“In the past few days, criticism against the Nevada Museum of Art has intensified after two former employees alleged that the museum mishandled Black Lives Matter messaging and has tokenized Native culture in its exhibitions. Following yarngurl’s BLM guerrilla textile installation last month and the resignation of three employees—including the two women whose comments appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal and This Is Reno, former gallery educator Sara Paschall and former education coordinator Jessica Imus—the public response has been mixed. While some vocal critics have taken to social media to voice their discontent, many, including the museum, have largely ignored the outcry, hoping, in the words of CEO David Walker (as related by Jessica Imus) that “the protests would just go away, people would forget …”
Walker is not wrong about forgetting. We are talking about fumbling social media roll-outs, stupid comments made during an internal staff meeting, and claims of insensitivity by former employees—not overt racist remarks, bad statues, or bad actors. There is no Warren Kanders on the board, no Sacklers artwashing their family name through philanthropy. It’s *just* institutional racism. The kind we either don’t see or don’t do anything about because we’re all running a mental calculus that absolves us from getting involved. Mine goes something like this:
“Is it true? Is it bad? Does it affect me?”
I believe the allegations.
I also believe they’re bad. Not bad like vice-chairing-a-museum-while-manufacturing-tear-gas bad or excluding-BIPOC-artists-from-exhibitions bad, but bad in all of the invisible ways that soft racism always is. Using Black artists’ work as cover for not issuing a statement of solidarity. Showcasing Mexican art funded by a bank as notorious for its racial discrimination lawsuits as it is for its subprime mortgage loans. Hiring Indigenous individuals as collaborators instead of curators in the interpretation of their own culture’s objects. Deflecting the spotlight from an all-white leadership team by pointing fingers at other institutions. Not listening to employees’ concerns for what they are—admonishments to “do better” in the present moment, not on some future horizon.
What it means is that we’re getting a show, not just an exhibition.
The art world is a veritable list of examples. For years, New York institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum, The Guggenheim, and The Whitney have been targets of criticism, as have the SFMOMA, The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and The Tate and The Birmingham Museum in England. Also, most natural history museums, whatever this year’s racist biennale controversy is, and the dozens and dozens of monuments to men whose positions in life upheld imperialism—and whose postures in death nod to white supremacy. Even the digital controls that help us navigate image banks are racist, according to artist Trevor Paglen’s recent AI project, “Training Humans.”
Last month, The Neon Museum became the latest Nevada art center to come under fire when artist Justin Favela wrote an open letter to the Board of Trustees that called out the museum for a “lack of action, tokenism, and more than anything, the silencing of voices.” With over 1,800 signatures, the Change.org petition joins yarngurl’s open letter to the NMA in its demands for solidarity with Black Lives Matter, equitable hiring practices, and pathways for BIPOC to move into positions of leadership in the museum.
To date, the Neon Museum has issued no public response on the matter. But the NMA is showing some movement, recently making statements that indicate changes in hiring practices and the launch of something called the Museum Diversity Team—an internal initiative whose only announced feature is that it “includes 22 staff members.”
So, it’s bad. But maybe things are changing. I can already see myself hedging on the last question:
Does it affect me?
The answer is “of course.” As a paying NMA member and part-time writer who makes meaning and money from my relationship to the museum, what the museum does certainly affects me. I benefit from its high level of discourse in the gallery, its supplemental programming, my access to its leadership for interviews and information, and, arguably, from being a voice of critique. Being in proximity to an institution that has distinguished itself as a thought leader for alternate ways of interpreting imperialist geography, a catalyst for large-scale land art projects, and an example for relational approaches to curating environmental content, rises the tide—so to speak—for its entire audience.
In many ways, the NMA is the case where institutional diversity lags behind the de-colonizing of ideas. They already have a lot on their walls and in their collection that de-centers dominant culture. That’s why it is so tempting to “forget” and resolve to accept whatever changes the NMA makes as the right changes. But I think we should have some standards in mind, if not demands in place for a space that has fought hard to keep its neutrality intact. Taking on the signs and symbols of resistance without taking on the mantle of racism and giving institutional visibility without giving up structural power are performative gestures at best and discriminating behavior at worst.
It’s tempting to use our own relationships to the museum as the ultimate litmus test for how well they are doing. But maybe a better set of heuristics could be:
Is it true? Is it bad? Does it affect more than just me?
This expands the conversation to include individuals who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as people who take up different spaces within museum culture. Questions surrounding the equity of artists, curators, community collaborators, volunteers, educators, administrators, board members, donors, and sponsors should all be fair game and perhaps required debate. There is nothing wrong with asking questions.