The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) (Photo by Peter McCullough, courtesy the MCA Chicago)

Six artists and one artist collective have withdrawn their work from an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) in solidarity with workers at the museum who have been laid off over the past year, many of whom are people of color.

In an open letter released yesterday and endorsed by 57 artists, the signatories announced their withdrawal from the exhibition The Long Dream, accusing the MCA of “perpetuat[ing] harm to Chicago arts communities” and of using artists in the exhibition to “mask this violence.” The withdrawn artists include Aaron Hughes, Sarah Bastress, Manal Kara, Max Guy, Joanna Furnans, Damon Locks, and dozens of members of a collective called Quarantine Times.

Back in January, the MCA laid off 41 workers, citing financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The layoffs prompted a backlash among museum workers who accused the museum of acting against its own pronouncements of racial equity and inclusion. Critics have slammed the museum’s director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, for executing the layoffs just days after publishing an op-ed in Art of America in which she promoted The Long Dream as an expression of the museum’s “commitment to equity throughout our institution, both on our walls and in our staffing practices.” 

“When most institutions were furloughing their front-facing employees, we went in the opposite direction,” Grynsztejn wrote, adding that the museum had converted visitor services from part-time to full-time with benefits in August of 2020, but omitting that the move resulted in the elimination of 20 part-time jobs.

The Long Dream, named after the 1958 novel by Richard Wright depicting racism in the Jim Crow-era South, features more than 70 Chicago artists including luminaries like Nick Cave, Dawoud Bey, and Candida Alvarez. On its website, the museum described the exhibition as a response to “a global pandemic and a renewed reckoning over racial justice and inequality,” also stating that the showcase “offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world.”

MCAccountable, a collective of current and former MCA workers from the museum’s visitor experience department, comprised primarily of workers of color, had previously accused the museum of “performative allyship and lack of meaningful action and accountability in the MCA’s practices to uproot white supremacy and end racial injustice within the institution.” In an open letter on July 16, the workers claimed that the museum’s decision to reopen about a week later jeopardized their health and stood in contrast with the museum’s statements of solidarity with communities of color.

On August 21, MCAccountable released an update, taking aim at the museum’s job reconstruction plan. Later, in solidarity with the workers, artists Maria Gaspar, Aram Han Sifuentes, Folayemi Wilson, and For the People Artists Collective declined to participate in The Long Dream before it opened in November of 2020.

On the week of the exhibition’s opening, a group of participating artists sent a letter to Grynsztejn and the MCA’s curators and Board of Trustees, to express their support of MCAccountable and request a meeting. Since then, the museum was forced to close again because of the rising Covid-19 infection rate in Chicago. It reopened on March 2.

Yesterday, March 11, Grynsztejn met with a group of artists from the exhibition who presented her with a second letter announcing their withdrawal. The letter also demanded the adoption of WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) standards; restructuring of the board to include a majority of local artists and MCA staff members; public apologies to both MCA workers and the Chicago arts community; and the incorporation of language into artist contracts that preserves their right to withdraw from exhibitions without fear of retaliation.

“The MCA has made the artists in The Long Dream unwillingly complicit in their harmful behavior, and this betrayal of trust has ramifications, not only for our relationships with the MCA, but for all such similar institutions,” the letter said. “Forcing artists to choose between exhibition and the safety of their peers is unsustainable and unacceptable […] Artists have the right not to be ashamed of the institutions they work with.”

In a statement to Hyperallergic, the MCA said: “We agree with the artists that ‘change and compromise between artists and institutions is possible.'” The museum continued:

We know that the MCA has more work to do to become an equitable institution. A major step in this direction is re-examining how we address staff compensation, expanded health benefits, and well-being so that it reflects our respect for the people who work here. Museum employees, artists, and benefactors have been very vocal in demanding changes like these. We hear you.

“We are saddened to lose the work of any Chicago artist in The Long Dream exhibit, but the deep structural change we are committed to enacting at our museum takes time,” the institution added. “We are up to the challenge, and we welcome the presence of all artists who are helping us create a truly inclusive and equitable institution.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...