When the Queens Museum launched its Year of Uncertainty (YoU) program in March 2021, many saw a glimmer of hope and possibility in the new initiative. The New York City museum, nestled within the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, was emerging from the first year of a pandemic that devastated the borough and engendered a parallel movement for racial justice that forced cultural institutions to look inward. Centered around five themes — “care, repair, play, justice, and the future” — the YoU program was meant to bring the museum and its communities together around issues ranging from racial justice to climate change.
Two years later, a report published last week by an anonymous coalition of artists and cultural workers, called the Arts Union, painted a different picture of the YoU initiative. Titled “Struggle at the Queens Museum,” it details some participants’ disillusionment with the program and tight production deadlines imposed after the residency began that made it difficult to “meaningfully engage with the community.”
The report also revealed one participating artist’s alleged experience of harassment during the program, and how a lack of clarity regarding the museum’s procedures for anonymously reporting such incidents kept her caught in a perpetual cycle of distress.
Documents reviewed by Hyperallergic confirm that the artist first raised concerns about a since-dismissed nighttime security guard — who worked in the building that housed the YoU residents’ studios — in mid-July of 2021. The artist, who spoke for this story on the condition of anonymity, alerted a staff member of inappropriate behavior by the guard, who allegedly followed her and made unwelcome attempts to talk to her on several occasions, often “lurking” outside her studio space and asking for her phone number under the pretext that exchanging information would be useful for her to get in and out of the building. (A male artist in the program confirmed to Hyperallergic that he was never asked for his phone number.)
The staffer to whom the incident was reported immediately escalated the issue to the museum’s Human Resources department, which provided its policy on submitting a sexual harassment complaint. When the artist repeatedly asked for more information on how to submit such a complaint anonymously — without her name or identifying information attached — she says she was met with vague responses that encouraged her to report the incident, but did not provide clarity or an official policy on what such a process entailed. Specifically, she wanted to know whether she would be protected from the potential fallout of disclosing her experience with the guard.
Implementing such “policies and procedures for preventing retaliation” was one of the recommendations made by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR), which became involved in early September 2021. The museum dismissed the guard later that month. As a result of the NYCCHR’s investigation, the museum agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policies to include, among other things, “a comprehensive description of [its] internal sexual harassment complaint process, including multiple people to whom individuals can make an internal complaint,” according to a Stipulation and Order agreement made available by the Arts Union.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a Queens Museum spokesperson said, “The safety of Museum staff and artists is always of chief concern. The Museum had systems in place for filing anonymous complaints, which were enhanced and strengthened following the security guard incident.”
The artist who experienced the alleged harassment was particularly concerned about having to spend time in the studio after hours to comply with the museum’s deadline for YoU’s exhibition. That’s another focal point of the Arts Union’s report, which claims that many of the program’s aims were compromised by a tight timeline sprung on artists only after they agreed to participate. YoU was conceived as an 18-month initiative, but when the program began, they were asked to produce artwork within four months for an official opening in early fall.
On July 26, they sent a letter to leadership expressing concerns over the program’s structure. That letter, reviewed by Hyperallergic, was signed by all participating artists.
“We feel a tremendous amount of pressure and unease with the planned opening date of September 26,” the letter said. “It makes it difficult to work with the community organizations within the space of 4-5 months amidst a pandemic. We envisioned a longer and more organic process that would unfold over 18 months when we applied. It seems impossible to do justice to the concepts of the YoU program — openness, fluidity, and collaboration — and the program’s aim of bringing community organizations into the museum space to reimagine the museum and the role of the community in it, in such a short space of time.”
The YoU Artist-in-Residency (AiR) cohort consisted of six artists and one duo known for their socially engaged practices (Gabo Camnitzer, Tecumseh Ceaser, Utsa Hazarika, Tali Keren, Mo Kong, and collaborators Julian Louis Phillips and Alex Strada) and 12 “co-thinkers,” artists and other individuals in creative fields brought on to provide mentorship (among them Nora N. Khan, Suzanne Lacy, Guadalupe Maravilla, and Xaviera Simmons; a complete list of participants can be found here). Nine “community partners” from across the borough were selected to collaborate with the artists, including Guardians of Flushing Bay, which advocates for cleaner water in the Queens neighborhood, and Sakhi for South Asian Women, an anti-gender-based violence organization. A description of the program on the Queens Museum’s website closed with a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s science-fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”
But “the Year of Uncertainty was a bit too uncertain for everyone involved,” in the words of one participant who did not want their name disclosed in this story. They echoed the Arts Union report’s claims that the program was mismanaged, that there was confusion over resources available, and that more ambitious proposals were downsized.
Those grievances might seem familiar to anyone who has worked at a nonprofit arts organization, and not all members of the YoU cohort agreed with the Arts Union’s characterizations. Co-thinker Suzanne Lacy told Hyperallergic she thought the program was “innovative” and expressed her disappointment with the views expressed in the report. “It is highly discouraging to those of us who work in the field,” said Lacy. “In retrospect, would the museum do this program again? I don’t know.” Others spoke positively of their experience of YoU. Naeem Mohaiemen, a “co-thinker,” worked with the Queens Museum’s archives to focus on the building’s history as the first home of the United Nations General Assembly. “We held mentoring sessions with a South Asian community organization that was interested in archive practices for their own records,” Mohaiemen said. “I found it to be a generative approach to building community archives.”
