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Brooklyn Museum Employees Accuse Administration of Staff Mistreatment
Former and current workers have stepped forward to decry the behavior of executive leadership at the Brooklyn Museum, denouncing “the harm and daily mistreatment” of workers of color.

The front of the Brooklyn Museum during the 2015 Brooklyn Real Estate Summit (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
When seven workers at the Brooklyn Museum first met to draft an open letter in late May, they discussed writing an apology to the borough.

“So many people think of the Brooklyn Museum as ‘the museum that’s doing it right.’ But the image that we put out there doesn’t reflect how the people are treated inside,” former employee Mikeeh Zwirner, who is Asian American, told Hyperallergic. “We wanted to write to Brooklyn to apologize for allowing the institution to continue disguising itself as a social justice-oriented, diverse museum when it is actually exploiting numerous BIPOC staff.”

The letter ultimately took the form of a missive to the museum’s leadership and community decrying “the harm and daily mistreatment” of workers of color, and outlining concrete demands in the service of structural change. Signed by 59 then-current and seven former employees, it was titled “Unbought and Unbossed” — a reference to the campaign slogan of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to US Congress and a Brooklyn native.

Over the last years, and despite some programmatic offerings with positive social impact — such as Project Reset, which allows minor offenders to avoid incarceration by taking a two-hour art class — the Brooklyn Museum has been embroiled in a series of controversies related to its relationship to people of color. In 2015, anti-gentrification activists protested outside the museum, located at the heart of the historically Black Crown Heights neighborhood, as it hosted a real estate summit; in 2018, the hiring of a white woman to curate the museum’s African art collection provoked uproar.

Much of the criticism has been pointedly directed at the museum’s leadership. When director Anne Pasternak co-hosted a Halloween party titled “Bronx is Burning” in 2015, decked with flaming trash cans and bullet hole-speckled cars, it was seen as a tone-deaf caricaturing of poverty in the South Bronx. The activist group Decolonize This Place (DTP) has repeatedly called for the removal of David Berliner from the museum’s board. Formerly the CEO of real estate developer Forest City Ratner, which led a divisive housing development project in Brooklyn, Berliner was named President and COO of the institution in 2016. (DTP itself began as an action at the Brooklyn Museum against an exhibition titled This Place, during which the group rewrote labels for photographs of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories to include their Arabic names.)

Protesters in front of the Brooklyn Museum in 2018. (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

The museum’s staff, meanwhile, have faced their own distinct challenges, often in the shadows of these public controversies. According to a spokesperson, 51% of the Brooklyn Museum’s employees are BIPOC, yet in interviews with former staff, Hyperallergic found a dissonance between the museum’s public image and the experience of the employees of color within its walls.

Nikiesha Hamilton, the Brooklyn Museum’s former head of government, community relations, and administration, says she was met with resistance when trying to advocate for more programming that would cater to the local community. On one such occasion, Berliner told her that he did not want to “ghettoize” the Brooklyn Museum.

“That was one of the most racist experiences of my life,” Hamilton, who was born and raised in Crown Heights, told Hyperallergic. “I was so embarrassed that I let someone insult my home.”

In a planning meeting for the museum’s exhibition of the French photographer and street artist JR, Hamilton spoke out against plans to install his murals in some predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods.

“I thought, why are we bringing a French photographer to Flatbush, where the largest population is Haitian? I didn’t understand why we were using a white man’s art when there were plenty of local artists here in Brooklyn that we could create murals with,” Hamilton told Hyperallergic. “Anne [Pasternak]’s response was to say that the artist is French and Tunisian, as if that absolved the Blackness and the color of the community.”

After the meeting, Hamilton says she was called into Berliner’s office and told that she needed to “read the room better” and be more aware of her body language, which he described as “defensive.”

The museum received a $4.5 million loan from the Payment Protection Program (PPP) this year, a government initiative to help businesses retain staff during the crisis. Between July and August, the Museum laid off 27 employees and furloughed a number of part-time staff “working remotely making over 75K a year,” a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic, adding that leadership has taken pay cuts starting at 25%.

Zwirner worked in the Director’s Office at the Brooklyn Museum from 2019 until she was let go in July amid the staff reduction. During her employment, Zwirner says she was most disturbed by the performative displays of solidarity, rather than actionable efforts to enact meaningful change, that she saw from leadership.

