Queens Museum Report
REPORT: STRUGGLE AT THE QUEENS MUSEUM
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The Arts Union is the author of this report. Sources involved in this report have since become engaged in our organizing work, but were not involved in the authorship of this report other than providing information in their capacity as sources.
The AU started organizing in 2020, in addition to this report we are currently hosting public listening sessions on a variety of topics affecting artists and arts workers. Other projects have taken place internally with other groups working within a variety of institutions. The organizing committee currently has six volunteer members and has had many people rotate in and out over the years. Our Points of Unity and Bylaws were approved by a temporary Advisory Committee of over thirty artists and arts workers. We are currently building capacity to take on general membership. Our regular meetings range from ten to thirty attendees, with over a hundred different artists and arts workers getting involved at different times over the last few years. We continue to meet regularly with many other groups organizing globally as well, and we eagerly encourage any artists or arts workers who are interested in getting involved to reach out and join a meeting.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Issues at the Queens Museum
Unilaterally Changed and Aborted Programming
Failure to Uphold Queens Museum Mission
- Steps taken
Since its founding in 1972, the Queens Museum has seemingly stood apart from other New York City museums because of its commitment to social justice and community engagement. Through exhibitions and programming, community partnerships and collaborations, affordable studio spaces and professional resources, the museum has long sought to cultivate an image of responding to the needs and interests of its diverse audiences.
In March 2021, the Queens Museum welcomed seven artists-in-residence, nine community partners, and twelve co-thinkers to embark on an eighteen-month program called “Year of Uncertainty” (YoU). The artists were chosen after an open-call invitation, which promised:
QM will dedicate space and resources to becoming a center for research, collaboration and production, opening its public-facing efforts to internal processes, and vice versa.... Artists and cultural producers are invited to become a part of the fabric of the Museum, to work together with the QM team and our communities to reimagine how the Museum can be relevant locally and internationally.
Unfortunately, the YoU program fell far short of these admirable goals. In December of 2021, a member of the YoU cohort reached out to the Arts Union Organizing Committee regarding challenges they were facing internally at the museum.
We, the Arts Union Organizing Committee, publish this report after a year of investigation into the Queens Museum’s operations. We conducted conversations and interviews with YoU residents, museum staff, community partner members, and artists who’ve worked with the Queens Museum. Additionally, we reviewed communications and documents provided by museum staff and artists that corroborate many of the claims. In September 2022, the Arts Union Organizing Committee had first hand experience dealing with museum leadership when we were invited to conduct a staff wide learning session as a part of the YoU programming.
This report details a failure of institutional leadership from the Director to the Board. We discovered mishandled sexual harassment, a plethora of broken promises, and an ultimate failure to uphold the mission of the Queens Museum. We have grouped the issues into themes, but we are aware that these aren’t perfect distinctions, and many of the issues bleed into each other. Many details in this report we chose to condense to insure the anonymity of our sources.
ISSUES AT THE QUEENS MUSEUM
Unilateral Programming Changes
The original YoU open call described an eighteen-month period for the artists-in-residence to engage with co-thinkers, community partners, and the museum itself. This changed when the artists moved into their studios at QM in April and May 2021, when leadership announced that they were expected to exhibit work within a few months. When YoU participants contacted junior staff about this problem, they were told that staff members agreed with artists and had brought up these concerns with the Director. Leadership dismissed these concerns. This timeline change cut short the YoU cohorts opportunity to meaningfully engage with the community, and demonstrated a pattern of top down decision making that extends across all operations of the institution.
Despite the promise to open its “internal processes” and invite YoU participants “to become a part of the fabric of the Museum,” the QM displayed a troubling lack of transparency. Although QM had originally scheduled monthly meetings between staff and artists-in-residence, the artists asked that these be made weekly. Meetings were frequently tense and emotionally fraught, with frustration expressed by both staff and artists. After a while, meetings returned to being monthly and the Director stopped attending.
