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Open Letter Lambastes Racism and Homophobia at New Orleans Museum of Art

The New Orleans Museum of Art (Reading Tom/Flickr)

Former staff members at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) accuse the institution of sustaining a "plantation-like culture" in a damning open letter released this week.

The letter was penned by five former NOMA workers: Jennifer Williams; Dr. fari nzinga; Ifátùmínínú Bamgbàlà Arẹ̀sà (formerly known as Kelsi Brooks); Jonathan Serrette; and Jane Kate Wood. The authors say they are part of the 30 employees who have resigned from the museum in the past two years as a result of its "toxic work environment and institutional racism."

The group outlined a number of detailed allegations accusing museum officials of blatant racism and homophobia. They list the use of slurs; discrimination against Black workers in wages and job promotions; and surveillance of targeted workers, among other complaints. The letter is signed by hundreds of supporters.

The former workers say that when they reported these incidents to the museum's top officials — Susan Taylor, Museum Director; Anne Banos, Deputy Director; and Donna Dunn, Human Resource Manager — many of them were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and were "targeted and bullied" until they resigned.

The open letter lambastes the museum for permanently installing the interior of a parlor suite at the Greenwood Plantation (now called Butler-Greenwood) in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The plantation was one of four that belonged to the Louisiana Matthews family, who enslaved 500 people. A press release for the exhibition, which opened in December of 2019, says that the installation was mounted to "recognize all the lives lived at Greenwood Plantation — Harriet Mathews, her family, and, equally, the enslaved men, women, and children whose labor created their wealth."    

The group says that information about the parlor's installation was deliberately withheld from workers. "Pain and concern expressed by Black staff, volunteers, and community members about the Greenwood parlor exhibition was disregarded," the former workers wrote. "How can the New Orleans Museum of Art claim to encourage dialogue while refusing to hear or respect the concerns of Black members of their own staff?"

The parlor installation eventually led to the resignation of Jennifer Williams, who served as the museum's public programs manager until February of this year. "I did not want to be responsible for programming a plantation installation," she said in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, calling the exhibition a "monument to white supremacy." Williams says she spoke out against the institution, but her calls went unheeded.

The open letter argues that the museum does not reflect the diversity of a majority-Black city like New Orleans (the city is nearly 60% Black, as of 2019). 

"NOMA's leadership includes only one full-time Black staff member in a pool of 20+ directors, curators, and other decision makers – and none in executive leadership," the letter reads, adding that the museum did not employ any Black curators in its 100-year history until 2018, when Ndubuisi Ezeluomba was hired as curator of African art.

In addition, less than 10% of NOMA's nearly 50-member board is Black, according to the letter, with no Black individuals holding officer roles or serving as part of the museum's 13-member executive committee.

The authors of the letter also report that some Black staffers were asked to remove their dreadlocks. The also say that Black school groups, interns, and visitors were targeted and harassed by white staff while visiting NOMA, and that these concerns were repeatedly brought up in departmental meetings and reported to HR but were "buried or dismissed."

In a statement to Hyperallergic, NOMA declined to comment on the specific allegations in the letter but wrote, "Thoughtful discourse is fundamental to who we are as an institution and NOMA's leadership understands and accepts the opportunities to engage in discussions about our role, scope and mission."

"We see that the views offered by our former employees could serve as a beginning point and an opportunity for meaningful dialogue," the statement continues. "Some of these conversations have already begun, both internally with current staff and externally with our community."

The museum listed a number of group and solo exhibitions that showcased artists of color in the past few years (including an exhibition on the quilts of Gee's Bend) but recognized that it's "only the beginning" and pledged to do "our best to meet the expectations of our BIPOC and LGBTQ community members and to show our intentions through actions."

In the letter, the staffers write that in 2019, after repeated complaints to HR about incidents of racial and gender bias, NOMA held its first diversity training in years. As part of the training, the museum's entire staff had to watch a clip of the satirical song "Everybody is a Little Bit Racist" from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. The former workers say that the clip was delivered without context and left many workers feeling "further offended, discouraged, and targeted."

"I felt like the environment was toxic and I began to be targeted unfairly," says Bamgbàlà Arẹ̀sà, another former NOMA worker who co-authored the open letter. "I was not paid a living wage but, during the summer, I was responsible for what should be broken down into two different jobs." During her six months at the museum, she served as director of the summer camp program and the director of "Creative Careers."

In addition, Bamgbàlà Arẹ̀sà said that she was treated differently in the offices because she wore "Afrocentric" clothing and a head wrap. "I saw a difference in the way I was treated walking down the hallway once I started to come to work with my head covered," she said.

A third member of the group, Dr. fari nzinga, worked at NOMA from 2014 to 2016 as an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow (her salary was externally paid).

"During my time at NOMA, some staff looked at me with disdain and suspicion, I was given no budget whatsoever, and I was discouraged from forming meaningful connections with trustees," she told Hyperallergic in an email, adding that she suffered from patronizing and hostile remarks by Taylor. "I voiced these concerns and was met with radio silence," she said. "I remember her [Taylor's] insistence that I not mention race, when discussing the founding of the museum, or other museums/museum-related organizations."

A spokesperson for NOMA declined to comment on the specific allegations made by Williams, Bamgbàlà Arẹ̀sà, and nzinga, citing "privacy restrictions."

In response to these grievances, the group demands that the museum stops "all forms of performative allyship, Black tokenism, and virtue signaling immediately." They also demand a public apology from NOMA "to all Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) & LGBTQ former and current employees who have experienced discrimination and aggression at the institution," as well as an apology to the New Orleans community for "failing to provide a safe space for visitors."

The former workers also demand the "immediate removal" of the NOMA's top officials who they say "facilitated this toxic culture." That includes Taylor, Banos, Dunn, and Facility Manager Steve Lewis.

Other demands include hiring more Black curators and trustees, investigating former complaints to HR, and an independent investigation of the origins and history of ownership of all African and Indigenous objects in the museum's collection.

"This letter is an invitation to engage so that together we can help build the framework for real and necessary change at NOMA," the workers write at the end of their letter. "We believe that this institution can begin to heal past wounds and authentically serve the New Orleans community."

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