One recent instance struck her as particularly egregious. When demonstrations broke out following the murder of George Floyd, Zwirner said, museum director Anne Pasternak sent an email to all staff in which she claimed that she was working with the museum’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) Committee to reflect on next steps.

“I’m in the DEIA committee, and this was complete news to us. This is the first time that anyone in the DEIA committee, including the chairs, heard that she was working with us,” Zwirner told Hyperallergic.

At the museum, DEIA meetings take place monthly; Zwirner says Pasternak did not attend any of the sessions during the year and three months that she worked at the museum. A current employee who is also on the committee and asked to remain anonymous has seconded Zwirner’s testimony.

“When she sent this email, DEIA members were livid,” said Zwirner. “That was the moment when, as a group, we realized that we are a tool for Anne.”

Zwirner’s experiences at the museum galvanized her to help write the open letter. Among its list of demands is a request that the museum enforce “biannual anti-racism and unconscious bias training for all staff, but most urgently and more frequently for leadership and the Board.”

A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Museum told Hyperallergic that its board and staff DEIA committees are “working together to take a refreshed look at our DEIA Plan, our structure, and processes throughout our departments to advance our anti-racism and pro-equity efforts.” The representative added that the organization is in the process of hiring a Director of DEIA.

After employees took turns reading the “Unbought and Unbossed” letter out loud during a virtual all-staff meeting on June 17, Zwirner says Pasternak warned them not to leak the document, citing a pending grant application that she alleged could save jobs at the museum during the volatile pandemic period.

One of 27 workers laid off this summer, Zwirner believes she was specifically targeted for speaking up against the museum. Around noon on Monday, June 29, Zwirner received a call from Berliner apprising her that her position was terminated and that she no longer had access to her email or to a Google Drive containing her work.

Three weeks later, she received a text from the Brooklyn Museum’s assistant general counsel. One of Zwirner’s recent Instagram posts, the counsel said, could “trigger the nondisparagement clause” in her NDA — a document that her severance pay is contingent on and which Zwirner has refused to sign.

The Instagram post depicts Zwirner in a dress she was selling to benefit Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. She planned to wear the dress to a gala at “a cultural institution,” Zwirner explained in the caption, not naming the Brooklyn Museum. “Some of the top leaders of that institution are racist and transphobic AF, which is not surprising, but extra sad bc the institution was and continues to be a backdrop to numerous BLM protests,” the caption says. (Thousands of protesters packed the Brooklyn Museum courtyard for a march for Black Trans Lives in June, though the museum was not involved in the demonstration. This summer, the institution temporarily opened its doors to protestors for bathroom access.)

The museum later told Zwirner that it would not enforce the nondisparagement clause, but in Zwirner’s view, leadership’s willingness to exercise their power and threaten her severance pay weeks after her layoff spoke volumes.

Hamilton, who submitted a letter of resignation in July 2020, says she was also asked to leave the following day instead of fulfilling her two-week notice, allowing her less than 24 hours to draft a transition memo for her successor. Berliner and Pasternak offered her a severance package that required her to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA); like Zwirner, Hamilton has not done so.

“These consecutive experiences point to one thing: Diversity, Inclusion, Progress, or whatever word Anne, HR, and Marketing want to throw into the mix is mere branding, and they don’t like it when their BIPOC staff try to materialize ideas that would uphold what they claim is their philosophy,” Zwirner said.

In the words of one former worker who asked to remain anonymous for this article, “intimidation and covert threats are part of the cultural norm” at the museum, despite leadership’s efforts to appear progressive in public events and interviews.

“Such behaviors are used to beat the dissenting individual down with the goal of ensuring they will never speak up again,” they told Hyperallergic. “This is connected to their managerial style of overworking and underpaying staff. The work environment is chaotic and toxic and therefore extremely stressful.”

The entrance to the Brooklyn Museum featuring Deborah Kass’s “OY/YO” sculpture (photo by alh1 via Flickr)

In the last month, other former employees of the Brooklyn Museum have stepped up to tell their story. Two weeks ago, an article about staff activism at institutions appeared on the online publication Remezcla; in the piece, Hamilton first shares her experiences at the institution. It was penned by Xime Izquierdo Ugaz, the museum’s former Teen Programs Coordinator from 2016 to 2019.

