Open letter No anti-racist museum without structural changes

Issue no3
June - July 2020
Troebele waters

First, we urge you to read the open letter from 600+ art professionals of color and others in solidarity addressed to the white art and cultural sector.

In her 17 June NRC article, Diversiteit is beleid maar de directeur is altijd wit – Onderzoek diversiteit musea[1], journalist Lucette ter Borg asked several prominent Dutch museum directors about diversity at the institutions in which they work. This letter is a rebuttal – initiated by three white cultural workers implicated within this system – to the dismissive comments made by these directors on systemic racism across Dutch cultural institutions in place of suggestions for concrete structural change. We here acknowledge the many years of work done by Black People and People of Colour (BPoC) to expose, destabilise and resist institutional racism – within and outside the museum and cultural field – by actors including Decolonize The Museum, the Black Archives, Kick Out Zwarte Piet, SEHAQ, Black Queer Trans Resistance and Helden van Nooit Collectief and many more groups and individuals that have done work in previous years and decades and that the initiatiors of this letter do not know by name.

We acknowledge the systemic intersectional nature of oppression, exclusion and discrimination which increases the more distance someone has from the cisgender heterosexual able-bodied class-privileged white male norm.

Too big to fail

Museums – increasingly neoliberal – manage collective heritage and shape and valorise the art historical canon through building and exhibiting their collections. Their position of power brings (financial) stability, a sizable staff and large audiences that in turn enable them to secure more funding. In the Netherlands, museum staff often have life-long contracts, providing them long-term power in decision making, programming, the distribution of resources and in turn visibility for practitioners and artworks. Art history as an immovable visual Western history is perpetuated by this structure.

In recent years through the work of BPoC in the cultural field, the understanding of decolonization and institutional racism in the Dutch context has increased. Simultaneously governmental policies placed diversity and inclusion on the agenda through the “Code Diversiteit & Inclusie”, leading to changes in the front end of the museum: programming of BPoC artists increased, language around “diversity” made its way into marketing & communication, and collections were slowly reframed to tell stories from a non-Western point of view – frequently labelled as “the other stories”.

But what happened outside of the public eye? Have museum’s built a workforce that is as representative and culturally diverse as the communities they intend to serve? The answer is – unsurprisingly – no. NRC collected data from 21 museums showing that out of 231 staff members in key decision-making positions, only six have a “non Western migration background”.[2] Nine White male directors (Andreas Blühm, Groninger Museum; Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum; Charles Esche, Van Abbemuseum; Stijn Huijts, Bonnefanten; Ralph Keuning, de Fundatie; Charles de Mooij, Noordbrabants Museum; Bart Rutten, Centraal Museum; Benno Tempel, Kunstmuseum Den Haag; Rein Wolfs, Stedelijk Museum) were interviewed to respond - to the exclusion of White female directors (for instance Ann Demeester, Frans Hals Museum; Deirdre Carasso, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam; Meta Knol, Museum De Lakenhal), which in no way exempts them from their role in systemic racism.

Over the last years, White museum directors and curators on lifetime employment made programming more diverse, almost always under the guidance of BPoC as external partners or guest curators. But, a guest is a guest – and not in the position to say anything about the organisation or the collection, or other programs – making it difficult (if not impossible) to demand structural change at an institution. Those positions are precarious, with a lack of stability – in career and personal life. Additionally these temporary curators and content-makers mostly enter the museum to tell a specific story on the basis of what is understood to be their (cultural) background and identity. Too often this pigeonholes BPoC into a singular position, ignoring the fact that European BPoC exist, and that the museum's heritage is also theirs. BPoC can lay claim to all positions, stories and visual languages as is made crystal clear by the Open Letter by 600+ Art Professionals to the White art and cultural sector mentioned at the outset of this text, when they state: “Because we are you. And you are us. And that is always denied.”

