Upheaval over race reaches Met Museum after curator's Instagram post

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Upheaval over race reaches Met Museum after curator's Instagram post
Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the European paintings department at the Met Museum in New York, March 20, 2018. The curator made an instagram post saying monuments should be protected from “zealots,” which prompted staff charges that the museum fosters “a culture of systemic racism.” Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The turmoil coursing through cultural institutions around the country on the subject of race has made its way to the biggest museum of them all: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A top curator’s Instagram post that seemed critical of the Black Lives Matters movement and protests over monuments — shared on Juneteenth — has ignited objections by staff members, and a larger internal critique. You can also see and download Stories of Instagram by using Instagram Story Viewer. On Tuesday, 15 Met staff members sent a letter urging the museum’s leadership to acknowledge “what we see as the expression of a deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution.”

The episode is the latest example of how arts institutions are grappling with issues of equity and diversity amid protests over the killing of George Floyd and an intensification of activity by the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Sunday, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that its equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt would be removed because it had come to be seen as symbolic of a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination.

On Monday, the Guggenheim Museum’s curatorial department in a letter described a work culture of “racism” and “white supremacy.” On Tuesday, current and former employees accused the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of “racist censorship” and “discrimination.”

And Friday, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland for 23 years, Jill Snyder, resigned after apologizing to artist Shaun Leonardo for canceling his exhibition dealing with police killings of Black and Latino boys and men.

Now, Met Museum employees are sounding their own alarm, prompted by a personal Instagram posting Friday by the museum’s powerful chairman of European paintings, Keith Christiansen, who has worked at the Met since 1977.

Below a pen-and-ink image of French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir, who devoted himself to saving France’s historic monuments from the ravages of the French Revolution, Christiansen wrote: “Alexandre Lenoir battling the revolutionary zealots bent on destroying the royal tombs in Saint Denis. How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve.

“And how grateful we are to people like Lenoir,” Christiansen continued, “who realized that their value — both artistic and historical — extended beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change.” While Christiansen appeared to be arguing for the preservation of monuments, his remarks also struck some as insensitive and tone deaf.

The post was criticized in a Twitter post by Art + Museum Transparency, an advocacy group of arts workers: “Dear @metmuseum, one of your most powerful curators suggested that it’s a shame we’re trying to ‘rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve’ by removing monuments — and, worse, making a dog whistle of an equation of #BLM activists with ‘revolutionary zealots.’ This is not OK.”

Responses to the tweet were similarly critical.

“This is disgusting,” one comment said, “not acceptable.”

Christiansen subsequently took down the post and removed his Instagram account.

Asked to respond to the uproar over the post Wednesday, Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement to The New York Times: “There is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy. Our ongoing efforts to not only diversify our collection but also our programs, narratives, contexts and staff will be further accelerated and will benefit in urgency and impact from this time.”

A day earlier, he had apologized directly to the European paintings department in an email, calling the Instagram post “not only not appropriate and misguided in its judgment but simply wrong.”

“Keith is a very valued member of our community and while this post was on Keith’s personal Instagram account, it is certainly also part of our institutional conversation and we need to reflect on that,” Hollein added.

It was Hollein’s second apology this month; he also conveyed one to artist Glenn Ligon, about the Met’s use of one of his works in a social media post, at the start of the protests over George Floyd’s killing. Ligon said on Instagram: “I know it’s #nationalreachouttoblackfolksweek but could y’all just stop … Or ask me first?”

On June 12, Hollein and Daniel H. Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive, sent an email to the staff that discussed how “we are moving the museum forward in our work to address issues of diversity and racism within our institution.”

The measures included convening a series of discussions on racial justice; aiming to further diversify the staff; hiring a chief diversity officer; instituting mandatory anti-racism training; and declaring June 24 as a Museum Day of Reflection. Their email also added, “we will continue to explore themes of representation and diversity through our programming.”

On Tuesday, Christiansen, who declined to be interviewed, issued his own apology in an email to the entire staff.

“I will make no excuses except to say that I had in mind one thing and lacked the awareness to self-reflect on how my post could go in a very different direction, on a very important day … and would cause further hurt to those experiencing so much pain right now,” he wrote. “I want to be clear on my view that monuments of those who promoted racist ideologies and systems should never be glorified or in a location where they can cause further harm.”

Christiansen continued, “This instance has further taught me that we, as members of this institution, are in the position of power to help correct a problematic history, and we must be self-aware and allies at every moment in this fight.”

But the Instagram post had touched a nerve. A group of staff members at the Met followed up with a letter to Hollein and Weiss.

“All of us were angered that the post seemed to equate Black Lives Matter protesters with ‘revolutionary zealots’ — a position made crueler by its posting on Juneteenth,” said the letter, which was signed by the 15 “ERG Co-Convenors,” a reference to the museum’s employee resources groups, an outgrowth of the Met’s diversity efforts.

Questioning how many other managers might share such views, the letter said: “While we understand that a private Instagram account does not necessarily reflect the views of the institution for which Christensen works — our Met — his position of power within it, and the decision-making he affects as a department head and senior curator with regard to programming, staff hiring, and institutional direction, is more to our point.”

In his response to the letter’s authors, Weiss acknowledged that “we have moved too slowly in building an institution that more honestly reflects the communities we serve or that honors our aspirations.”

Citing the additional complications of the “toxic and polarizing language of our national political leadership” and the Met’s staff of more than 2,000, Weiss added, “Sometimes, mistakes will be made — including by us.”

Hollein and Weiss plan to meet with the employee resources group June 30. Whether such efforts by the Met — which just announced that it would reopen Aug. 29 — will succeed in calming the waters remains to be seen.

“The path forward will be challenging,” Weiss said in his statement, “but for the first time in many years there is a collective will to build a better community, one that works for all.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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