Major U.S. cities have become sites of protest following the killing of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis. As of Tuesday, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets and hundreds have been arrested. As social media flooded with images of civil arrest and police brutality, many museums stayed silent over the weekend, drawing criticism from high-profile activists, curators, and artists.
Faced with increasing pressure from critics and mounting civil unrest, some museums began issuing statements early in the week, and a few became the subject of controversy. The Getty in Los Angeles was among the first to be blasted for its social media posts over the weekend, which did not mention Floyd or Black Lives Matter. “We heard you,” Getty president Jim Cuno wrote in an apology posted to Instagram on Monday, adding, “We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values than we did yesterday, and we apologize.”
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also weathered a controversy after posting a Glenn Ligon artwork to Instagram on Saturday with a quote from the artist. Some added comments accusing the museum of refusing to mention Black Lives Matter and Floyd. Eventually, the museum disabled comments on the post entirely. On Monday, the museum posted an apology, saying, “We can do better,” adding that the original Instagram ought to have “more directly expressed our sadness and outrage.”
Since then, museums nationwide have continued taking to social media to declare support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some institutions posted artworks from their collections addressing police brutality and systemic racism—New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, put an image of Faith Ringgold’s Freedom of Speech (1990), an American flag lined with phrases about constitutional rights, on its Instagram. Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art published a subdued Facebook post. It did not mention Floyd, and was meant to address what it referred to as this time of “intolerable injustice.” That post carried with it a body print by David Hammons that depicts the artist draped in the American flag. Later, the museum tweeted a more direct statement that included the names of several Black Americans who have been killed by members of the police, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and Tony McDade.
“It’s telling that many museums that choose to show work about Black subjectivity are deeply silent right now,” writer Kimberly Drew, who previously served as the Met’s social media manager, tweeted on Sunday. “As a former social media manager, I understand firsthand that finding something to say can be hard work. I am also saying that I would like to see you do that work.”
In an unusual turn of events, industry groups even joined activists in speaking out against some museums’ practices. “As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough,” Chris Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said in a letter published on Monday. “We have dabbled around the edges of the work, but in our place of privilege we will never live up to the statement that ‘museums are for everyone’ unless we begin to confront, examine and dismantle the various structures that brought us to this point.”
Anagnos’s letter explicitly mentioned Black Lives Matter and concluded with a plea for museums to act differently going forward. “It does not happen automatically, or naturally. But it can be done—and I think our field has an obligation to do a better job engaging with these issues.”
The controversy continued on Tuesday, as many museums took part in Blackout Tuesday, an Instagram initiative in which a black square becomes one’s sole post for the day, as a declaration of support for Black Lives Matter. Many have criticized the initiative for making it difficult to obtain information about the protests via social media—a grid of black squares appeared on the #blacklivesmatter section of the app because some users did not follow the suggestion that the hashtag not be used with the black square posts. The Met was among those to participate and to initially go against recommendations for its post. Shortly after publishing its Blackout Tuesday Instagram, the Met stripped the hashtag from it.
Meanwhile, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City weathered outrage of a different kind after images of police vehicles on its property—reportedly parked there with the permission of the museum’s security team—began circulating online on Friday. Online outrage quickly ensued in which the museum was accused of complicity for having not spoken out against the police presence.
On Monday, museum director Julián Zugazagoitia addressed the controversy through a statement on Instagram. Zugazagoitia said he had not been made aware of the police vehicles until Saturday, after which he requested they depart the premises. (The vehicles are no longer on the museum’s property.) “It is exactly the opposite of what the Nelson stands for, what the museum stands for, what we want to do as work and what we have been doing as work,” he told Kansas City’s NPR affiliate.
Some critics questioned whether the protests, now in their second week, would change institutions in the future. “The museums posting ‘black lives matter’ now are the same ones who have participated in the social death of black folks,” wrote critic Antwaun Sargent on Tuesday, adding, “do black lives matter on your curatorial team or board? do they matter in your collections and shows? they have to earn the right to say black lives matter.”