• The Star Staff

Guggenheim approves diversity plan after staff complaints of racism

By Zachary Small

The Guggenheim Museum has approved a plan to address complaints of entrenched racism within its walls. It is one of the first major cultural organizations to provide details of an expanded diversity effort.

On Monday, the museum announced to its staff a two-year initiative to create policies for reporting discrimination and developing diversity programs. New measures include paid internships for students from underrepresented backgrounds, a partnership with historically Black colleges and universities to promote job openings, and the creation of an industrywide professional network for people of color working at arts organizations. The road map also calls for a top management-level position to oversee diversity initiatives and the establishment of a committee to examine the institution’s exhibitions and acquisitions through the lens of equity and diversity.

“This plan shows a greater sensitivity toward respect,” Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, said in an interview. “It means there will be a bigger front door, providing more opportunities for a variety of people to imagine working in museums as a sustainable career path.”

The diversity plan comes more than a month after the Guggenheim hired a lawyer to independently investigate the circumstances surrounding its 2019 exhibition of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. In June, nearly 100 current and 100 former employees, under the name “A Better Guggenheim,” sent trustees a letter claiming that executives had created a “culture of institutional racism” at the museum and mistreated Chaédria LaBouvier, a guest curator of the Basquiat show. The investigation is expected to conclude in the fall.

Along with their recommendations, the writers of the finalized initiative, who include eight employees and an outside consultant, also discussed the Guggenheim’s recent failures to diversify itself. The authors, at least four of whom identify as Black, claim that the demographic makeup of visitors to the museum does not reflect the racial diversity of New York City, citing a 2018 study conducted by marketing firm Morey Group. It found that nearly 73% of museum visitors identified as white; by comparison, the city’s population is about 43% white. To better reflect the city’s population, they recommend, for instance, expanding pay-what-you-wish hours beyond Saturday evenings.

And despite a range of initiatives since 2010 that have helped the museum acquire works by nonwhite artists, the authors of the new road map urge that exhibitions include more representation from historically marginalized groups. “Within the iconic space the Rotunda, the museum has never held a solo exhibition of a Black artist, a woman artist of color, an Indigenous artist, or a trans-identified artist,” they wrote in the diversity plan.

They added, “The current moment demands that we reconsider the fundamental role that art museums play within society at large: whom are these institutions for, what are they responsible for, and to whom should they be accountable?”

In June, LaBouvier tweeted that working with Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, “was the most racist professional experience of my life.”

Specter is on sabbatical from the museum and has declined to comment on the matter.

“What happened six weeks ago brought things to a boiling point,” Armstrong said about the inclusion plan. “We looked at each other collectively to say, ‘We will accomplish this.’ ”

But during a tense all-staff meeting last month, employees expressed doubt that the plan would be enough to create lasting change without more input from employees of color, many of whom were furloughed in April.

“Furloughed staff make up the majority of the museum’s BIPOC employees” — Black, Indigenous and people of color — “yet they were excluded from the development of this diversity plan,” said Cassandra Dagostino, a furloughed member of the communications staff and of A Better Guggenheim.

In a joint statement to The New York Times about the plan, nearly 30 part-time Guggenheim educators said they were not consulted and they were concerned that 60% of the next steps to expand programming and outreach would fall on their shoulders.

The Guggenheim’s reckoning comes at a time of financial difficulties because of the coronavirus pandemic. The museum currently projects it will have a $15 million deficit this year and has relied on contributions from trustees and reallocated money from its current budget to fund its diversity initiatives. Administrators said the museum will not reopen until at least October.

“We look with empathy and some trepidation at what’s going on inside the museum industry,” Armstrong told employees in a meeting last month, describing the projected financial losses at the Guggenheim as “quite crippling.”

When the museum does welcome back visitors, attendance will likely be capped at 800 daily, Armstrong told staff. It’s a number the director said would allow the institution to “begin to break even.” He also cautioned staff that there was “a strong possibility” of future layoffs.

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