To: Chancellor Timothy White;
Vice Chancellors Steve Relyea, Evelyn Nazario, Garrett P. Ashley, Dr. Loren J. Blanchard, Andrew Jones, and Larry Mandel;
CSU Trustees officers Edmund G. Brown, Adam Day, Lillian Kimbell;
CSU Trustees Lateefah Simon, Silas Abrego, Jean Firstenberg, Juan Fernando García, Emily F. Hinton, Christopher J. Steinhauser, and Rebecca Eisen
CSU Trustees Ex-Officio Gavin Newsom, Anthony Rendon, and Tom Torlakson
CC: President Jane Conoley, Scott Apel, Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, lauren woods
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Dear CSU stakeholders:
As a former leader at CSULB, I’m compelled to bring to your attention obstacles I identified while attempting to develop an anti-racist practice on campus.
On September 11, 2018, I was abruptly terminated from the University Art Museum’s directorship, five days before the opening of artist lauren wood’s American MONUMENT. The new artwork prompts the consideration of the cultural circumstances under which African-Americans have lost their lives to police violence, providing a vehicle by which to analyze the complex relationship between the construction of race, material violence and structural power. The production process–which invited the CSULB community and larger public to think tank and collaborate on the monument’s completion–was launched on September 16 with an artist talk, and paused thirty minutes later with an artist protest in which woods called for CSULB to enact a restorative process to result in my reinstatement. I filed an appeal the next day. Over the course of the subsequent three months, woods and I reached out to the dean, the provost, and the president. We asked for a round table, for an open discussion. Over eight-hundred people signed two petitions for my reinstatement, many called President Conoley in protest. In the art world, CSULB was called out as racist. Students protested. The university administration remained silent. Recently, I received notice that my final appeal had been denied, and so, the production of American MONUMENT remained on pause until its designated time ran out. CSULB students suffered most from this loss. Their protests passed unheard.
How did we get here?
Shortly after I took office at the University Art Museum (UAM) in July 2016, 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. I first discussed it with my then-supervisor College of the Arts Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, then with UAM staff, CSULB faculty and chairs across campus, and students. Dean Parker-Jeannette supported the charge enthusiastically, as did students and faculty.
Acknowledging that institutional injustice is enacted by institutional players, I asked museum staff to consider reframing their point of view as participants in museum work, and to attempt to look at museum practices through the lens of structural racism. I established monthly mission and vision meetings around structural racism to begin the work. The challenge was met with mixed reception from white and non-black people of color staff members. Concerns included that the museum would have to show “inferior art” or “community-oriented art” and that the museum was forcing curators and other staffers to think about race/racial justice even if it’s of no “interest” to them.
In summer 2017, a black/latinx CSULB student was hired as a Getty Marrow Multicultural Intern, funded by the Getty Foundation. When I provided space for her voice in our quest for the development of an anti-racist museum practice, it caused tension in the staff. Results include a number of Equity and Diversity cases activated; a UAM staffer that refused to occupy physical space with the intern, even skipping a mandatory staff meeting citing overwhelming anxiety; and a general sense of alienation throughout the office. Dean Parker-Jeannette told me that staff were reporting to her that they did not “feel taken care of” and they “felt invisible.” She and her ASM advised me that to be a good manager I needed to make them happy, and be more “motherly.”
One senior staffer repeatedly expressed confusion and discomfort about what it meant to explore what a anti-racist practice could be, despite ongoing discussions on the topic and reading lists for reference, and so with the help of advisors, I prepared and offered a guidance paper to help frame the challenge for her. She continued to resist and claimed that it was neither clear nor pertinent to her research interests. It was obvious that professional anti-racist training for our work group was needed, but I was told by Equity and Diversity that such training for staff must be voluntary – and nobody volunteered when invited. I was advised by Equity and Diversity to shift the focus away from practices in the workplace and toward artistic programming.
