Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor
Allegations of racism, sexual harrassment and other forms of discrimination have driven a group of current and former VMFA employees to speak out against the museum and demand reform.
The Commonwealth Times spoke to members of the group, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation, regarding their demands. Names of former VMFA employees in this story are pseudonyms.
Fred Morales, a former gallery associate, said he initiated conversation with his former supervisors about concerns of mistreatment in the workplace. He mentioned grievances against the museum’s inactive behavior in addressing allegations, concerns over work at the start of the pandemic and previous concerns of racism.
“How would we be protected from COVID if they can’t protect us from you know, like, people at work — people who are racist, people who are predatory, you know, people who are problematic in a sense that it’s like to a detriment,” Morales said.
Following the death of George Floyd’s death in late May, the museum released a statement on June 3, signed by VMFA director Alex Nygeres and Board of Trustees president Monroe E. Harris. The statement stood in solidarity with the family of George Floyd, affirming that “Black lives do matter.”
The Instagram post brought over 760 comments, mostly calling out the museum’s previous inaction toward allegations of racism with the hashtag #boycottvmfa. Comments also included people coming forward with their own experiences, demanding answers from the museum.
View this post on Instagram
"There are few words to describe the anguish, pain, anger, and outrage that our nation and our city are experiencing during this time. Our sympathies are with the family of George Floyd. We stand in solidarity with the protests in response to his death and the deaths of countless others of unjustified violence spawned from hatred, bigotry, intolerance, inequity, and racism. We only wish this were an isolated case, but it’s not. Together, we must stand united with those seeking justice. Black lives do matter. Together we must demand an end to centuries of violence against African Americans. . "Museums have a role in addressing the critical problems our society faces. VMFA remains committed to our mission "to enrich the lives of all through the arts” by diversifying our museum—its art collection, exhibitions, programs, and staff. Our permanent collection will continue to expand with important works of art by African Americans. A recent example that embodies our values stands at the front entrance of our museum to welcome visitors—Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War.” We are inspired by Wiley’s remarks at the unveiling, “We want more. We demand more. We creative people create more. . . . And today we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.” . "Be assured that we will continue to work to be a place of inspiration, learning, equity, contemplation, conversation, community, peace, and beauty. Through art we can bring the people of our great Commonwealth and our country together. Moreover, we bring the world to Virginia and allow us all to enjoy and celebrate the bounty of humankind’s creativity from across the globe and across time. Art is the universal language. . "We look forward to welcoming you back to your museum, 365 days a year." . A message from Dr. Monroe E. Harris, Jr. President, Board of Trustees & Alex Nyerges Director & CEO
“All complaints that have been brought to Human Resources are immediately addressed with an administrative review,” VMFA senior public relations manager Amy Peck said in an email. “Employees have been fired for harassment and discrimination.”
Peck said preventative measures against harassment by visitors are in place, and visitors are asked to leave when the behavior is brought to the museum’s attention.
The museum has developed a 5-year strategic plan, including initiatives to diversify staff, increase African American and Indigenous art collections and to convert part-time positions to full-time positions with benefits, Peck said.
Theo Irvine, a former gallery associate, helped draft the group’s petition and said the Instagram post proved the importance of the group coming together.
“It took our direct action through getting people to say something on Instagram, for the museum to respond in any way whatsoever about these issues that have been long standing like with racism and systemic racism,” Irvine said.
In response to the post, the group came together and created a petition and listed 10 demands for the museum on social media, calling attention to their presence. They worked quickly in order to retort to the VMFA’s post regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mary Hale, a former gallery associate, said coming together has been empowering compared to the previous feeling of cynicism when grievances were brought up to the museum’s human resources department.
The group is demanding that the VMFA must:
- Acknowledge racial and sexual harassment while protecting employees who have spoken out
- Denounce all expressions of white supremacy
- Provide proper contextualization that addresses the impacts of oppressive systems for all exhibits
- Compensate all staff at a minimum of $17/hour for the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic
Other demands include expanding Native American representation, disarming the museum’s internal security teams, hiring employees with disabilities and increasing accessibility for visitors.
After George Floyd’s death, members of the group were more persistent toward their supervisors about racism concerns in the workplace. Hale said when their supervisors were contacted, the responses were promising but were then left with no follow up.
Between June 23 and 24, 32 gallery associates were notified of terminations due to “COVID related issues” and a lower capacity for visitors in an email.
Jane Williams, a former gallery associate, left her position several years ago, but felt compelled to join the organization after
realizing that similar issues were present when she was an employee.
“It just happens to be that the gallery associates are the most public facing or one of the most public facing and also the ones that seem to get … the most heat from the VMFA,” Williams said.
The VMFA Reform Committee continues to post graphics demanding change from the museum along with anonymous stories submitted by individuals who say they experienced workplace discrimination. Williams said she believes that Virginia taxpayers should know where their money goes and the group aims to present that information to the public.
The organization is autonomous with no leaders, but the group hopes that their concerns will be addressed. In the future, members of the VMFA Reform Committee would like to see the museum invest in the young artists and give back to the arts community.
“It’s like really not that hard to literally stick your head out the fucking window and see a young artist,” Morales said. “Y’all could invest in putting murals around the city. Y’all could invest in, like, donating your extra food.”
For a full list of the organization’s demands, visit their petition.