When seven workers at the Brooklyn Museum first met to draft an open letter in late May, they discussed writing an apology to the borough.
“So many people think of the Brooklyn Museum as ‘the museum that’s doing it right.’ But the image that we put out there doesn’t reflect how the people are treated inside,” former employee Mikeeh Zwirner, who is Asian American, told Hyperallergic. “We wanted to write to Brooklyn to apologize for allowing the institution to continue disguising itself as a social justice-oriented, diverse museum when it is actually exploiting numerous BIPOC staff.”
The letter ultimately took the form of a missive to the museum’s leadership and community decrying “the harm and daily mistreatment” of workers of color, and outlining concrete demands in the service of structural change. Signed by 59 then-current and seven former employees, it was titled “Unbought and Unbossed” — a reference to the campaign slogan of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to US Congress and a Brooklyn native.
Over the last years, and despite some programmatic offerings with positive social impact — such as Project Reset, which allows minor offenders to avoid incarceration by taking a two-hour art class — the Brooklyn Museum has been embroiled in a series of controversies related to its relationship to people of color. In 2015, anti-gentrification activists protested outside the museum, located at the heart of the historically Black Crown Heights neighborhood, as it hosted a real estate summit; in 2018, the hiring of a white woman to curate the museum’s African art collection provoked uproar.
Much of the criticism has been pointedly directed at the museum’s leadership. When director Anne Pasternak co-hosted a Halloween party titled “Bronx is Burning” in 2015, decked with flaming trash cans and bullet hole-speckled cars, it was seen as a tone-deaf caricaturing of poverty in the South Bronx. The activist group Decolonize This Place (DTP) has repeatedly called for the removal of David Berliner from the museum’s board. Formerly the CEO of real estate developer Forest City Ratner, which led a divisive housing development project in Brooklyn, Berliner was named President and COO of the institution in 2016. (DTP itself began as an action at the Brooklyn Museum against an exhibition titled This Place, during which the group rewrote labels for photographs of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories to include their Arabic names.)
The museum’s staff, meanwhile, have faced their own distinct challenges, often in the shadows of these public controversies. According to a spokesperson, 51% of the Brooklyn Museum’s employees are BIPOC, yet in interviews with former staff, Hyperallergic found a dissonance between the museum’s public image and the experience of the employees of color within its walls.
Nikiesha Hamilton, the Brooklyn Museum’s former head of government, community relations, and administration, says she was met with resistance when trying to advocate for more programming that would cater to the local community. On one such occasion, Berliner told her that he did not want to “ghettoize” the Brooklyn Museum.
“That was one of the most racist experiences of my life,” Hamilton, who was born and raised in Crown Heights, told Hyperallergic. “I was so embarrassed that I let someone insult my home.”
In a planning meeting for the museum’s exhibition of the French photographer and street artist JR, Hamilton spoke out against plans to install his murals in some predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods.
“I thought, why are we bringing a French photographer to Flatbush, where the largest population is Haitian? I didn’t understand why we were using a white man’s art when there were plenty of local artists here in Brooklyn that we could create murals with,” Hamilton told Hyperallergic. “Anne [Pasternak]’s response was to say that the artist is French and Tunisian, as if that absolved the Blackness and the color of the community.”
After the meeting, Hamilton says she was called into Berliner’s office and told that she needed to “read the room better” and be more aware of her body language, which he described as “defensive.”
The museum received a $4.5 million loan from the Payment Protection Program (PPP) this year, a government initiative to help businesses retain staff during the crisis. Between July and August, the Museum laid off 27 employees and furloughed a number of part-time staff “working remotely making over 75K a year,” a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic, adding that leadership has taken pay cuts starting at 25%.
Zwirner worked in the Director’s Office at the Brooklyn Museum from 2019 until she was let go in July amid the staff reduction. During her employment, Zwirner says she was most disturbed by the performative displays of solidarity, rather than actionable efforts to enact meaningful change, that she saw from leadership.
One recent instance struck her as particularly egregious. When demonstrations broke out following the murder of George Floyd, Zwirner said, museum director Anne Pasternak sent an email to all staff in which she claimed that she was working with the museum’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) Committee to reflect on next steps.
“I’m in the DEIA committee, and this was complete news to us. This is the first time that anyone in the DEIA committee, including the chairs, heard that she was working with us,” Zwirner told Hyperallergic.
At the museum, DEIA meetings take place monthly; Zwirner says Pasternak did not attend any of the sessions during the year and three months that she worked at the museum. A current employee who is also on the committee and asked to remain anonymous has seconded Zwirner’s testimony.
