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A group of current and former workers of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is calling for the immediate resignation or removal of the museum’s top leadership. The group, called A Better Guggenheim, sent a letter to the museum today, September 16, listing allegations of sexism, racism, classism, and abuse against Richard Armstrong, Director; Elizabeth Duggal, Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer; and Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Chief Curator.
The Guggenheim declined to provide comment on the letter or its allegations.
For months, A Better Guggenheim has been collecting anonymous complaints by current and former workers at the museum and posting them on its Instagram page. On June 29, the group sent an initial letter to the museum signed by 169 current and former workers across departments (the letter has garnered 225 signatures since it went public.) The letter listed 22 calls to action that targeted “systemic racism” in the institution. Earlier in June, a group of Guggenheim curators sent a letter to the museum demanding fundamental reform in what they described as “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices.” The statement, which was based on the responses from workers during a museum-wide “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) Roundtable” held by the Human Resources department in June, also called for the hiring of more curators of color.
A Better Guggenheim says that the museum has not yet responded to its letter from June. “Leadership’s indifference to the pain of their constituents will not stop us,” today’s letter reads.
In August, following a second all-staff meeting in July, the Guggenheim announced a new DEAI action plan to make the institution “a more equitable place.” The two-year strategy includes paid internship opportunities for students from marginalized groups, a partnership with historically Black colleges and universities to promote job openings, and the creation of a professional network for people of color who work in the arts. The plan also includes establishing a committee to review the museum’s exhibitions and acquisitions history and other steps to increase diversity in its collection and staff.
However, A Better Guggenheim claims that “much remains the same” at the Guggenheim, saying that members of the museum’s senior leadership “have not met their job responsibilities or complied with the Code of Ethics to which all Guggenheim staff must adhere.”
The group accuses Armstrong of “nurturing a culture of unchecked racism, sexism, and classism” in his role as Director, and of endorsing “a work environment that is fundamentally unsafe for staff, who are subjected to abuses by coworkers, visitors, and managers.”
“Armstrong’s Guggenheim is unquestionably defined by secrecy, intimidation, gaslighting, and the exploitation of employees,” the letter claims.
The authors of the letter accuse Armstrong of a “combative, condescending, and dismissive attitude” towards Chaédria LaBouvier, who curated the 2019 exhibition Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story. LaBouvier accused Spector of co-opting her work and said she faced threats of retaliation after speaking up. The curator later described her work with Spector and the museum’s leadership as “the most racist professional experience of my life.”
The letter alleges that Spector silenced LaBouvier; negotiated with her in bad faith; smeared her as “irrational,” “angry,” and “crazy” in front of staff; and undermined the quality of her work, among other forms of mistreatment of the curator.
“Instead of reflecting on her actions, Spector endeavored to silence LaBouvier, to the extent that even staff were unaware of events that had occurred within the museum,” the group writes. “For these reasons alone she should be removed from her position.”
Spector, the letter claims, “unquestionably bolstered the museum’s white supremacist foundations.” It adds: “She has instilled a culture of fear that has been nourished by her abuses of power and her penchant for widespread revanchism.”
In July, the Guggenheim hired a lawyer to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Basquiat exhibition and the alleged mistreatment of LaBouvier. A report is expected this fall, according to the New York Times.
A Better Guggenheim says that Duggal displayed a “detrimental degree of apathy” when frontline workers filed complaints about racist behavior and sexual harassment by some visitors.
“Under [Duggal’s] watch, there has been a mass exodus of staff, including a startling number of department heads, and the museum’s financial health has become increasingly dire,” the letter states, adding that more than 45 workers left the museum since Duggal started her tenure as Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer.
The letter charges Duggal with, “Sacrificing the livelihoods of the museum’s most vulnerable staff at the onset of an unprecedented, worldwide pandemic, first by eliminating overtime and effectively applying a greater pay cut to the most poorly compensated staff at the museum than to senior staff, then by implementing furloughs within a week of receiving approval for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.”
“The injustices we have shared in this statement are manifold, yet they still do not represent the full extent of the pain staff have experienced at the Guggenheim,” the letter says in closing. “The structures that make speaking out such a grave risk are very much at play, especially in this precarious moment.”
“It nonetheless remains clear that the leadership of Richard Armstrong, Elizabeth Duggal, and Nancy Spector has deprived staff of their right to a safe, respectful, and humane workplace,” the group concludes. “Therefore, for the future of the museum and the safety of its staff, they must be removed from their positions.”