for frontline staff as the museum prepares to reopen, and voices support for the parallel accountability efforts of No Neutral Alliance. Brandon, the former communications worker, formed the alliance with artist collectives, including Nure and CTRL+SHFT, to address anti-Blackness at SFMOMA. The alliance’s demands begin with Benezra’s resignation.

SFMOMA has undergone two rounds of layoffs, affecting hundreds of workers, since closing to the public in March. The museum’s labor union has conspicuously uplifted the No Neutral Alliance’s calls for racial equity, and criticized museum administrators for seizing on the pandemic as an opportunity to lay off employees before considering other savings strategies. 

Dena Beard, director of alternative art space the Lab, who is one of few Bay Area arts figures to publicly criticize SFMOMA’s board of trustees, applauded the letter in a statement to Hyperallergic. “We know inherently art institutions don’t align with the values of artists and art workers who work, oftentimes for free, to contextualize artworks, to give shape and nuance to human experience, and to provide space for a collective transformation,” she said. “Instead, they align with the values of donors whose only interest is in accumulating wealth and power.” 

Beard continued, “Solidarity movements like Black Lives Matter, xSFMOMA, and No Neutral Alliance demonstrate how to inhabit the world of desire, how to act out the audacity of collectively maintained values, and soon, to create a space where art truly feels transformative.”

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Sam Lefebvre

Sam Lefebvre (@Lefebvre_Sam) is a freelance writer in Oakland whose journalism and criticism have appeared in publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wire, Pitchfork, the Believer,...