“When she sent this email, DEIA members were livid,” said Zwirner. “That was the moment when, as a group, we realized that we are a tool for Anne.”
Zwirner’s experiences at the museum galvanized her to help write the open letter. Among its list of demands is a request that the museum enforce “biannual anti-racism and unconscious bias training for all staff, but most urgently and more frequently for leadership and the Board.”
A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Museum told Hyperallergic that its board and staff DEIA committees are “working together to take a refreshed look at our DEIA Plan, our structure, and processes throughout our departments to advance our anti-racism and pro-equity efforts.” The representative added that the organization is in the process of hiring a Director of DEIA.
After employees took turns reading the “Unbought and Unbossed” letter out loud during a virtual all-staff meeting on June 17, Zwirner says Pasternak warned them not to leak the document, citing a pending grant application that she alleged could save jobs at the museum during the volatile pandemic period.
One of 27 workers laid off this summer, Zwirner believes she was specifically targeted for speaking up against the museum. Around noon on Monday, June 29, Zwirner received a call from Berliner apprising her that her position was terminated and that she no longer had access to her email or to a Google Drive containing her work.
Three weeks later, she received a text from the Brooklyn Museum’s assistant general counsel. One of Zwirner’s recent Instagram posts, the counsel said, could “trigger the nondisparagement clause” in her NDA — a document that her severance pay is contingent on and which Zwirner has refused to sign.
The Instagram post depicts Zwirner in a dress she was selling to benefit Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. She planned to wear the dress to a gala at “a cultural institution,” Zwirner explained in the caption, not naming the Brooklyn Museum. “Some of the top leaders of that institution are racist and transphobic AF, which is not surprising, but extra sad bc the institution was and continues to be a backdrop to numerous BLM protests,” the caption says. (Thousands of protesters packed the Brooklyn Museum courtyard for a march for Black Trans Lives in June, though the museum was not involved in the demonstration. This summer, the institution temporarily opened its doors to protestors for bathroom access.)
The museum later told Zwirner that it would not enforce the nondisparagement clause, but in Zwirner’s view, leadership’s willingness to exercise their power and threaten her severance pay weeks after her layoff spoke volumes.
Hamilton, who submitted a letter of resignation in July 2020, says she was also asked to leave the following day instead of fulfilling her two-week notice, allowing her less than 24 hours to draft a transition memo for her successor. Berliner and Pasternak offered her a severance package that required her to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA); like Zwirner, Hamilton has not done so.
“These consecutive experiences point to one thing: Diversity, Inclusion, Progress, or whatever word Anne, HR, and Marketing want to throw into the mix is mere branding, and they don’t like it when their BIPOC staff try to materialize ideas that would uphold what they claim is their philosophy,” Zwirner said.
In the words of one former worker who asked to remain anonymous for this article, “intimidation and covert threats are part of the cultural norm” at the museum, despite leadership’s efforts to appear progressive in public events and interviews.
“Such behaviors are used to beat the dissenting individual down with the goal of ensuring they will never speak up again,” they told Hyperallergic. “This is connected to their managerial style of overworking and underpaying staff. The work environment is chaotic and toxic and therefore extremely stressful.”
In the last month, other former employees of the Brooklyn Museum have stepped up to tell their story. Two weeks ago, an article about staff activism at institutions appeared on the online publication Remezcla; in the piece, Hamilton first shares her experiences at the institution. It was penned by Xime Izquierdo Ugaz, the museum’s former Teen Programs Coordinator from 2016 to 2019.
“When I first started working at the Brooklyn Museum, on my first day my coworker, also BIPOC, said to me, ‘I’m excited that you’re here and I also want to protect you,’” Izquierdo Ugaz told Hyperallergic. “I decided to write the article because I feel like when museums are called out for their racist actions, we don’t hear about the experiences of BIPOC inside the museum living every day of this psychological and emotional abuse and violence.”
Izquierdo Ugaz says they felt exploited during her time at the institution, where they were sometimes asked to contribute to projects outside of their job description at no additional compensation, specifically when it came to Latinx-related initiatives.
In one organizing meeting for the museum’s 2018 exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, Izquierdo Ugaz and another worker asked why there weren’t more Black Latinx women included in the show.
“We were then asked to come up with a list of Latinx women artists of color,” Izquierdo Ugaz said. “We had to do that job even though that wasn’t what we were hired to do or paid for. We gave our list to the curators of the show, and we were never given credit for it — not even a shoutout. That’s the regular dynamic of that place, we are extracted from, but never recognized or paid.”