“When I first started working at the Brooklyn Museum, on my first day my coworker, also BIPOC, said to me, ‘I’m excited that you’re here and I also want to protect you,’” Izquierdo Ugaz told Hyperallergic. “I decided to write the article because I feel like when museums are called out for their racist actions, we don’t hear about the experiences of BIPOC inside the museum living every day of this psychological and emotional abuse and violence.”

Izquierdo Ugaz says they felt exploited during their time at the institution, where they were sometimes asked to contribute to projects outside of their job description at no additional compensation, specifically when it came to Latinx-related initiatives.

In one organizing meeting for the museum’s 2018 exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, Izquierdo Ugaz and another worker asked why there weren’t more Black Latinx women included in the show.

“We were then asked to come up with a list of Latinx women artists of color,” Izquierdo Ugaz said. “We had to do that job even though that wasn’t what we were hired to do or paid for. We gave our list to the curators of the show, and we were never given credit for it — not even a shoutout. That’s the regular dynamic of that place, we are extracted from, but never recognized or paid.”

Omololu Refilwe Babatunde, an Education Fellow at the Brooklyn Museum from 2015 to 2016, echoes many of Ugaz’s concerns. As part of her role, she created lesson plans and public programs and taught hundreds of K-12. She also conducted original research — a requirement for the role — on the history of the Brooklyn Museum’s Community Gallery, a space created in 1968 after Black artists protested the lack of Black art and visitors at the museum. (Among its list of demands, the open letter drafted by workers this year asks for the reinstatement of the Community Gallery, which was shut down in 1986.)

She worked a full-time schedule of 40 hours a week and was paid an annual salary of $15,000.

“I was a Public Programmer conceptualizing, planning and running original events for the public. I also conducted original institutional research,” Babatunde said. “The institution was able to exploit me and other entry-level fellows/interns because prestigious White institutions of Colonial holdings use their prestige as a subsidy to undervalue the work of their employees.”

“All of these ‘experience building’ opportunities are framed in terms of investment — an institution exploits and severely underpays you as you ‘invest’ in your future,” she added.

At the Brooklyn Museum, said a current employee who asked to remain anonymous, issues with leadership are an “open secret,” but the inherent precariousness of the industry prevents workers from being openly critical.

That may be why some employees are turning to online spaces where they can voice their concerns anonymously. One such platform is an Instagram account launched by For the Culture, a coalition of Black and Brown cultural employees and allies. An anonymous testimony posted on the account last month described a $15,000 salary discrepancy between a white and a Black curator at the Brooklyn Museum. When the then-Deputy Director and Chief Curator expressed her concerns about the pay gap, the post alleges, “she was attacked in the meeting for bringing this up to the point where she stopped speaking.”

Hyperallergic independently confirmed the disparity cited in the post, which corresponded to the salary difference in 2018 between an assistant curator of contemporary art, who earned $45,000, and the equivalent position in the American art department, who was paid $59,500. (In 2018, the former role was held by Ashley James, who curated the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation of the traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and went on to become the Guggenheim Museum’s first full-time Black curator; the latter role is held by Margarita Karasoulas, who has been at the museum since 2017.)

“Due to historical disparities in positions that receive donor funding, and others that do not, we have been working to advance pay equity across the institution including hiring a compensation consultant to assess and benchmark wages,” a spokesperson told Hyperallergic. The museum also says it has instituted a progressive policy towards wage adjustment in the last two years, resulting in higher pay increases salaries for the lowest-paid employees.

Among the first demands to the museum outlined in the open letter is an increase in BIPOC representation in its curatorial departments. Under current leadership, there have been nine curator hires; seven of them have been white, the spokesperson confirmed, adding that curatorial positions are currently open for the Arts of Africa and Contemporary Art departments and that four people of color have joined the Board of Trustees in the last two years.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment about accusations detailed by workers in this article and in the open letter, a spokesperson said that the museum takes all allegations seriously and is focused on its commitment to anti-racism.