The institutional stories as told by White male museum directors

In the article the museum directors’ responses to the data are framed by an excerpt from a lecture by historian Patricia D. Gomes presented at the Historic Days in Groningen in 2019: “The arguments for this [lack of diversity] have been the same in the Netherlands for the last fifty years: ‘People of color are not represented because we can’t find them. They are not represented because they don’t apply for jobs. If they do apply, they don’t have the right education. And if they don’t have the right education we need more money to offer them that education.’”

The directors reiterate these arguments with bafflingly indifferent and casual responses: Huijts, Keuning and Rutten all state that BPoC don’t have the right education when applying for positions. While Rutten does not explicitly state that BPoC don’t possess the adequate level of abstract thinking, he does bring it up, both in the general job description of a curator and as a reason not to hire either one of the two ‘partly non-western’ applicants for the job.* Huijts wishes BPoC would be rattling the doors of the White institution. Both Blühm and Huijts throw their long-term White employers under the bus, Blühm stating that it might be time for them to “move on”, with Huijts adding that he couldn’t possibly tell someone they are “too White” and “it is time for someone with a different color”, using the Dutch diminutive “kleurtje” [3]. Rutten praises his museum’s “benevolence” in making (temporary) space for a candidate with a partly “non-Western migration background” to feed his White institution, while Wolfs stresses without an inch of doubt that he is indeed the best person for the job without any reflection on the influence his Whiteness has on his career.

A few slow efforts at change can be identified throughout the article, and speedy additional efforts are now outlined in statements with (empty) promises and gestures while networks such as Musea bekennen kleur see an increase in pledges. We remain sceptical to say the least, and feel it is useful to scrutinize two clusters of arguments made, as well as a third one not explicitly mentioned – possibly for strategic funding reasons.

The “quality” argument

The idea of a lack of “quality” shows up in the article, explicitly and implicitly, The directors argue that BPoC don’t possess the right qualities for the job or if they do that they are nowhere to be found. The notion of quality is hidden within shifting parameters, as Esche puts it: “From the perspective of diversity, the best person is not always the best person for the team.”

The argument that BPoC with the right qualities cannot be found – brushing over any reasons as to why they might not feel compelled to apply to positions in these White institutions – was refuted recently by the team Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung assembled for Sonsbeek. It points to another problem: the quality of BPoC is not recognized by the White gaze. Decisions in hiring always involve a leap of faith, this trust is not extended to BPoC in the White museum field.

The “Code Diversiteit en Inclusie” states that quality is a key consideration in the (subsidised) cultural sector and confirms that “the process of assessing quality is largely based on certain dominant cultural values, whereupon there is a distinct cultural bias”. Neither the museum directors nor the journalist reflect on who the gatekeepers to these definitions of quality are. The directors seem in consensus about the museum benefiting from “diversity”. However, improving historically White institutions is not what is at stake – what’s at stake includes equal representation in conversations, access to decision-making power and influence on defining notions of “quality” and “art”.

The museum directors steer clear of any explicit mention of institutional racism in relation to museum culture. Not reflecting this suggests that hiring BPoC would eradicate any existing cultural biases in museum culture and staff. Long-term commitments to anti-bias and anti-racism work are scarcely mentioned. To truly change the organization’s front and back end, White staff need to continuously educate themselves, unlearning their (art) histories through decentering their Western understanding and knowledge. This, as well as continuous anti-racism training for all White staff members is needed to ensure a secure and supportive working environment in which BPoC can do their job without the constant, unpaid labor of education, bringing up the uncomfortable conversations, and confronting White privilege and racism within their team.

The “budget is budget” and “all long-term positions are occupied” argument

Several directors argue that all permanent, content-related positions are occupied and turnover is slow. If positions do come up, the “quality” arguments outlined earlier are employed to say that education or training is not possible within existing budgets.

In other words, creating space for BPoC in decision-making positions is not possible without increasing budgets. So why then is redistribution of funding never considered in this? Quoting Nancy Jouwe: “It all starts with the realization that diversity is important. Make your whole organization understand this. If the whole staff embraces this realization, then you will make sure diversity is implemented.”

