Black Lives Matter, a loosely organized worldwide movement, has caused numerous institutions to question how they ensure recognition of Black, Indigenous and people of color. Here in Reno, local arts organizations and museums are being confronted with historically white legacies.
The Nevada Museum of Art faced a dust-up recently. Artists said that the NMA has a problem: its leadership, allegedly, doesn’t live up to its stated mission of equity.
On June 2, an official statement on its website said that the museum is “grieving and listening to the symphony of voices in our community” standing in solidarity “with our community and our colleagues across the country in response to the tragic death of George Floyd.” But, ex-employees and artists have come forward to express that these statements are more about optics than substance.
A social media storm
On June 1, on its Instagram account @nevadaart, NMA issued a post that featured famous Black artist Kehinde Wiley’s art “Marechal Floriano Peixoto II.”
NMA’s followers had been asking if the institution supported the BLM movement but received no clear response. So, under the June 1 post that featured Wiley’s art, social media users voiced their opinions on NMA’s posting works by Black artists even as it continued to refrain from making an official statement on BLM.
@ale_the_great, a social media user said, “This performative as hell, Nevada Museum of Art. Do better! There are Black people DYING EVERY DAY in this country! And you can’t take a stand against their systemic massacre at the hands of white supremacy? What is art without patrons to view it?? I guess we can see who you cater to now. #BlackLivesMatter.”
“On June 1, NMA paused comments on instagram posts from 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. next morning,” according to an official email statement by Amanda Horn, communications director. On June 2, NMA posted on its Instagram handle @nevadaart that “We are pausing digital communications.”
The post mentioned an excerpt from an article by American Alliance of Museums published June 1. It said, “The museum field not only has a responsibility to ask the hard questions and learn from each other, we have a unique duty to listen.”
Show of solidarity but a culture of silence?
According to Jessica Imus, a self-taught painter who served the museum over the past two and a half years as an education coordinator, and over the last three years as a part-time gallery educator, she met with the education department on June 2, to discuss the museum’s decision to pause digital communications and its stance of not stating clearly whether it supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We talked [for about] an hour and half, suggesting edits to the social media posts but none of those suggestions were taken seriously. At the education department, we [junior staffers] felt we needed to have some sincerity, some humility, maybe some apologies and some action. And all of that was ignored,” she said during a Zoom interview.
The following day [June 3], Imus said that she attended an all staff meeting over Zoom, “from the CEO all the way down to the facilities. About 40 to 50 people were there.”
Following Zoom etiquette, most people had their microphone and camera off; it was mostly CEO David Walker and Horn talking.
“They were trying to justify what they were doing. They said that they were following the American Alliance of Museums,” Imus said.
We believe that social media can be a tool for discourse, but often–as is the case here–discourse devolves into diatribe.”
She said that NMA was being “inappropriate” by paying lip service to the AAM’s guidelines on how museums can respond to the community’s call for justice by choosing from AAM’s June 1 post which advocated for the “museum’s unique duty to listen” but made no mention of the June 2 post that laid out specific guidelines on how museum leaders can do better.
It said that “a good start is to make an internal statement…and it needs to reaffirm your specific commitment to doing the much-needed equity work within your own museum. Do not consider making a public statement without making an internal one first.”
“And I stood up in that meeting and tried to get them [to] open their eyes a little bit by saying the community is reaching out to you. During the meeting, Walker said that they hoped that ‘the protests would just go away, people would forget, much like the time people forgot about the Foie Gras in the [Chez Louie] restaurant.’ I felt that that comparison was hurtful. It was hard to hear,” Imus added. The museum faced backlash after its vendor, Chez Louie, planned a 2014 event featuring a Foie Gras tasting.
In this and the following meetings, Imus said she came out feeling that the museum was taking a performative stance in handling criticisms and wasn’t interested in her feedback. On June 15, she quit.
In her resignation letter she mentioned, among other reasons, that she was quitting because “our voice has been completely silenced” and “finally, the social media handling of the BLM movement has caused me great stress. I do not agree with how we handled it or continue to handle it…We are blind to the white fragility that we all possess.”
In an email, Horn said that as per its human resources rule NMA doesn’t comment on ex-employees.
However, she clarified the Foie Gras comment: “We will say that this particular comment represents a gross misunderstanding and had nothing to do with social media, but about controversial decisions leadership must make on a regular basis. It is categorically untrue that the Museum has a culture of silence,” she added. She also pointed out that the museum’s senior leadership offered to have phone conversations with its critics.
Ally Messer, a Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a vocal critic of NMA’s Instagram posts, said that she received an invitation from the museum for an offline conversation.
According to her she has collaborated with the museum on various occasions in association with the Holland Project and Laika Press on events like Second Saturdays, Teen Art Nights.
