The San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In an online meeting held on Thursday, September 3, former and current workers of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) confronted the museum’s trustees and management with scathing accusations of inequity and structural racism.

Plagued with controversy for months, as allegations of discrimination and inequality at the institution have been publicized, the museum live-streamed a conference of its board of trustees. Called the “Sunshine Meeting,” the gathering was open to public comments, as mandated by the city and county of San Francisco. However, current and former workers say the meeting was not advertised on the museum’s website or social media platforms, and believe that it was intentionally hushed.

“This public meeting was in fact not made public,” said Leticia Contreras, a former SFMOMA worker who spoke at the meeting, adding that she could not find a single announcement of the meeting online. “It’s again a misstep in SFMOMA’s capability of becoming a publicly accessible space that is invested in having conversations with the public.”

A spokesperson for SFMOMA told Hyperallergic that the board meeting was submitted 30 days in advance to the Clerk of the SF Board of Supervisors and to the Government Information Center at the SF Public Library. The spokesperson said that two emails were sent to staff ahead of the meeting with details and login information, adding that about 160 people attended the virtual conference.

The board meeting centered around the museum’s plans to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in its staff and collection.

“We have many areas to be proud of,” said Robert Fisher, chairman of SFMOMA’s board, “and there are also things highlighted by our staff and community that need improvement.”

SFMOMA’s boarded-up entrance in July

Before starting a discussion about these issues, the board welcomed a new member to its ranks. Ty Ahmad-Taylor, the Vice President of Product Marketing at Facebook, was voted unanimously as a new trustee.

During the meeting, SFMOMA Vice Chair Diana Nelson presented the museum’s strategic plan for diversity and inclusion, a modification of its plan from 2018.

“One of the pillars of the plan is to transform our culture from the inside out,” Nelson said, adding, “We’ve made substantive progress but we have not reached the moment of transformation.”

Nelson said that the representation of people of color on the museum’s board increased from 19% in 2019 to 25% in 2020 (its newest member, Ahmad-Taylor, is a person of color).

SFMOMA’s director, Neal Benezra, also gave a financial update in which he said that the museum’s earned revenues have fallen 90% since the museum closed in March.

Benezra announced that the museum will explore the possibility of resuming activity before November 1, its current planned reopening date. (The city of San Fransisco is expected to allow museums to reopen in mid-September.) He added that if the museum reopens earlier than planned, it will suspend the 20% furlough for all staff that it announced on August 28.

The planned furloughs triggered more accusations of inequity against the museum’s leadership. While the museum touted the all-staff cuts as  “equitable,” workers have pointed out that their lowest-paid colleagues will be most affected while top executives will continue to pay themselves exorbitant salaries.

SFMOMA told Hyperallergic that the new 20% furloughs, which will come in effect in late September, will not apply to Benezra, whose annual compensation in 2018 topped $1 million, according to tax filings. Shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown began, Benezra took a 50% salary reduction, but workers have requested that he temporarily draw a salary of zero.

SFMOMA Vice-Chair Diana Nelson presenting a plan for diversity and inclusion from 2018

Davida Lindsay-Bell, the museum’s chief human resources officer, announced a series of actions to address diversity at the museum, building on the recommendations of the nonprofit Race Forward. Lindsay-Bell announced that the museum will hire the coaching company Leverage to Lead to help bridge differences between the museum’s staff and management and hold “accountability workshops.”

Lindsay-Bell also said that a psychotherapist was hired to hold “privilege training” with staff, and announced the appointment of Kenyatta Parker, a former official at Houston’s Fire Department who now lives in the Bay Area, as Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at the museum.

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra speaking at the “Sunshine meeting”

Later on, the meeting was opened to public comments. However, the board stressed that “it’s not a Q&A,” meaning that the trustees and management had no obligation to respond to the comments. Members of the public, of which there were less than 10, were each given three minutes to speak.

“During my time at SFMOMA, I experienced personal and institutional racism, sexism, and ableism,” said Contreras, who was the first to speak. “People of color are wielded as objects, both on the walls and also as workers,” she continued, adding that she felt that this notion was reiterated during the museum’s presentations.

“If you’re invested in this work, where are the funds?” Contreras asked the trustees. “I don’t mean exorbitant funds for consultants, who are mostly going to train white staff, I mean funds for workers to have a quality of life. It appears to me that the board is more invested in keeping their money safe, and keeping  [Benezra] in place, who is amenable to keep wealth and white supremacy safe.”

Jessalyn Aaland, another former SFMOMA worker, addressed the recent furloughs. “It’s disingenuous to announce a 20% furlough for employees at the same time the museum is talking about all this work about diversity and equity,” Aaland said. “The people who will be disproportionally impacted are people of color and working-class people at the museum.”

Aaland suggested capping salary earnings and addressed Benezera directly, saying, “Neal, I know you took a 50% pay cut, but the difference between comfort in life versus the ability to meet basic needs is critical.” 

Benezra and the trustees did not respond to any of the public inquiries.

J Rivera Pansa, a member of No Neutral Alliance, a group established by former SFMOMA worker Taylor Brandon, spoke next. The collective was established in June after Brandon’s comments on social media were censored by the museum. This move ignited a public relations storm that led to the resignation of Nan Keeton, the museum’s deputy director of external relations, and a public apology by Benezra.

“I’m appalled at the utilization of POC artists as front-facing ventures as a part of your strategic plan,” Pansa said. “Board members, please understand the function of the museum has never mutually served the ideals and needs of the people who keep this institution functioning.”

A current front-line employee at the museum who identified as “AM” spoke about her personal financial struggles.

“With recent hour deductions and all the furloughs happening, I can’t even afford to go to the doctor because I can’t pay the minimum co-pay for a checkup,” the worker said. “I can barely afford to split groceries with my partner evenly. It’s so gut-wrenching and stressful.”

“I don’t understand why a lot of these cuts are impacting POC members the most and a lot of people who make so much money at the museum are still very comfortable when your front-line staff workers are really struggling to get by,” the worker continued with a voice choked with tears.

Grace Ambrose, a former worker of the museum, said, “My experiences at SFMOMA made me never want to work at a museum ever again.”

Ambrose added that working at SFMOMA convinced her that “the structures of museums are fundamentally broken.” The former worker echoed requests that Benezra further reduces his salary, and called on the trustees to enact change. “If you’re not able to uphold this responsibility, I encourage you to step down immediately,” Ambrose said.

While the trustees did not respond directly to these concerns, Fisher concluded the meeting by thanking the current and former workers for their comments and said, “These strong and passionate concerns are important for us to hear … Like all you, this board cares deeply about SFMOMA.”

The next “Sunshine Meeting” will be held on November 19.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...