We urge White people in positions of power and comfort to think hard about what they are willing to do. What does the stability of life-long contracts mean when this stability is only held by White people and how can this stability be redistributed more equally? What possibilities can be found to free up funds?

We want to stress that we do acknowledge the importance of job security and fight under neoliberalism and that there is no easy answer to this question. However, this also reminds us that capitalism and colonialism are two sides of the same coin – and that the fight against racism and for equal access and representation inevitably means turning against this economic system as it is the root of the perpetuation of inequality. Until this leads to the end of capitalism, compensation will also need to happen within it.

Funding bodies and governmental policies

It is clear that (short-term) visibility through programming outweighs less-visible structural reform. Take the case of the Cultural Diversity Prize granted to Van Abbemuseum in 2006. The museum proposed to spend the 500.000 EUR prize money on a multi-year public project centered around the exhibition Be(com)ing Dutch rather than, for example, hiring a BPoC in a decision-making position. Such decisions are made partly in response to the requirements and thus policy of public funding bodies that reward the first over the latter. In this we have to acknowledge that they are steered by a government who outsources (visible) diversity to the cultural field, while being violent and murderous in their border and immigration politics.

Funding bodies should revise their policies, to make structural change in institutions a priority and allocate and reward money specifically to this.

So what do we suggest?

-Time is up for press releases with promises and sketches for a future that may never come. White institutions should only speak when they have taken concrete actions that can be described in precise language.

-Institutions should commit to equal representation, follow this with structural actions and scheduled moments of accountability until the composition in staff positions in museums is representative of the communities they serve.

-The contractual conditions and payment of BPoC should compensate for the extra (emotional) labor involved in working in a White institution as a non-White person.

-Institutions should refrain from asking BPoC employees to speak or advise on diversity and inclusion, or to dismantle existing institutional structures. When they are unable to avoid this, implicitly or explicitly, they should financially compensate for this work, which falls outside any task description.

-Institutions should implement a structural programme for White staff consisting of anti-racism and conflict de-escalation training, and critical education on decentering White-centered and Western understandings of (art)history and the development and maintenance of the canon.

-Museums should commit to acquisition of works by Black artists and artists of Color, but this should NOT be done by the White acquisition committees that have failed to buy these works before (as Vincent van Velsen states clearly in his open letter to Touria Meliani, wethouder van cultuur van Amsterdam). Additionally the prices should be adjusted to compensate for the structural under-recognition of their practices.

-Museums should take responsibility for their own institutions but also fight for structural change sector-wide and within local and national government, public and private cultural funding bodies. A broader climate needs to be created where criticism is not met with a default, defensive response but with reflexivity, accountability and self-work.

-Data must be collected and made transparent. We agree with Nancy Jouwe, and also Patricia D. Gomes who says: “What you don’t measure, you don’t know, so you don’t have to act upon racial exclusion.”

Additional remark on decentering Whiteness

We appreciate the ways in which the article exposes the current – unsurprising but nevertheless shocking – conditions and thought patterns in the Dutch museum landscape, but we would like to point out some tropes and implicit biases in the article that continue to center Whiteness. This is something that happens not only in the media, in the whole cultural sector, and where we – the initiators of this letter – are also implicated. Structural change needs to happen beyond the museum and in entanglement with the decentering of Whiteness.

The article leads with the exceptionally positive reception of the group exhibition “Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power”, with works by Afro-American artists from 1963–1983 (2017, Tate Modern, London), said to provide a “radically different language”. It then summarizes the consensus at the time with the question: “How have we ignored this for all these years?” This language of discovery retraces the outlines of an exclusive and homogeneous international (Anglosaxon) Western art world which discovers and allows BPoC to enter, but only through superlative excellence and through recognition by the White gaze.

Leaving unaddressed that the current canon holds deep ties to colonial and imperialist history, helps to overlook the exclusionary politics at work in contemporary art, in the modernist tradition and the art field.