“We acknowledge that structural inequities, links to colonialism, and the role of systemic racism in museums like ours have contributed to a society of inequality and injustice. We don’t excuse our complicity, and we have been working to fight against systemic racism,” said a statement sent in response. It continues:

Real change requires that we understand our past, and acknowledge our own shortcomings and mistakes as part of the process of learning and healing. Without a doubt, this is the time for listening, deep reflection, reprioritization, and serious action, both individually and collectively. We are committed to building a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist Brooklyn Museum. We are proud to be known for exhibitions that challenge dominant narratives, broaden the art historical canon, and increasingly reflect the diversity of our audiences. More than two years ago, our Staff and Board began to develop a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access plan that has been guiding our work to increase pay equity, diversify the Staff and Board, and advance cultural competency across all levels in the institution. Our Board and Staff are now working together to review, reprioritize and expand our Plan to reflect the input of cultural workers calling for change. We are committed to advancing these goals, with even greater effort and accountability.

At least one of the letter’s demands appears to have been met: in June, the museum pledged to no longer contract police for extra security at its monthly “First Saturdays” — evenings of free arts and entertainment programming that are open to the public. The events were previously guarded by off-duty police to supplement the museum’s security staff.

Zwirner emphasizes that she and the other authors of “Unbought and Unbossed” ultimately want real change to come about at the Brooklyn Museum and other institutions, and envisioned the letter as only the beginning of a long battle against racism in the industry.

Several former Brooklyn Museum employees have taken the fight beyond the institution’s doors. Along with current and former staff and members of other cultural organizations, Zwirner created the Institute of Museums Against All Fucked Up Social Systems (IMAAFUSS), a collective and research lab dedicated to dismantling deep-seated bias against marginalized communities in museum spaces; Hamilton founded Afeni Creative Studios, which utilizes policy, art, and design to connect different parts of the African diaspora to sustain and expand the creative economy for Black creatives.

“It’s been time for museums to have to answer for their white supremacist, capitalist violent tendencies,” Babatunde told Hyperallergic. “I am grateful to be living through a moment where silence is breaking.”

Hundreds of Artists Support Striking Tate Workers
Hito Steyerl, Michael Rakowitz, and Forensic Architecture are among 300 signatories asking Tate to reconsider cutting 313 jobs in its shops, cafes, and restaurants.

A protest of Tate’s striking workers in August 2020 (all images courtesy of PCS Tate United)

More than 300 artists signed an open letter yesterday, September 16, in support of striking workers at Tate galleries in London. The workers have been on strike for almost 30 days after the Tate Enterprises (TEL) announced plans to cut 313 jobs in its shops, cafes, and restaurants.

The list of supporters includes last years’ four Truner Prize winners — Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani — and artists like Ed Atkins, Liam Gillick, Hito Steyerl, Michael Rakowitz, and the group Forensic Architecture, among many others.

“We urge Tate to stop the TEL redundancies process immediately and to start exploring new imaginative ways to save jobs and avoid outsourcing staffing while there are 313 Tate workers threatened with job losses,” the open letter says.

The letter adds that the affected workers are among “the lowest paid and most diverse section of Tate’s workforce.”

“They are often working class creatives and they play an integral role in promoting art and culture within the organisation,” it says. “They are striking to defend both their workers’ rights and the right to have arts institutions somehow still open to low-income background workers.”

The striking workers belong to PCS Tate United, a branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union representing workers in the Tate galleries (Tate Modern & Tate Britain). Tate’s planned staff reductions will eliminate almost half of its 640-person commercial workforce.

Tate’s unionized workers have been striking for almost 30 days

The open letter reiterates the workers’ demands, which include suspending all layoffs “while senior staff earn more than £100,000 [∼$130,000] per year,” and using 10% of the £7 million (∼$9 million) government bailout that Tate received to save TEL jobs.

“If the money isn’t enough, then Tate must demand more funding,” the artists add.

In a statement to Hyperallergic, Tate said that it has allocated £5 million (∼$6.5 million) from its reserves to support Tate Enterprises Ltd. “This, alongside the savings from the restructure, have prevented the TEL business from closing with the loss of all jobs,” the museum said. “Money from any Government bailout will have to be used to offset the losses in income from other activities such as ticket sales.”

The museum says it has “modeled staffing numbers optimistically in the expectation that visitor numbers improve,” but “with drastically reduced visitor numbers, there is simply not enough work to employ the same number of people in our shops and catering outlets as before.”