At the start of the YoU program, two “intensives” were scheduled for YoU participants to meet and discuss their ideas for improving the museum. During the first intensive in September 2021, participants started developing actionable language regarding a variety of ideas and policy initiatives for the museum to implement. The artists followed up with a letter detailing how YoU participants could be reimagined as a permanent group of advisors, which would form a pilot community board. Leadership immediately dismissed the idea and the second intensive, scheduled for January 2022, was abandoned.
Museum staff report that a DEI consultant was hired to survey the museum and make suggestions. They found QM leadership to be unresponsive and unwilling to change, leading the consultant to end the working relationship. The Arts Union has reached out to the consultant and received no comment.
In September 2022, members of the YoU cohort invited the Arts Union Organizing Committee to conduct a staff wide learning session. In the course of the hour-long meeting, the Arts Union voiced concerns over findings from our ongoing investigation, and we offered museum leadership an opportunity to respond and engage in conversation about ways to move forward. We were met with silence. Further, leadership blocked junior staff from distributing an all-staff survey we created, despite their offer to do so in the meeting.
On more than one occasion, the Director retaliated against YoU participants who were outspoken in staff meetings. After initially encouraging one artist’s large-scale project and offering funding and structural support, the Director drastically cut the budget and restricted QM staff involvement. Another time, an artist who raised concerns about appropriation was warned that pursuing this claim would be harmful to their career. These actions have led employees and YoU participants to worry that museum leadership will attempt to damage their reputations if they say too much.
After one artist came forward to describe continued sexual harassment by a nighttime security guard at the museum, HR’s reporting procedures were unresponsive. Only after the NYC Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) became involved was the guard investigated and then dismissed. The NYCCHR found insufficient museum policies regarding discrimination and harassment, and a failure to provide anti-sexual harassment training for all employees, including volunteers and independent contractors.
Failure to uphold the Queens Museum’s mission
In June 2020, QM began hosting a food pantry. The food pantry is featured prominently in the museum’s publicity materials, and the Director posted photos on social media of people waiting in line to get food. When artists learned that the food pantry’s staff was unpaid, they encouraged the Director to change this. Three years later, QM continues to rely on their volunteer labor. The Arts Union is itself a volunteer organization, and we support mutual aid, however, the QM is clearly exploiting community volunteers when it has mechanisms to easily pay them.
There is widespread discontent among museum staff. QM employees have described demoralization as well as a culture of fear and silence under current leadership. Frequent staff turnover further underlines the issue, in addition to low pay and long hours. QM remains one of the only major New York art museums without a staff union with workers preferring to leave rather than face the uphill battle of unionizing under such conditions . QM staff have also come forward anonymously on other channels to shed light on the hostile internal situation at the museum.
In the last line of her bio on the QM website, the Director proudly shares that she is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Although numerous people have refused this “honor,” the Director not only accepted the OBE award from the British monarchy, she emphasizes it. QM is located in one of the most diverse districts in the world, representing nearly every post-colonial population from across the globe, on the unceded land of the Matinecock, Canarsie, Lekawe (Rockaway), Munsee Lenape, and the Matouwac. QM’s previous director was forced out by the Board of Trustees because of her public political commitments—to ending the military occupation of Palestine, to supporting immigrants, and to opposing then-President Trump. In her place, the Board selected a pro-imperial Director for whom a symbolic land acknowledgment appears to be the extent of her decolonial politics.
In general, “the community” is used to raise funding for museum programming, and features prominently in all its publicity, but there are no policy mechanisms for any actionable feedback from community members or a space to hold any sustained dialogue about the museum’s role in/for the community. The Arts Union reached out to members of surrounding community groups that had worked with QM in the past and discovered a history of extractive policy, exploitative practices, and broken promises.
Community organizations who engage QM's resources have no recourse or support if they ever come into conflict with museum leadership.There is no accountability in decision making that affects programming or partnerships with community organizations.