Omololu Refilwe Babatunde, an Education Fellow at the Brooklyn Museum from 2015 to 2016, echoes many of Ugaz’s concerns. As part of her role, she created lesson plans and public programs, taught hundreds of K-12 students, and conducted original research, a requirement for the role. She worked a full-time schedule of 40 hours a week and was paid an annual salary of $15,000.
“I was a Public Programmer conceptualizing, planning and running original events for the public. I also conducted original institutional research,” Babatunde said. “The institution was able to exploit me and other entry-level fellows/interns because prestigious White institutions of Colonial holdings use their prestige as a subsidy to undervalue the work of their employees.”
“All of these ‘experience building’ opportunities are framed in terms of investment — an institution exploits and severely underpays you as you ‘invest’ in your future,” she added.
At the Brooklyn Museum, said a current employee who asked to remain anonymous, issues with leadership are an “open secret,” but the inherent precariousness of the industry prevents workers from being openly critical.
That may be why some employees are turning to online spaces where they can voice their concerns anonymously. One such platform is an Instagram account launched by For the Culture, a coalition of Black and Brown cultural employees and allies. An anonymous testimony posted on the account last month described a $15,000 salary discrepancy between a white and a Black curator at the Brooklyn Museum. When the then-Deputy Director and Chief Curator expressed her concerns about the pay gap, the post alleges, “she was attacked in the meeting for bringing this up to the point where she stopped speaking.”
Hyperallergic independently confirmed the disparity cited in the post, which corresponded to the salary difference in 2018 between an assistant curator of contemporary art, who earned $45,000, and the equivalent position in the American art department, who was paid $59,500. (In 2018, the former role was held by Ashley James, who curated the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation of the traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and went on to become the Guggenheim Museum’s first full-time Black curator; the latter role is held by Margarita Karasoulas, who has been at the museum since 2017.)
“Due to historical disparities in positions that receive donor funding, and others that do not, we have been working to advance pay equity across the institution including hiring a compensation consultant to assess and benchmark wages,” a spokesperson told Hyperallergic. The museum also says it has instituted a progressive policy towards wage adjustment in the last two years, resulting in higher pay increases salaries for the lowest-paid employees.
Among the first demands to the museum outlined in the open letter is an increase in BIPOC representation in its curatorial departments. Under current leadership, there have been nine curator hires; seven of them have been white, the spokesperson confirmed, adding that curatorial positions are currently open for the Arts of Africa and Contemporary Art departments and that four people of color have joined the Board of Trustees in the last two years.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment about accusations detailed by workers in this article and in the open letter, a spokesperson said that the museum takes all allegations seriously and is focused on its commitment to anti-racism.
“We acknowledge that structural inequities, links to colonialism, and the role of systemic racism in museums like ours have contributed to a society of inequality and injustice. We don’t excuse our complicity, and we have been working to fight against systemic racism,” said a statement sent in response. It continues:
Real change requires that we understand our past, and acknowledge our own shortcomings and mistakes as part of the process of learning and healing. Without a doubt, this is the time for listening, deep reflection, reprioritization, and serious action, both individually and collectively. We are committed to building a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist Brooklyn Museum. We are proud to be known for exhibitions that challenge dominant narratives, broaden the art historical canon, and increasingly reflect the diversity of our audiences. More than two years ago, our Staff and Board began to develop a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access plan that has been guiding our work to increase pay equity, diversify the Staff and Board, and advance cultural competency across all levels in the institution. Our Board and Staff are now working together to review, reprioritize and expand our Plan to reflect the input of cultural workers calling for change. We are committed to advancing these goals, with even greater effort and accountability.
At least one of the letter’s demands appears to have been met: in June, the museum pledged to no longer contract police for extra security at its monthly “First Saturdays” — evenings of free arts and entertainment programming that are open to the public. The events were previously guarded by off-duty police to supplement the museum’s security staff.
Zwirner emphasizes that she and the other authors of “Unbought and Unbossed” ultimately want real change to come about at the Brooklyn Museum and other institutions, and envisioned the letter as only the beginning of a long battle against racism in the industry.
Several former Brooklyn Museum employees have taken the fight beyond the institution’s doors. Along with current and former staff and members of other cultural organizations, Zwirner created the Institute of Museums Against All Fucked Up Social Systems (IMAAFUSS), a collective and research lab dedicated to dismantling deep-seated bias against marginalized communities in museum spaces; Hamilton founded Afeni Creative Studios, which utilizes policy, art, and design to connect different parts of the African diaspora to sustain and expand the creative economy for Black creatives.
“It’s been time for museums to have to answer for their white supremacist, capitalist violent tendencies,” Babatunde told Hyperallergic. “I am grateful to be living through a moment where silence is breaking.”
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Author: Valentina Di Liscia