HARD TRUTHS: FIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

BYAndrew LampertHowie ChenAugust 11, 2020 1:12pm

ILLUSTRATION BY MARIO WAGNER

I am social media director at an art museum with well over one million Instagram and Facebook followers. Our account went awkwardly silent for a full week in June when the BLM protests erupted because the museum administration was undecided about their response. I convinced the director that we should participate in national Black Out Tuesday by posting a simple black square with #BLM. What a mistake. The post unleashed armies of trolls who immediately began bombing every post with harsh comments about our racism and toxicity, union issues, and even our cafe food. Three months later, I still can’t stop the negativity and am worried about losing my job. How can I win back “likes” for the museum?

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Protestors are angry at status quo–enforcing institutions right now, which as you’ve discovered includes art museums. During the BLM uprising, many museums have demonstrated their public value not through staging exhibitions, but by providing empty lobbies and gender-neutral lavatories to activists needing both relief from police violence, and to relieve their bladders of the free alkaline water being guzzled at these monumental rallies.

Black Out Tuesday was a fiasco because institutions have no spines. Even more harmful than silently empathetic black squares are posts that tokenize artists of color as a substitute for actual engaged politics and institutional reform. Sharing a picture of a prized collection piece by an artist of color without their blessing potentially adds further insult to injury, especially when the post is accompanied by tired virtue signaling captions that dodge real culpability. If museums continue to play this game, they will stoke the full wrath of K-Pop stans and cyber-haters who are wallowing in free time.

Unfortunately regaining “likes” may not be possible. Publicizing current exhibitions and works from the collection is far less urgent than solidifying your museum’s earnest commitment to cultural change. Alert the director to the runaway shitstorm overtaking the museum’s social media stream. Insist that they openly address the searing criticisms leveled by commenters, first with the staff, and then with the public. Force a conversation among your colleagues rather than just spray Febreze to mask the stink. In this pivotal moment you must remember that words and actions speak far louder than images.

When I was a little girl my mother told horrible stories about growing up during the Spanish Flu of 1918, and I still remember how scary it was before Dr. Salk created a Polio vaccine, but I’ve never seen anything like the coronavirus in my life. Before the pandemic, I stayed busy with group exercise at the community center and watching my grandkids some afternoons, but I always cherished volunteering at our city’s art museum. You have probably seen me behind the desk by the rotunda elevators handing out brochures and helping lost visitors find their favorite paintings. I’ve missed going there so much. Yesterday, a nice young woman on the staff called to ask if I’d sign a petition. Evidently, she and other employees are in a tizzy about their salaries and upset that the director is paid over a million dollars a year. Well, I refused to sign it. I think he is charming, well-spoken and very bright. He deserves every penny of his pay. Why are these rabble rousers so ungrateful?  His job is very hard!

First of all, thank you for your service. The public has much more contact and conversation with you than they do with any curator or director working behind closed doors. Your winning smile and enthusiasm make the halls of the museum warm with TLC. Without you, our visits would be DOA. Also, your directions always help art students cut the shortest path to the bathroom (see answer above) so that they can vape THC before taking in some ART.

We are wondering if you have seen the data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which shows that income inequality in the US is the highest of all the G7 nations. Pretty shocking, right? Worse yet, this disparity is also reflected in our museums: directors can make 6500 percent more than the lowest paid workers. We’d hope you agree that this is certifiably cuckoo.

Volunteers may elect to give their labor away for free, but art museums are vastly different non-profit charities than food banks or homeless shelters. Outside of their pricey Danny Meyer cafes, museums don’t actually feed people, they only dish out culture. If such untenable pay imbalances continue to exist the sweet young people you love working with may actually have to live on the street and beg for food. We’re 80 percent sure that this isn’t what you want, so please reconsider supporting your overworked, underfed colleagues.

Questions? Email hardtruths@artinamericamag.com.


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