In January 2018, with museum studies, I introduced the UAM Reading Club, an interlocking program for museum staff, museum studies students, and museum stakeholders, designed to establish a baseline for discourse by getting people literally on the same page. All UAM staff were invited, and those working in public-facing and programming positions were required to read the materials and attend. The monthly roundtable conversations for Reading Club were held during UAM work hours and museum studies class time, in a conference room adjacent to the museum. They were moderated by museum studies faculty and graduate students. We focused on current events and debates around art, race, politics, and institutions. Students were comfortable with the subject matter and material, which helped museum staff relax into the discussions. The cross-sectional conversations were rewarding and seemed to open space for learning.
In February 2018 I called a special staff meeting to announce the plans for American MONUMENT. The first concern that came up was whether or not we were planning to engage police officers and bring them into the public programming around the work. The artist was clear about her intentions: as a publically-accessible work of art, everyone is welcome, but we would not be designing a special platform for the voice of law enforcement. This project was to critically examine ways that the law and its enforcement perpetuates structural racism, and would respect the legally marginalized perspectives of the victims and their communities. I shared this view and supported it. Nevertheless, I wanted to prepare for the spectrum of potential responses to the project, especially potential backlash given the current political climate. I reached out to the Campus Police Chief to introduce him to the project and discuss ways in which we could protect students and staff while honoring the artist and the artwork itself. He was collegial. Notably, one of the first questions he asked is if any of the 25 cases highlighted by American MONUMENT involved Long Beach officers, with whom Campus Police share a labor union. I also reached out to the Associate VP of Student Life/Development to seek assistance in developing language to prepare visitors for the monument’s content, and to counseling leadership on campus to address any staff and student needs that could potentially come up when visiting the monument.
In June 2018, the UAM public relations specialist attended the CSU communicator’s conference in San Jose, and shared information about American MONUMENT with her colleagues, one of whom was high-level public affairs official at CSULB. He reacted strongly to the project, suggesting that the museum put out a statement saying that the views of the artist do not reflect the views of the museum, and that the museum organize a town hall meeting with local police as part of the opening. I rebuked these suggestions, noting that contemporary art museums ought to support the artists they show, and that a town hall with law enforcement not only would be misaligned with the project’s intentions but would also create an antagonistic space for our primary audience. We continued to get push-back from public affairs, who wanted to be involved writing the press releases and argued for language that would be more palatable for the police community.
I also alerted President Conoley about the upcoming project, and received a clearly supportive message about the work. Nevertheless, over the summer of 2018, I was pulled into many high-level meetings, with the anxiety around the content of the monument clearly escalating. The purported reason for the concern, stated repeatedly from various members of the administration, was that white nationalists would show up and prompt violence, although there was no evidence that right wing protesters have taken an interest in contemporary art works or monuments elsewhere. I agreed to work Sundays during the 3-month run so that I could be there during every open hour to help diffuse any conflict that may erupt. UAM docents with declared conservative politics, called the Dean to voice their misgivings around a project that examines police brutality. Many concessions were made. Meanwhile, museum staff expressed concerns for their health and safety to their union representative.
In early August 2018, I hired a temporary curator of Public Engagement and Participatory Practices, to work on American MONUMENT outreach and programming. She is regionally respected with many established relationships in the arts and culture sector; she also had previous experience working with woods. I was glad to have her in the office. I admired her work, appreciated her productive relationship with woods and knew we would be successful in building a platform for students and community members with her as public engagement curator. After her arrival in the office, I asked her to follow up on an inquiry we had received from a student who was a member of the Black Student Union on campus. The student was concerned about who had been consulted about the monument. There is a history of problematic arts presentations regarding race on campus–most recently in 2016 with the Carpenter Performing Arts Center–and students of color were understandably leary of white-led programming around race. Our new public engagement curator, herself a Black woman, who understood the difference between engagement vs. traditional and insufficient nodes of outreach, met with the student and beautifully shifted suspicion to enthusiasm. This engagement resulted in the student’s request to support the project by organizing BSU member involvement.
After that success, I sent an email out to a few staffers and one museum studies graduate student concerning engagement strategies. Specifically, I stated that in working toward our goal to bring a more diverse visitorship into the museum with this project, ideally, the curator of public engagement should be the first person to interface with the public; however, if a problem arose or worry voiced, she should be one to address the concerns of people of color and that I be the one addressing concerns of white people. This suggestion came out of multiple conversations with woods about cultural competence, which included general strategies and tactics to support racial justice. We had specifically discussed how different community concerns about American MONUMENT should be addressed and that the resources of the new public engagement curator, a person of color, should not be drained by white backlash. My directions did not ask staffers to racially profile people but to respond to self-defined concerns regarding race accordingly.
