In the days following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by Minneapolis police officers, the world erupted in protest. People in Chicago, New York City, London, Seoul, Tunis and dozens of other cities have come together to express outrage over police brutality and their belief in the sanctity of black life. In these days, also, institutions and businesses have shared statements purporting to stand in solidarity with the movement for black lives. But many activists and individuals say that words don’t go far enough, particularly for well-heeled organizations that have the power, money and influence to make significant changes.
On June 5, artist Glenn Ligon shared on Instagram a letter from Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it, Hollein writes that the Met “stands in solidarity with the black community,” noting that “there is much work that The Met needs to do, and we are committed to doing it.” Though the letter makes no mention of any specific action it will take, other than creating “a workplace that is free from racism and bias.” Nor has the museum, to date, put money toward the movement for black lives, although the museum reported $302.6 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019. The museum has instead shared work by black artists in recent days, including an image of a piece by Ligon in the letter, an effort that rings particularly hollow. A 2019 report from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only four percent of curators at U.S. art museums were African-American and only twelve percent of museum executives were people of color. For decades, the Met had only one black curator, Lowery Stokes Sims, although it recently hired Denise Murrell as associate curator for nineteenth- and twentieth-century art.
Here in Chicago, the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art have issued similar statements. The MCA has been called out in particular for its ties to the Chicago Police Department, by the museum’s Teen Creative Agency, a creative youth development program. In a petition on Change.org, TCA asks the museum to acknowledge “the systematic abuse of power and overt brutality exhibited by the police” and to pursue immediate divestment from the Chicago Police Department. MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn wrote to staff on June 3 that “the MCA maintains a business relationship with the CPD and the Eighteenth District in particular as any organization or business does” and goes on to spell out in detail the two times in the recent past the relationship went beyond the normal coordination of safety issues between its security firm and the police and involved donations. The official statement on “racial injustice” on the MCA website reads: “The MCA is not currently engaged in any current contracts, ongoing contracts, or special services with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), nor does it fund the CPD.”
Other museums and art institutions are taking decisive action. On Thursday, the Walker Art Center reported that it would no longer contract the Minneapolis Police Department for special events. Roots & Culture made a donation to Chicago grassroots collective Assata’s Daughters in the amount of the stipend for its CONNECT residency, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Monique Meloche reported making donations to black-led organizations, such as the Chicago Bond Fund and the Chicago Freedom School, and Patron Gallery is selling artwork as a fundraising move.
What’s most important in this moment is not for every business, organization, cultural leader or person to say the exact right thing. No matter how good the intention behind an alleged solidarity email, words are no longer enough. What’s needed is action, what’s needed is an acknowledgement of past wrongs, what’s needed are firm, detailed commitments to change. This will give the public the opportunity to hold institutions accountable going forward, something that’s impossible to do with slippery statements of solidarity. (Kerry Cardoza)