Over Zoom, Messer said that the museum was showing “false solidarity” with BIPOC on social media. “They posted this damage control graphic on Juneteenth and said that they were closed for Juneteenth where they weren’t even supposed to be open in the first place.”
NMA’s official Operations Reopening Plan does not indicate that the museum planned to open for public viewing on June 19. When contacted for information, Imus said in a phone communication that “the closure on Juneteenth wasn’t the original plan and was formed in a hurry following the backlash on social media.”
Messer said that she received a direct message from NMA’s Instagram account @nevadaart. “The museum messaged me that we have a private dialogue suggesting that social media isn’t a productive place to hold a discourse; for me, this sounds silencing because they are telling that they would want to have a discussion outside the public eye so that their post can remain clean, full of compliments, how the community just loves the museum as opposed to me pointing out who owns the collections and who is profiting off of the art created by BIPOC communities.”
When asked why the museum preferred personal conversations over public, Horn said, “We believe that social media can be a tool for discourse, but often–as is the case here–discourse devolves into diatribe.”
Other museums face similar issues
NMA is hardly a standalone. Like the NMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art initially refrained from explicitly stating if it supported the BLM movement. On May 30, the museum posted on Instagram art by Black artist Glenn Ligon suggesting an implicit support for the movement.
Taylor Brandon, SFMOMA’s only Black communications employee, who’d quit in March, commented that it was a “cop out” and reflected on the museum’s “use” of Black artists to give lip service to the movement.
Brandon’s comment was called threatening by senior leadership and deleted by SFMOMA, raising immediate outcry from its followers who accused it of censoring.
On May 31, SFMOMA workers’ union gave a public statement supporting Brandon. On June 22, @xsfm0ma, an account by the museum’s former employees released a critical public statement accusing the museum of doing “harm” inflicted through “discrimination stemming from anti-Blackness, racism, Islamophobia, and ableism.”
On June 1, SFMOMA publicly apologized.
Getty Museum in Los Angeles said in a May 31 Twitter post, “At this deeply disturbing time, our heart goes out to our beloved Los Angeles community.” It was called out by followers as being “perfunctory” and creating “the most generic, say-nothing statement.” The next day, Getty apologized for the post.
In comparison, Reno’s various centers for art and culture have done better. Lilley Museum of Art at UNR supported the BLM movement and said, “Museums were founded within the structures of colonization and exploitation, and have thus systematically excluded minority groups throughout time.”
The Holland Project voiced its support for the movement and listed out anti-racism resources. UNR’s Anthropology Museum does not have a separate website, and is featured within the Department of Anthropology website, which explicitly lends support to the BLM movement.
Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum’s statement has not explicitly supported the movement but recognized that as an institution the museum itself operates within “a system in which people with privilege inherently benefit at the expense of people of color and those without privilege.”
The Sparks Museum and Culture Center and the Nevada Historical Society do not seem to have any statement on BLM or racial equity, yet.
NMA says it “wants to do better”
When asked about several incidents narrated by the ex-employees, Horn asserted that NMA doesn’t comment on former employees and that it wants to “do better.” She maintained that NMA has a “deep commitment” towards the Indigenous, Black and POC communities. She referred to its collection of artworks as proof of this commitment.
“We issued a message from our CEO that further expresses the Museum’s continued commitment to BIPOC communities, an acknowledgement of our inspiration by Black Lives Matter, and our commitment to continued action,” she said.
The CEO’s message detailed the reopening plans, exhibition of art by people of color from the collection of Jordan D. Shnitzer and a promise to “continuing the vital conversations we’re having both internally and externally,” but no explicit support for the BLM movement.
Horn further noted that as far as BLM is concerned NMA’s “‘statement’ will be fully formed and implemented following the critically important work of our newly-formed Museum Diversity Team that includes 22 staff members.”
When, asked what the newly formed Diversity Team aims to achieve and by what philosophy it operates, a second email from her said, “It would be a disservice to our 22 staff members to share anything further at this time.” Asked about representation of Black, Indigenous, POC in its staff, the same statement gave a non-response suggesting that the journalist writing this story should inform them how “the Museum measures up with other arts and cultural organizations in northern Nevada.”
Artists point out NMA’s not doing enough
Most former employees and artists interviewed for this report thought that the museum is being dismissive, and this attitude is at the root of its defensiveness and alleged inability to reckon with the community’s call for empathy and a straightforward recognition of the BLM movement.
According to Imus, the senior leadership’s attitude is, “Why should we apologize? We have art from people of color, and that’s [our] work for the community.”
But “that’s not enough; that’s just a cloak for utilizing the artists’ work and not using the voice of the museum,” Imus said.“I don’t see the listening happening, even internally, so I am not sure how they can do that outside.”
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.