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Guggenheim opens investigation into Basquiat show after racism complaints
The Guggenheim Museum in New York. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Responding to criticism by staff that its executives had created “a culture of institutional racism,” the Guggenheim Museum’s board of directors has hired a lawyer to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding its 2019 exhibition of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The decision, announced Wednesday evening, is the museum’s latest attempt at soul-searching following a letter last week signed by the Guggenheim’s curatorial department that described the cultural institution as having “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy and other discriminatory practices.”

On Monday, another letter circulated throughout the office. Seventy-one former Guggenheim workers joined 100 current employees — about a quarter of all staff — in saying that the museum’s “failure to create a diverse and equitable workplace has resulted in a museum culture that refuses to take accountability for the violence and injustice inflicted upon its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) constituents.”

“The Guggenheim cannot claim to be a leading arts institution without first atoning for its wrongdoings and committing to concrete action and change,” the letter added.

The letter’s organizers have proposed 22 guidelines for the Guggenheim to correct course, including mandated anti-racist training for all staff, an overhaul of the museum’s whistleblower system and the creation of a director-level position with the role of promoting racial equity. Employees also asked for an independent investigation and a public report on the museum’s treatment of last year’s Basquiat exhibition and the show’s guest curator, Chaédria LaBouvier, an art historian.

Last month, LaBouvier posted a tweet saying that working with Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, “was the most racist professional experience of my life.”

Spector has declined to comment on the matter. She started a three-month sabbatical on Wednesday, though there was no indication the decision was related to staff complaints.

A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed receipt of the letters. “We are engaged in an open dialogue about important changes that need to be made in our organization,” the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, said in a statement. “I am committed to working closely with the board and the staff to take immediate action to implement our plan and set us on a course to a more equitable Guggenheim.”

Blake Paskal, a former employee of the Guggenheim, said, “I believe the museum owes Chaédria an apology.”

Paskal said that LaBouvier’s experience reflected his own struggles working at the museum as a queer, Black person. He joined the Guggenheim as a public engagement coordinator in 2017 but left two years later, he said, after being passed over for promotions while his white, younger colleagues quickly advanced in their careers. He said that attempts to address these concerns with managers during yearly reviews and in feedback after all-staff meetings went largely ignored.

During his time at the museum, Paskal said he spent two months working remotely with Spector on a series of speaking events known as “Summer of Know.” When the pair finally met in person during the program’s opening night, he became crestfallen. “She just asked me if I was an intern,” he said. “It was one of the most demoralizing experiences I had as a young professional, and I felt it was entirely because she thought she was emailing a white person.”

Asked about Paskal’s remarks, the museum said that it would not comment on personnel matters related to individual employees. Spector said, “I have nothing but admiration for Blake Myers’ contribution to Public Programs at the Guggenheim, and I was sorry to see him leave the museum.” Paskal previously went by the name Myers.

As accounts such as these surface, the Guggenheim’s board of directors is putting pressure on museum executives to broaden its diversity, equity and inclusion plans.

“The time for these actions is long overdue,” the board said in its Thursday letter to staff, adding that it would add more diverse members to its ranks over the next year. “The board is undertaking a review of all structures and policies to ensure that no person is bullied, mistreated, disrespected or discriminated against in any way.”

The same staff members who sent the Monday letter met the board’s response with cautious optimism in another letter sent Thursday, asking that more of their requests be met, including the election of one staff member to attend executive and board meetings. “The Guggenheim has everything to gain,” they wrote, in creating “a concrete, lasting measure to ensure accountability and build a future for this museum based on trust.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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