As calls to defund the police intensify across the United States in the wake of countless incidents of killing and military-style violence by police, art museums are facing a reckoning over their relationships with local law enforcement. Arts workers nationwide are calling on cultural institutions to divest from police and to instead invest in communities—in particular Black communities—as part of the effort to support the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups.
It can be difficult to tell whether museums are directly invested in local police departments through contracts and other means because this information is often not made public. But, after two museums in Minneapolis (the city where police killed George Floyd) announced plans to cut ties with police departments this week, many in the art world have begun agitating for other major American institutions to follow suit.
Advocates for divesting argue that cutting any and all ties are one concrete way institutions can reaffirm their commitment to their communities, as opposed to releasing statements in support of Black Lives Matter, which have widely been interpreted as empty gestures. (As a means of taking greater action, some cultural institutions have begun opening their lobbies to protesters. One is New York’s Brooklyn Museum.)
At least two museums, both in Minneapolis—the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Art—have now publicly pledged to stop contracting with police officers for special events. In an interview with ARTnews, Walker Art Center director Mary Ceruti said that she made the decision to stop contracting the Minneapolis Police Department for public events last week after the University of Minnesota announced that it would undertake a similar measure.
“It did initially feel like a little bit of a hollow statement to make, given the limited nature of our contracting with police, but as days went on and I had conversations with staff, artists, and other people in our community, I recognized it is a powerful statement to make,” Ceruti told ARTnews. “The goal [in] making such a statement public is to compel change.”
The Walker has worked with MPD for at least seven years, a spokesperson told ARTnews, hiring officers for annual events including the Walker’s gala and outdoor music festival Rock the Garden. The museum worked with MPD’s police captain to arrange off-duty police coverage for events, and each officer was paid on an hourly basis as an independent contractor. The spokesperson declined to share how much the museum has spent on these services but said that police are used one to three times a year “based on need.”
Ceruti hesitated to say whether the statement is meant to urge other art museums to follow suit. “I’m not going to presume to understand the specifics of different institutions and their relationships with their police departments—I think that can be specific and localized,” Ceruti said. “But as a field we are all acknowledging that we need to do more, and we have to accelerate the change within our own institutions.” One policy the museum has decided to implement this week: eliminating unpaid internships, positions widely viewed as employment barriers that undermine diversity efforts.
Some have called the Walker’s pledge inadequate, questioning why the museum stopped short of permanently ending its relationship with MPD. (The Minneapolis City Council has since announced that it is considering disbanding the MPD and building new community-oriented public safety measures.) Ceruti said she considered the fact that the city’s police chief, Medaria Arradondo, committed to systemic change within his department, and she added that his immediate termination of the four police involved in Floyd’s murder following the wide circulation of direct video footage was “pretty extraordinary.”
“Obviously that doesn’t bring justice,” she said. “But I think it is something that should be acknowledged—that maybe it’s a signal that there is potential for change.” In the meantime, the museum will be looking to hire a private security firm to provide services—a local one, potentially, that is “perhaps run by Black, Indigenous, or people of color,” Ceruti said.
The concerns about art institutions’ ties to the police extend far beyond Minneapolis. A public spreadsheet published online this week by anonymous cultural workers is currently crowdsourcing user-submitted information about arts and cultural organizations that may contract the services of local police. Anyone is able to fill in details on the nature of existing contracts and add notes on internal or external efforts to dissolve them; major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles are listed.
“This is a concrete step that museums and cultural organizations can and should take,” a spokesperson for the project, titled Arts for Abolition, told ARTnews. “The spreadsheet is a tool to support communities and staff as they mount a local call for divestment. We hope it will be useful for existing and future divestment campaigns to have details about contracts at peer institutions.”
Police reform, abolition, and overhaul of the entire criminal justice system have been ongoing struggles spearheaded by Black activists, whose communities disproportionately suffer from police violence. These issues have received unprecedented support following recent police killings including those of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Tony McDade in Florida, and Dreasjon “Sean” Reed in Indiana that have sparked protests against police brutality and systemic racial injustices in all 50 states. The campaign for art museums to sever ties with law enforcement aligns with similar calls aimed at cities, schools, and other organizations.
But because police involvement in art museums can be irregular, the nature of these relationships is complicated to define by outside sources, and it has received little public scrutiny in the past.
“Many people were not aware, up until very recently, that these institutions had contracts with the police,” the Arts for Abolition spokesperson said. “Smaller institutions are unlikely to contract the services of police due to their size. At larger (especially private) institutions, the existence or nonexistence of contracts is very difficult to ascertain, and we have been surprised by the impediments to getting information. Many curatorial, education, and programming staff do not have access to the relevant documents and are internally calling on senior leadership to provide more transparency.”
Now, the effects of these debates are being felt in cities around the country. In Chicago—where grassroots groups like Assata’s Daughters and Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings have led abolitionist efforts for years—city residents are demanding that the Museum of Contemporary Art cut its ties with the Chicago Police Department. The calls have been led by members of its youth development program, Teen Creative Agency, which consists of local teenagers—mostly people of color—who initiate projects at the museum, including the annual festival 21Minus, which had been slated for June 15.