In late August 2018, I was called in to Diversity And Equity in relation to that email. I was informed that CSUEU was complaining about the email, and that it was a problem because I was assigning tasks not based on job description. Diversity and Equity said that they understood that the project is centered on race and therefore addressing race in outreach might make sense, but were required to use a standard derived from job interview question parameters. I said that I understood and would refrain from such directives in the future, though maintained I had done nothing wrong. What struck me is that the complaint came not from the African-American staffer, whose long history of social justice activism confirmed the efficacy of this tactic, but from one or more of the non-black staffers, via the CSUEU.
To feign color-blindness, anytime, but especially while mounting a major new artwork about black lives and police brutality, is both disingenuous and inefficient. Cultural competence is key to building, presenting, and stewarding a project such as American MONUMENT. That this incident was likely used to expedite my removal is further evidence that the institution would rather protect white fragility than combat racism.
I contend that my dismissal was directly linked to my attempt to develop an anti-racist museum practice. Although no formal reason was ever given, during my final appeal meeting with VP of Administration and Finance Scott Apel, he admitted that what he termed “diversity issues” made staff extremely uncomfortable and indicated that this was behind my termination. Diversity and equity in the CSU system is based on the idea that all voices matter and are equal. This framework leads to the false paradigm of color blindness. Only white/white-adjacent people have the privilege to be colorblind. People of color are confronted with their racial identity every day.
I urge you to rethink how structural racism is addressed in the CSU system. When I tried to do that on a modest scale, white fear reared its head quickly and in a system wired to self-protect rather than critically reflect, was used to effectively expel the source of discomfort. The disconnect between what “safe” means for white people and what “safe” means for people of color, particularly Black people, is striking. A discourse-friendly learning community like the CSU system must not only create safe spaces to talk about race but also work against behaviors that consciously and unconsciously support anti-blackness–or it will remain racist.
The appeal process was made in good faith on my part but seemed perfunctory at best for the university. In response to student dismay and in the spirit of restorative justice, woods and I proposed a parallel museum structure to restart the process of presenting American MONUMENT and steward it through. Not one of our invitations to redeem the harm of administrative actions taken–harm ultimately borne by CSULB students–was respected.
During my appeal meeting with Scott Apel, I asked what mechanisms the university had in place to practice anti-racism. He told me that Equity and Diversity and Human Resources are the only entities with the authority to engage with staff in this regard and that how they do is significantly constrained by collective bargaining agreements. If this is in fact true, then an unintended consequence of labor union rules and agreements is an inability to properly challenge institutional racism. Faculty and staff, union members or not, are ultimately employed to serve CSULB students–one of the most diverse populations in the region. Surely everyone can do better.
To unsubscribe from white solidarity and address unconscious bias and structural racism is difficult, I know; but it is something we have to work at and for at every level possible. I implore you, CSU stakeholders, to take up the challenge in a more robust way. The students of the CSU system demand and deserve more.
Attached and linked please find a number of relevant documents to support my argument. Thank you for taking all of this into consideration as you move forward with building a more inclusive higher education system.
- Artist lauren woods’s statement upon pausing American MONUMENT, September 16, 2018
- Appeal letter to Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, dated October 2, 2018
- Parallel Museum proposal letter from woods and I to President Conoley, the Dean, and the UAM board of advisers, dated October 21, 2018
- Two petitions calling for my reinstatement
- The reading list for the Spring 2018 UAM Reading Club
Open letter from the CSULB School of Art Concerned Students of Color and Allies
Open letter from Melissa Raybon, former CSULB student and Getty Multicultural Intern
Statement from the Director and Associate Directors of the CSULB School of Art regarding American Monument and the Dismissal of University Art Museum Director Kimberli Meyer
Op-ed written by CSULB Museum Studies Professor Dr. Nizan Shaked
A story by Matt Stromberg of Hyperallergic on the student reaction:
A review by Catherine Wagley of the work and situation in momus: