Letter of Kimberli Meyer to Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette

 

Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette

College of the Arts, California State University, Long Beach

1250 Bellflower Blvd.

Long Beach, CA 90840

October 2, 2018

Dear Cyrus,

Thank you for meeting with me yesterday. I am following up with a formal letter of appeal, which touches on some points discussed.

Shortly after I took office at the UAM more than two years ago, I announced a five-year focus on structural racism. I positioned myself, my concept of leadership, and directorial mission as addressing injustice and developing an anti-racist museum practice. You and I discussed this in a one-on-one meeting, and you gave me your enthusiastic support. We both understood that finding evidence of racism in America, including in the university, is not an accusation but a statement of fact.

We are born into and continue to live in a racist world. Not one of us can help being formed by and contributing to white supremacy. Once we have realized that, our innocence is lost and we must act with intention. Transforming an institution must begin with its leadership, staff, faculty, and students. We knew we would face resistance and disruption, but we also knew that if we actually want inclusion, we are obliged to understand who is not included because they are dead or caged, and what mechanisms drive their non-inclusion.

To this end, I asked museum staff to consider reframing their point of view, questioning their biases and belief systems, and looking at artistic practices through the lense of structural racism. I began a series of discussions with staff and students around race, and by January 2017, introduced UAM Reading Club, an interlocking program for museum staff, students, and museum stakeholders, and a way to get people literally on the same page and establish a baseline for discourse.

Change, however, often triggers anxiety. Working in the California State University system has shown me a world view in which change can be perceived as a threat that questions hard-won labor rights of job security, benefits, and regulated work hours. The unionized work environment at the California State University aims to provide equity, justice, transparency, and security for its members. It promises stability, and it responds to change with suspicion and resistance. Questioning white supremacy questions privilege. Perhaps it’s not surprising that staff members reported that they didn’t “feel safe,” and didn’t “feel taken care of.”

As students of color were brought into the museum as workers, discomfort transformed into aggression, resulting in the accusation of a black intern creating a hostile work environment. Some staff members began to actively undermine my leadership. In our monthly meetings you encouraged me to develop a more mothering leadership style; I was told that leadership means managing and serving staff. I remain skeptical. I believe staff and leadership work together to do the work. Nobody should serve the other.

Since January 2017, when woods and I decided that her solo project would be to transform the museum into a monument on the matter of black lives and state power, she and I have been focused partners on making American MONUMENT a reality. I believed and believe, that at its best art has the power to redeem, to lift us out of fear and ignorance, engaging our sense of beauty and our desire to transform.

It is hard to imagine any practice more alien to the formalized work culture of CSULB than the process of creating American MONUMENT. Creating new work doesn’t always comport with CSU procedures and deadlines. Changes in planning and new ideas have to be accommodated. The very foundation of working with artists is to respect their process and trust their professionalism. Staff wasn’t able to do so, and created an environment of unnecessary concerns regarding budget and deadlines. None of them proved to be valid. Some of the difficulties were created by staff to derail the work. It is clear that at least some staff members tried to prevent American MONUMENT from being installed on time.

Yet at the same time, it is hard to imagine any practice more appropriate for a forward-thinking public art institution. To create an artwork of such enormous proportions is a journey of uncertainties and collective searching. It requires a partnering institution aware of its racial prejudice and open to learn. As Director of the UAM I was acting in good faith. I was working toward developing an intellectually robust, creatively fueled anti-racist practice, acknowledging and navigating the challenges inherent in this way of looking at culture. I was confronted with push-back and resistance. The decision to terminate me, the institutional collaborator on American MONUMENT, six days before its launch, removing key knowledge base and networks to the monument, is aggressive.

It not only put on hold an art work of great importance, it also created the impression that CSULB is incapable of overcoming institutional racism. It suggests that a healthy working environment and thoughtful protective leadership is incompatible with an anti-racist practice. This impression sends a fatal signal to our students and our learning communities.

My appeal therefore is a call for redemption. It poses an opportunity for the institution–the University Art Museum, the College of the Arts, and California State University, Long Beach–to learn from its missteps and to include. We know that the institution operates from a flawed system, but if “it” realizes its role in structural injustice, “it” can act with intention. “It” is you and me; we propel the institutions we work within.

This is an appeal for CSULB to see the value of institutional transformation, if for no other reason, then for its current and future students.

Sincerely,

Kimberli