The article mentions the research by historian Patricia D. Gomes: “For years, Gomes has been wanting to research, what she calls, ‘institutional racism’ in the Netherlands”. The decision not to explain the – by now widely used term – institutional racism, but rather preceding it with the clause “what she calls” echoes the argument that racism is an opinion. In the same paragraph Gomes’ position is categorised as radical, leaving implicit bias on Gomes’ position.

In the field of media and the cultural sector continuous structural work and the decentering of Whiteness is needed from all actors as a true commitment to anti-racism beyond statements of solidarity. Part of this is taking responsibility for the language and framing we choose and the ways in which this centers Whiteness.

“Nederlandse kunstmusea diversiteit is beleid, maar de directeur is altijd wit,” opens with a congratulatory story on discovering ‘the other,’ but the choice could have been made to elucidate biases and values that contribute to art and art institutions as we know them and the problems of equal access we have not reckoned with.

This text has been corrected and clarified following feedback from a number of people

For the most updated list of names and to add your signature click here where you can also leave feedback for the initiators. We will manually update the visible list.

Aimée Zito Lema, Alexander Iezzi, Ali Watson, Alina Lupu, Amber van der Linden, Amelia Groom, Amy Pekal, Andrea Wiarda, Anja Meulenbelt, Angel-Rose Oedit Doebé, Angela Jerardi, angelica falkeling, Angelo Custodio, Anke Bangma, Anna Dasović, Anne M. van Es, Annette Krauss (editor), Astrid Nobel, Antoin Deu, Arefeh Riahi, Arvo Leo, Astrid Van Weyenberg, Bas Hendrikx, Becket Mingwen Flannery, Bernardo Zanotta, Binna Choi, Birgit Kaiser, Bram van den Berg, Carina Jansen, Carly Everaert, Cathal McKee, Cecilia Vallejos, Ceel Mogami de Haas, Charli Herrington, Chiara de Cesari, Christa-Maria (Mia) Lerm Hayes, Christiaan Bastiaans, Clare Butcher, Clementine Edwards, clémence hilaire, Cleo Tsw, Co Knol, Coralie Vogelaar, David Greenhalgh, Donald Weber, Dorothé Orczyk, Edwin Zwakman, Ehsan Fardjadniya, Elisa van Joolen, Elisabeth Klement, Elisabeth Rafstedt, Elizabeth Graham, Elke Uitentuis, Ellen Oosterwijk, Eloise Sweetman, Erica van Loon, Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky, Fabienne Chiang, Falke Pisano (author), Fazle Shairmahomed, Femke Herregraven, Fleur van Muiswinkel, Floris Schönfeld, Gabriëlle Schleijpen, Geo Wyeth, George H. King, Gert Jan Kocken, Ghita Skali, Gilly van Zanten, Gordon H. Williams, Gwenneth Boelens, Hala Elkoussy, Hodan Warsame, Hristina Tasheva, I Marcos, iLiana Fokianaki, Ilya Rabinovich, Inge Meijer, Irene de Craen, Isabelle Andriessen, Isabelle Sully, Isobel Dryburgh, Iztok Klančar, Jack Segbars, Jason Hendrik Hansma, Jay Tan, Jeanne van Heeswijk, Jeanette Bisschops, Jeisson Drenth, Jennifer Tee, Jenny Lindblom, Jesse Ahlers, Jessey de Nijs, Jessica Gysel, Jimini HIgnett, Jo-Lene Ong, Joanneke Meester, Joel White, Johanna Ehde, John Maters, Jonas Staal, Jonne Paardenkooper, Joram Kraaijeveld, Jorinde Seijdel, Jort van der Laan, Joscha Steffens, Josefin arnell, Josephine Baan, Josse Pyl, Jude Crilly, Judith Vrancken, Judith Westerveld, Julia Steenhuisen, Juliette Jongma, katarina Zdjelar, Katayoun Arian, Kate Cooper, Kathrin Thiele, Katherine MacBride, Katia Krupennikova, Katja Mater, Kerstin Winking, Kianoosh Motallebi, Kris Dittel, Kubilay Mert Ural, Lauren Alexander, Leon Filter, Leonie kuipers, Lina Campanella, Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan, Lotte