Current and former employees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art say a recent wave of layoffs and the censorship of an ex-staffer on social media highlight deep structural inequities at the institution, and they’re calling for sweeping leadership changes and an artist boycott.
On Tuesday, a group of former SFMOMA workers published a letter supporting Taylor Brandon, a Black staffer in the museum’s communications department who was censored after criticizing the response among museum leadership over the police killing of George Floyd. The pointed letter—posted on Instagram and authored with input from more than a dozen former workers, including some who have signed non-disclosure agreements—describes Brandon’s experience of “racist censorship” as part of a pattern of discrimination and placation at SFMOMA, arguing that the museum’s current leadership lacks “the knowledge, skills or humanity to steer the institution toward an anti-racist future.”
The letter echoes earlier demands made by No Neutral Alliance—an organization started by Brandon with the aim of holding museums accountable for unfair treatment of Black employees, artists, and patrons—and continues internal calls for SFMOMA leadership to forego compensation after recent layoffs have heavily affected frontline staff, the most diverse segment of the institution’s workforce. The letter also urges current employees to refuse to work and “all artists to boycott SFMOMA as a gesture of outrage against institutional oppression.”
The former staff group is currently collecting additional accounts of discrimination by SFMOMA managers, according to a member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. A request for comment from ARTnews to the museum has not yet been returned.
Brandon, until April the museum’s sole Black communications employee, last month left a comment on an SFMOMA Instagram post that alluded to recent Black Lives Matter protests. Calling the museum’s post of a Glenn Ligon artwork with no further commentary of its own a “cop out,” Brandon wrote that senior museum figures have a history of “using black pain for their own financial gain.” But her comment was soon deleted.
Following reports that Nan Keeton, SFMOMA’s director of external relations, had justified the deletion by calling Brandon’s language threatening, SFMOMA director Neal Benezra publicly apologized for the removal. “The decision to limit comments was not consistent with our values as a museum,” he wrote in a statement. “I take full responsibility for the museum’s actions.”
Brandon speculated that one reason for SFMOMA’s seeming reluctance to take a firm position on Floyd’s killing owes to its conservative donor base. Powerful board members include Charles Schwab, one of the country’s most prolific Donald Trump donors, as well as other beneficiaries of military and police contracts. “They always ask, ‘How can we remain in the conversation without rocking the boat?’” Brandon told ARTnews. “But museums aren’t neutral.”
Brandon’s experience quickly spurred others in the Bay Area arts community to action. Artists and organizations including Leila Weefur, Elena Gross, and the Nure and CTRL+Shift collectives withdrew digital commissions from SFMOMA and joined Taylor in launching No Neutral Alliance. “In terms of making amends,” Brandon said, “we need to see more than an apology—action needs to follow.”
On June 12 the alliance released a letter calling for Benezra to resign, noting that he had taken responsibility for censoring Brandon in his apology. That same letter also called for a reexamination of formal bias complaints from museum staff; donations to memorial funds for George Floyd and fellow police-shooting victim Tony McDade as well as the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project; and a new curatorial program with Black leadership.
SFMOMA has been conspicuously quiet through official channels, not posting on Instagram since Benezra’s apology on June 4. Before the former staffers’ letter appeared on Tuesday, No Neutral Alliance was discussing the terms of a meeting with Benezra and other leadership figures. Beforehand, Brandon said, the alliance insisted that the museum provide demographic data on its workforce and artists featured in its collection. “That would’ve been the start of some kind of accountability,” she said.
Since closing to the public in March, SFMOMA has announced temporary and permanent layoffs affecting some 350 employees, roughly 68 percent of its pre-pandemic workforce. Some furloughs and hours-reductions were reversed when the museum received a largely forgivable $6.2 million loan through the federal Payroll Protection Program in April. Yet SFMOMA announced the most recent round of layoffs this month, citing an $18 million budget deficit.
According to detractors among current staff, museum leadership hasn’t sufficiently exhausted alternatives to the layoffs. In April, concerned staff working with the museum’s labor union (one of the nation’s oldest and largest, represented by OPEIU Local 29) petitioned leadership to take pay cuts, utilize endowment funds, sell artwork from the collection, and call for donations from trustees. With such measures, they wrote, SFMOMA could easily raise enough to avert layoffs. The petition pointed out that Benezra receives roughly $1 million annually, arguing that the chasm between his compensation and that of furloughed staff should “embarrass” wealthy SFMOMA patrons.
Benezra and other senior museum figures have since taken unspecified pay cuts, according to a SFMOMA spokesperson. Still, some continue to enjoy perks unique in the art world. Public records show SFMOMA’s board approved no-interest home loans for Benezra and senior curator Gary Garrels amounting to $800,000 and $500,000, respectively. To frontline staff who have struggled to win San Francisco cost-of-living raises, the loans represent gross inequities at the institution.
Nat Naylor, the museum’s longtime OPEIU representative, stressed that union negotiators won severance and rehiring terms beyond the contractual guarantee for many laid-off members. “Do I think some of the layoffs were opportunistic, both union and non-union? Absolutely.” Naylor went on, “Do I think the museum has explored all other possible avenues of savings? No way.”
The union has also prominently supported Brandon, amplifying her calls for racial equity. In 2018, Naylor pointed out, the museum committed to creating an apprenticeship program to bring underrepresented groups into the historically white and male ranks of art handlers. “The museum needs to answer for not implementing it,” Naylor said. “It speaks volumes to me that nobody in upper leadership has owned it and made it happen—it hasn’t been given any priority.”