The Arts Union and YoU cohort have taken several steps to engage QM leadership in a private dialogue about these issues with a path to repair.
Regarding issues outlined in section A, museum leadership was first engaged internally by YoU cohort members. As previously outlined in this report, this included private letters, meetings, and one on one conversations. At every turn, QM leadership shut down these initiatives.
After YoU cohort members initially connected with the Arts Union for support, we began our involvement by first reviewing claims made by the cohort. After communicating with current and former museum artists and staff, we were able to substantiate these claims.
In coordination with YoU participants, we began to design our all-staff Learning Session described above in A.5. This was our first formal attempt at communicating directly with museum leadership.
Following that Learning Session, we faced bad faith communications with the museum regarding the survey they offered to distribute for us. We were told the survey did not adequately protect user data, and as such they couldn’t distribute it, despite the fact that the survey did not request any personal or identifying information, and that the same survey was distributed in the Zoom chat during the Learning Session itself, without protest.
After those communications came to a close, the Arts Union drafted a letter to the museum board. Our assessment then was that the board may have been disconnected from operations, and that perhaps they could intervene and encourage good faith engagement on these issues. Contacting the board was not straightforward, despite the community facing nature of the QM, there is actually no way provided to communicate directly with the board online or through a mailing address. Instead, we needed to use the publicly available business addresses of individual board members.
The QM board responded to our letter and dismissed our concerns, without apparent investigation of their own. This dismissal signaled the depth of the issues at the institution as going beyond just the Director. Their email address is email@example.com.
We are now publishing this report publicly, to directly support the ongoing struggle of artists and workers at the QM, as well as to provide transparency to our colleagues across the industry who may one day work with or at QM.
Provided below are a small number of discreet “demands” for QM to consider if they are interested in repair and reorientation. Acknowledging the long road to understanding the depth and complexity that these issues present, we also want to recommend more broadly to the readers of this report to respond critically in their capacity as artists, workers, and community members to the enduring institutional crises we face together in the larger arts industry. The Queens Museum, like all city-owned institutions, belongs to its community and the artists that support it.
At the core of the issues outlined above is the donor-controlled museum board model, and we encourage all people interested in building a more dynamic creative future for our communities to support the efforts of groups like FWD:Truth, Dismantle NoMA, and all museum unions. In the absence of transparency from institutions like QM, we feel an urgency to provide this transparency to each other and continue developing alternative solutions and models for institutions moving forward.
The Arts Union will continue to work with artists, arts workers, and community members affected by the Queens Museum, and will continue to hold space in our meetings to expand these conversations. We understand that artists and arts workers need to organize collectively to apply the pressure on resistant institutions to make necessary changes:
Our recommendations for QM leadership are as follows:
Acknowledge the receipt of this report. We do not want the museum taking credit for the work of all those who contributed to this report. Too often places like the QM will appropriate the work of groups who struggle and generate external pressure to demand changes, and then institute those demanded changes and appear magnanimous, while those who struggled for it are ignored at best and at worst punished.
Move forward with the YoU cohort recommendations to implement a pilot community board with a clear path to permanent implementation. A community board must serve as a mechanism for the community to hold the museum accountable. The community board would have access to the budget documents, grant proposals, etc, to fully understand the operation of the museum. The community board members should be selected via a democratic process involving the entire museum staff.
Open the museum up to third party mediators with a focus on restorative community justice and follow through on recommendations made by those mediators.
Immediately pay food pantry workers a fair wage.
Provide all staff with one paid hour a week of uninterrupted meeting time outside of museum operating hours to discuss unionization, in private from museum managers. Allow this meeting to continue regularly until staff themselves decide they don’t need it. According to documents reviewed by the Arts Union, we understand museum leadership claims that it intends to voluntarily recognize a staff union if one were to form, we intend to hold them accountable to this.
Year of Uncertainty Program
Our letter to Board
NYCCHR agreement with museum
*Updated on 5.2.23