Asked about the allegations of YoU’s mismanagement, a spokesperson for the Queens Museum said it was “disheartening for artists and staff to see aspersions cast about this shared work from valued members of the arts community.”
“The Museum is proud of and deeply committed to fostering our inclusive, equitable, and safe culture for our artists and staff, and we embrace feedback from our staff, community partners, and artists on ways to improve,” the spokesperson added.
In interviews with Hyperallergic, and regardless of their personal opinion of the Arts Union’s report, artists and collaborators applauded the work of Queens Museum workers, whose genuine efforts they see as harmonious with the museum’s stated mission of being a hyperlocal, community-oriented institution. That same praise did not always extend to its current leadership. Sally Tallant joined as president and executive director of the museum in 2019, after a long tenure as artistic director of the UK’s Liverpool Biennial. She previously worked as head of programs at London’s Serpentine Galleries. And she was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2018, a distinction she “proudly shares” on the museum’s website, the Arts Union says.
“Although numerous people have refused this ‘honor,’ the Director not only accepted the OBE award from the British monarchy, she emphasizes it,” the report states. “QM is located in one of the most diverse districts in the world, representing nearly every post-colonial population from across the globe, on the unceded land of the Matinecock, Canarsie, Lekawe (Rockaway), Munsee Lenape, and the Matouwac.”
Under Tallant, and with a $26M capital infusion from the city, the museum has undertaken a vast renovation project that involves an extension of the building for the creation of a new “Children’s Museum” as well as structural updates. The multiphase campaign, which totaled $69M, is expected to be finalized later this year or in 2024. One artist Hyperallergic interviewed fears the project will make the institution “like the other mega museums in New York, soaking up both city and philanthropic resources and forcing community orgs to compete with each other for its favor.”
As further evidence of what they perceive as Tallant’s disconnect from the museum’s stated mission, the Arts Union cites her decision to post photographs of individuals in line for the Queens Museum’s food pantry on her social media. (The Instagram posts were since deleted, but Hyperallergic viewed screenshots; individuals in the line were masked.) The weekly food pantry program, which began in the summer of 2020, is one of the institution’s most visible community initiatives, serving hundreds of families through the local volunteer organization La Jornada. The Queens Museum lends its space for the program and supports a $50,000 annual budget for related programming as well as two employees to oversee them. In a list of recommendations to the museum at the end of the report, the Arts Union suggests paying La Jornada volunteers. (It is unclear whether the volunteers themselves have requested compensation; La Jornada has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.) In a list of recommendations to the museum at the end of the report, the Arts Union suggests paying La Jornada volunteers. (La Jornada has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
Under Tallant’s leadership, the Arts Union’s report says, workers experience “a culture of fear and silence” — a claim that proved difficult for Hyperallergic to verify within the scope of the present article. Most current and former workers reached for comment did not respond to our inquiries. Some YoU program participants suggested that staffers feared losing their jobs or compromising the larger mission of the museum if they spoke out. In an all-staff email sent just three days after the Arts Union report was released, a screenshot of which was reviewed by Hyperallergic, leadership reminded employees that any press inquiries they received must be forwarded to the museum’s communications department.
A former employee who worked in a front-facing role at the museum during the time of the YoU residency also offered a nuanced take on their experience. They eventually left their job, citing concerns over safety at the museum — they were the first line of defense before the institution hired daytime security guards, which they did not always have — and insufficient pay (around $18.50 an hour, below the living wage for a single adult in Queens as estimated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). But they saw many of the issues plaguing the Queens Museum as impacting public cultural institutions at large.
“There are certainly flaws, it’s kind of the nature of nonprofit arts work, especially when you are trying to be community-based and community-engaged,” the former worker told Hyperallergic. “If you’re not a grassroots org and you’re beholden to different stakeholders, there are always going to be issues. The workers there are trying their best. They’ve had a ton of really late nights, and I wish everyone could be paid more and supported in what they’re trying to do.”
Another YoU participant, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed that sentiment. “I have a sadness in my heart regarding the Queens Museum,” they said. “Because it has the ability to be a wonderful institution but it seems to be refusing the real life-giving requests of participants, artists, staff, and the very community organizers who make Queens the stunning place that it is.”
The Arts Union’s report notes that the challenges faced by YoU participants can be traced to a larger core issue: “the donor-controlled museum board model.” The group encourages people to seek out independent advocacy groups instead, such as FWD:Truth and Dismantle NOMA, and to support museum unions. Their report, the Arts Union told Hyperallergic, was “an experiment in organizing.”
“Museums have boards, boards have associations, galleries have NADA and ADAA, and we are trying to create something like that for artists, something that can support and advocate for artists’ best interests,” the group said. “Everyone else is organized, so we should be, too.”
Elaine Velie contributed reporting.