Sprengers, Luca Carboni, Lucy Cotter, Luke Cohlen, Lua Vollaard, maaike gouwenberg, Maartje Fliervoet, Maartje Folkeringa, Madison Bycroft, Maia Sorensen, Maike Hemmers, Maja Bekan, Manique Hendricks, Manon Braat, Marcel van den Berg, MARGARET HAINES, Maria Barnas, Maria Kley, Maria Pask, Marianna Takou, Marieke van Ouwerkerk, Marijn van Kreij, Margarita Osipian, Martha Jager, Martín La Roche, Masha Ru, Matin van Veldhuizen, Matthijs de Bruijne, Maziar Afrassiabi, Mehraneh atashi, Merel Zwarts, Mia You, Miriam Wistreich, Mónica de Miguel Rubio, Müge Yilmaz, Myvillages, Nadine Botha, Nan van Houte, Nat Muller, Natasha Greenhalgh, Natasha Marie Llorens, Neske Beks, Nienke van Beers, Nikolay Alutin, Noor Mertens, Noor Nuyten, Nora Turato, Nous Faes, ola lanko, Patricia Kaersenhout, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Peggy Franck, Pernille Lonstrup, Peter Goes, Phil Baber, Philipp Gufler , Pieter Verbeke, Polina Medvedeva, Radna Rumping, Rana Hamadeh, Rebecca Boswell, Remco Torenbosch, Rieke Vos, Riet Wijnen (author), Rik Fernhout, Robin Kolleman, Rory Pilgrim, Rosa Boesten, Rosa Paardenkooper (author), Rosa Sijben, Rosa te Velde, Rosie Heinrich, Sacha van Geffen, Sara Guagnin, Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide), Sarah van Lamsweerde, Salim Bayri, Seecum Cheung, Sema Bekirovic, Sepp Eckenhaussen, Shailoh Phillips, Sher Doruff, simon kentgens, Simon(e) van Saarloos, Simone Bennett, Sissel Marie Tonn, Sjoerd Westbroek, Sophie Erns, Staci Bu Shea, Stephan Blumenschein, Stéphanie Baechler, Stevie Nolten, Su Tomesen, Suzanne Knip-Mooij, Sven Lütticken, Team of Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, Theo Cook, Thijs groot Wassink, Thom Driver, Timo Demollin, Tiong Ang, Tirza Kater, Titus Nouwens, Tom van Teijlingen, Tomi Hilsee, Toon Fibbe, Uta Eisenreich, Verena Blok, Vincent W.J van Gerven Oei, Vincent Vulsma, Wapke Feenstra, wendelien van oldenborgh, Weronika Zielinska, Wilfried Lentz, Yana Foqué, Yin Yin Wong, Ying Que (editor), Zachary Formwalt

* This sentence - originally 'with Rutten arguing further that BPoC don’t possess the level of abstract thinking needed' - has been changed at the request of Bart Rutten. We acknowledge that language is important in this public debate, and asks a precision that was not present when Rutten spoke to Ter Borg and when we summarized it in this open letter.

[1]  Ter Borg uses skin color, birthplace of one's parents (through Dutch policy jargon; “a person with a non-western migration background”) and cultural background as exchangeable terms. At some point she even uses the adjective “non-western” without a noun. This feeds the narrative that the designation of other/”not from here” is a valid and sufficient general marker. But a Black person or non-Black person of Color can be Western, a person with a non-Western cultural background can be White, etc. A person can have more than one cultural background. Throughout our response we use Black people and people of Color (BPoC), to acknowledge the historical specificity of being Black, and White people, to refer to those who continue to benefit from the white color of their skin, unless we directly quote statements from the article.

[2] Dutch policy jargon for a person of whom one or both parents were both in a country in Africa, Latin America and Asia (excluding Indonesia and Japan) or Turkey

[3]  The use of diminutive in Dutch seems to be employed here and elsewhere to further undermine the issue at hand, equally using it to make White people (‘witte koppies’) sound more innocent.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2020