As the past month has brought forth a series of pointed open letters by museum workers accusing their institutions of racism, the latest—and most direct—comes from former staffers at the New Orleans Museum of Art who allege that the institution has fostered a culture of racism and representational disparity among its ranks.
Near its beginning, the letter issued Wednesday addresses the permanent installation last year of “The Greenwood Parlor,” a historical exhibition devoted to the interior of a former plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, before pointing out that NOMA’s leadership includes only one full-time Black staff member among more than 20 directors, curators, and other decision makers. “Not only is there a recently installed plantation exhibition on display at the museum, but there also exists a plantation-like culture behind its facade,” the letter reads. “The director, senior staff, and board of the New Orleans Museum of Art, historically steeped in white supremacy from the founding of the institution in 1911, need to be held accountable to the people and community they claim to be serving as a public facing institution.”
Jennifer Williams, a former youth and family programs manager at NOMA who served as one of the letter’s authors, told ARTnews, “Collectively, we had individual stories of trauma, surveillance, and aggression. As we gathered, we decided it wasn’t enough to discuss this over happy hour.”
The letter was signed by six former employees of NOMA, all of whom resigned in recent years and three of whom are Black. They accuse the museum of a general lack of diversity and of facilitating policies that led to alleged instances of racial and gender discrimination among staff. Relying on a set of demands put forward by a group of New York museum workers in a letter called “For the Culture,” the letter’s signatories call for the removal of members of NOMA’s leadership, the hiring of more Black workers, and a review of the African and Indigenous objects held by the museum.
Asked for comment in response, a representative for NOMA told ARTnews, “We are committed to continuing to develop content and collections through the lens of racial equity and social justice, and our staff plays a major, leading role in this effort. We are committed to doing better to meet the expectations of our BIPOC and LGBTQ community members and to show our intentions through actions.”
The letter under the heading “Dismantle NOMA” is one of several such missives issued by museum workers of late. On Monday, the Guggenheim Museum curatorial department demanded that that institution’s leaders take accountability for allegedly racist actions. And workers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called out their institution on Tuesday, alleging that it had engaged in the “racist censorship” of a Black employee.
Williams said it is not a coincidence that the NOMA letter came out the same week. “Workers are collectively organizing,” she said. “We understand our power. We understand the need for substantive change.”
Correction 6/24/20, 9:40 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated that how many former employees wrote the “Dismantle NOMA” letter. Six former employees wrote the letter, not five, and three of them were Black, not all. This article has been updated to reflect this.