In a widely circulated petition that has received close to 2,300 signatures, TCA called on the MCA to break all relationships with CPD and be fully transparent about the extent of its involvement with the police system. On Thursday, it met with deputy director Lisa Key, chief curator Michael Darling, and associate director of learning Billy McGuinness to discuss the museum’s ties with CPD as well as begin to develop a public response to recent world events.
“Certain things did become clearer—for example, we understand that the ties with CPD were not as deep as previously thought, though still present—but most of the meeting fell short in TCA’s eyes,” the group told ARTnews. “Especially as there was no solid plan laid out.”
“TCA as a diverse and radical workforce is obviously appalled by the state of our country and our city,” its members added. “Simply put, we cannot support the mass death of POC and Black people and anyone or institution that plays into the systematic oppression that is far too prevalent in America.”
The MCA enlists the services of the private contractor Securitas, one of the largest security companies in the world, that also works with museums such as the National Gallery in London. (British economist Guy Standing described the firm in his recent book Plunder of the Commons as “a security company with no institutional knowledge of culture or art services.”) The firm provides MCA with unarmed security officers in its galleries and may hire police for special museum events. “The MCA maintains a business relationship with the CPD and the 18th District in particular as any organization or business does,” director Madeleine Grynsztejn said in a letter from Wednesday that was posted as part of the Change.org petition. “Moving forward, we will ask Securitas to alert me should the need arise to work with CPD in any capacity other than normal business procedures.”
MCA’s involvement with CPD came to the forefront early this week when TCA brought attention to a photograph of CPD officers receiving a check in the presence of MCA staff. MCA clarified that the $1,200 donation—the equivalent value of a pair of Nike shoes—was made by Securitas for an 18th District fundraiser, following an exclusive Nike sneaker drop tied to its blockbuster Virgil Abloh exhibition last year. “Nike insisted that we consult with the CPD to ensure a safe environment for people to pick up their new shoes,” Grynsztejn wrote in the letter. “Our Security Department worked with CPD on a plan for a security presence around the pick up of shoes that met Nike’s expectations.”
ARTnews asked the MCA how frequently Securitas hires police for events and whether the MCA will continue contracting the firm or amend any of its current security measures. The museum shared the following statement in response: “We stand united against racial injustice alongside those who are using their voices to hold authorities and institutions accountable for their actions. While the MCA is not currently engaged in any current or ongoing contracts, special services, or funding of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), we pledge not to engage in future contracts with CPD until we see meaningful changes that respect Black Communities implemented in our city.”
TCA told ARTnews that the statement, a version of which now appears on MCA social media accounts, is disappointing but not surprising. “We expected to be able to give our input, but the response they gave let our expectations down. While we want to support the museum in its efforts to grow and improve, we haven’t completed any concrete plan in doing so yet.” After consulting with participating artists, the group has decided to postpone 21Minus indefinitely until more productive meetings with MCA higher-ups happen.
Some have criticized museums for outsourcing security to firms that will pay its staff lower wages in an already low-wage field. Stronger safety solutions might lie not only in in-house security (which, though more expensive, can be better trained for the job and develop company loyalty), but also in the form of alternative emergency response programs and restorative justice efforts.
“Security needs to be more community-driven,” a spokesperson for the Cultural Labor Research Unit, a group that focuses on labor issues in the Chicago art community told ARTnews. “Staff who come in contact with [visitors] need to be trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation … , and in working with different groups of people who may or may not enter the museum with a full understanding of the often confusing boundaries put up in terms of rules and security.”
CLRU, which consists of anonymous museum and cultural workers, launched this week and is intending to serve as a safe platform for arts workers to voice concerns about any labor issues without fear of retaliation. At the core of its mission is the belief that power is held and funds are controlled by a select few who do not necessarily act in the best interest of the institution’s communities.
“The current board model really only serves the donor class and insiders of the art world,” the spokesperson said. “Museums also need a community board that is as powerful as the board of directors—one that is democratically composed, of folks of all demographics and economic strata, and museums will benefit from their voices.”
For many museums, joining the nationwide effort to defund police could be as simple as speaking out. Many museums in New York City, for instance, are part of the Cultural Institutions Group, which offers its members city support in the form of security and maintenance. This means the institutions may not have a direct relationship with the New York Police Department, but they can still leverage the city to slash the NYPD budget, which is reportedly $6 billion per year. Hundreds of arts workers citywide have already signed an open letter calling on leaders to redirect funds away from the NYPD towards BIPOC communities.
“Museums that receive public funding from the CIG can pressure the mayor to defund the Police Department, whose proposed budget remains intact amid citywide cuts related to Covid-19,” Thomas J. Lax, MoMA curator of media and performance, wrote in an Instagram post. “Any other work—acquiring black artists’ art or organizing conversations—is at best a delay, and at worst entrenches the status quo.”