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Open Letter Criticizes Getty for Racial Bias and Insensitivity

Current and former staff of the Getty Museum, the Getty Trust, and the Getty Research Institute were among hundreds of signatories accusing the museum of racial insensitivity and bias.

The Getty (via bfurlong/Flickr)

LOS ANGELES — On Wednesday, an open letter to the Getty Board of Trustees was posted online, criticizing the institution for a history of racial bias and insensitivity and for its lukewarm response after the murder of George Floyd.

“Racism abounds, from insensitive comments made by management and frequent microaggressions experienced by staff and visitors of color to collecting practices and exhibition programs that glorify the work of white heterosexual cisgender male artists to the exclusion of others,” the letter states. It was signed by 239 current staff members of the Getty Museum, the Getty Trust, and the Getty Research Institute, as well as over 220 former staff members and visitors.

This is just the latest in a series of open letters that have been circulating throughout the museum world, exposing a culture of racism and inequity that has long plagued the inner working of some of the nation’s most esteemed cultural institutions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Museum of Contemporary Arts Detroit.

The Getty letter goes on to mention the museum’s newly organized DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) council and task forces, noting that they have been hamstrung by limited budgets, and members who are stretched thin between their museum positions and new roles, “which sends the message that DEI is nonessential.” It also lambastes the institution for not confidently and publicly stating that “Black Lives Matter,” a glaring oversight which Jim Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, apologized in early June following backlash.

“The letter is based on our collective experiences, a cultural climate survey done last year, and recent group discussions, especially following uprisings over George Floyd’s death, the Getty’s half-hearted response, and a very upsetting All Staff meeting on June 16th,” a current staff member who wished to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic.

The June 16th meeting they refer to was billed as a “town hall,” according to another staff member who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. When they logged onto the Zoom call led by Cuno and other museum executives, however, they say they faced a hierarchical set up that paralleled the Getty’s corporate structure. “We were surprised to discover that we were all muted and that we couldn’t send questions via chat,” they told Hyperallergic. “It was like, ‘you will all quietly listen.’”

When asked for comment, a Getty spokesperson provided the following statement to Hyperallergic:

Getty’s Board and Senior Leadership are committed to immediately addressing priority issues, including building a diverse workforce, confronting and eliminating racism in the workplace, deepening our engagement with communities of color in the work we do, and expanding the diversity of perspectives and narratives brought to the work of all four Getty programs. We have said there is much work to do, and we must move forward with urgency in accomplishing it, along with our dedicated, talented, and deeply caring staff and our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council and Task Forces.

The letter concludes by imploring the board to “set actionable, measurable goals to increase diversity and repudiate racism at Getty,” requesting a response within one week.

Update 7/31, 11:25am (PDT): 

On July 21, the Getty Board of Trustees posted a response on the Getty’s blog, the iris, to a July 15 open letter written by hundreds of current and former Getty employees as well as museum visitors. In its response, the Board writes that they “acknowledge the historic gravity of the moment following the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among other Black Americans” and that they “stand united behind the declaration: Black Lives Matter.” They affirm their commitment to the Getty’s DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Council, stating that they will receive a DEI report at every board meeting. While touting some of the steps the institution has taken towards diversity, including the Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internships (often referred to as the Getty Multicultural Internship Program) and the establishment of the African American Art History Initiative, they also acknowledge “that Getty has much work still to do.”

In the comments section of the post, the team that organized the initial open letter posted their own response on July 24. “We look forward to greater transparency about how senior staff may be held accountable, as well as to what benchmarks Getty will set for itself,” they write, asking for specifics about goals, senior staff reviews, and funding for the DEI Council and Task Forces. They further ask why it will take until the next Board meeting in September to “share actionable goals” when “the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] shared its commitments to anti-racist actions at the beginning of the month.” While they recognize the importance of programs like the Marrow Internships and the African American History Initiative, they note that the “Getty must realize that such public-facing projects do nothing to address the discrimination faced by staff.” The full text of both of these responses can be found here.

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