The museum, which is facing a £50 million (∼$64.5 million) shortfall in income this year, noted that “Almost 50% [of TEL workers] have taken voluntary redundancy and the proportion of TEL employees who have informed us they identify as BAME has been unaffected by the redundancies.”

“We are halving all budgets, freezing all but essential recruitment, a voluntary 10% pay cut has been taken by the Executive Group,” Tate’s statement added, “and we continue to argue for more Government support.”

White women are allegedly bullying Guggenheim staffers of color to join their cause
The Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim MuseumGetty Images

A group of current and former employees working to denounce racism and sexism at the Guggenheim Museum is led by “disgruntled” white women who are “intimidating” employees of color to join their cause, sources told The Post.

The group, A Better Guggenheim, claims it is holding the museum “accountable for systemic racism and a toxic work environment.” Members, including a leader who was furloughed and was not hired back, want to force the resignation of the institution’s top executives.

But they have been accused of creating their own toxicity among the museum’s nearly 300 employees. Among the complaints are fears of having personal conversations and meetings taped by the group and uploaded to social media, the sources said.

“It feels sinister,” said an employee of the museum who did not want to be identified. “They are terrorizing employees and compromising the work that people are doing to address the issues, and diluting the real cause. It’s a joke that it’s called ‘A Better Guggenheim.'”

The Guggenheim employee told The Post that members of ABG have secretly recorded staff meetings without consent and posted them on social media. “A lot of people have been disgusted” by that, said the employee. “It’s just damaging to everyone.” The employee also said the group has exerted such “intense pressure” on employees to join their cause that some employees had been left in tears.

At least 169 former and current staffers signed a June 29 letter supporting the group when it called for “restorative justice” for a black guest curator who was allegedly mistreated by museum staff. But many stopped supporting the group when it demanded the “immediate” resignation of Director Richard Armstrong, Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Duggal and Chief Curator Nancy Spector, the employee said.

Many employees complained in emails to management that their initial support was being “repurposed” and used by the group to suggest that they have widespread support, a second source told The Post, adding that ABG currently consists of “half a dozen” current and former employees.

For months, ABG, which describes itself as a “collective” of past and present staff members of the museum, has posted numerous anonymous grievances on its Instagram page and website. Among the group’s leaders are Cassie Dagostino, a furloughed member of the Guggenheim’s communications staff who has not been hired back, and Caitlin Dover, the Guggenheim’s associate director of digital media, the employee told The Post.

Neither woman returned The Post’s calls and emails seeking comment. In an email to The Post, ABG said that “due to the museum’s record of retaliation” all of its members have chosen to remain anonymous.

In June, the group sent a letter to the Guggenheim’s board saying that the museum had mistreated Chaédria LaBouvier, the museum’s first black guest curator who organized a 2019 exhibition of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. LaBouvier called her experience working with the museum’s chief curator Nancy Spector “the most racist professional experience of my life” and accused the museum of co-opting her work in a series of June tweets.

In July, the museum hired an attorney to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Basquiat show. The investigation is ongoing.

In August, after several meetings with its staff, the museum said it was committed to a two-year initiative to create a more equitable and inclusive working environment and to feature “programs and partnerships that amplify diverse voices and create shared authority,” according to the museum’s “Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion Action Plan.” Their recommendations included creating partnerships with black colleges and universities to provide internships and other opportunities for students and graduates, and to establish a committee to review new acquisitions and exhibitions.

The diversity restructuring is coming amid a time of financial crisis for the museum. Last week, in a letter to staff announcing 24 job cuts (11% of staff), Armstrong called the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the museum “devastating to our finances.” He said that the museum’s income has decreased by $1.4 million per month since it closed on March 13, and that total losses are projected at just over $15 million for the year. At the time, the museum furloughed 92 staff members, although 62 have returned to work, a spokeswoman said.

Although the Guggenheim is scheduled to reopen on Oct. 3, it will only do so at 25% capacity in order to follow social-distancing rules. The museum, which has more than $92 million in endowment funds, received nearly $6 million in a federal bailout under the Paycheck Protection Program, according to public documents.

A spokeswoman for the museum declined comment on A Better Guggenheim.

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