By Nicholas Donaldson
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, groups and organizations around the world have formed in order to challenge systems of racism and inequality. Here in New Orleans, one such group is the Dismantle NOMA collective.
On June 24th, 2020, The Dismantle NOMA collective published their “Open Letter to the New Orleans Museum of Art” in which they condemned the museum’s racism, homophobia, and “plantation-like culture.” The letter, co-authored by six former NOMA employees, contains a list of thirteen demands that the collective believes will help fix the systemic racism and discrimination present at the museum. The latest public statement from the NOMA Board addressing the institutions issues with racism was released on August 7th, 2020. While the statement reads, “We recognize the issues facing us as a cultural organization and embrace the responsibility to address them”, NOMA’s actual progress towards achieving social justice and racial equity at the museum is unclear. In order to learn more about the current state of Dismantle NOMA and the museum’s steps towards promoting racial justice, I spoke with Jennifer Williams, one of the co-authors of the Dismantle NOMA letter.
Jennifer Williams was the youth programs coordinator and the public programs manager at NOMA from March 2018-March 2020. Her work in these roles included coordinating gallery programs, children’s programs, panel discussions, and “Friday Nights at NOMA” events; however, Williams, like her fellow Dismantle NOMA co-authors, resigned “as a result of the toxic work environment and institutional racism” at the museum. As an example of this toxic and racist work environment, Williams tells me, “the [primarily people of color] frontline staff are treated abhorrently. Many of the staff that work to help clean the museum and keep the museum safe in terms of security are told that they cannot eat in the museum café.” A numerous variety of similar testimonials can be found on Dismantle NOMA website.
The racial inequity can be seen not only in the actions of museum staff, but also in the artwork displayed in the museum. NOMA has a collection of over 40,000 objects. With such a large variety of art available, institutions like NOMA can demonstrate where their priorities lie. The first floor is comprised of primarily European Art and the Great Hall which houses temporary exhibitions. On the second floor, you can find Louisiana based art; however, these works are not necessarily from New Orleans based artists nor artists of color. Works may simply be about Louisiana or even may be French art such as the Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. On the third floor, you can find what Williams tells me is referred to by some NOMA employees as “other works”. This floor of “other” art consists of African art, Asian art, and Oceanic art.
The layout and artwork of NOMA is reflective of a problem with many art institutions around the world. While NOMA is housed in a city renowned for artistic expression, the artwork does not reflect the artistic culture of New Orleans. For Williams and the Dismantle NOMA collective, this is a major issue, and due to the demands of the Dismantle NOMA collective, the museum has committed to purchasing work by BIPOC artists through 2020. “We as a collective do not think that is enough. You have to make a long-term commitment to collecting works by artists of color in a city that is 60 percent African-American,” says Williams. “[NOMA has] to display and exhibit work by artists in New Orleans for the long term, not just right now when it’s hot and there are questions about racial justice.”
This commitment by NOMA to collect works by BIPOC artists through 2020 is part of their “Agenda for Change”. The agenda details steps the museum is taking, or will take, in order to address the issues of racism and discrimination. Some of the plans include putting all staff through diversity training, increasing BIPOC representation on the board membership, acquiring work by BIPOC artists, and closing the Greenwood Parlor exhibition. Actions such as these from institutions like NOMA are often accused of being performative. It is not uncommon for institutions accused of racism to give hollow promises that are designed to mitigate controversy rather than to strive towards genuine accountability. When asked about her view on NOMA’s “Agenda for Change”, Williams tells me, “Putting entire staff through diversity training is the basic level. We’re talking about an institution that receives funding from the Ford foundation, the Mellon foundation, and the Walton family foundation, all foundations that are committed in terms of their language and their money to racial justice and equity. For NOMA to not have had a training on diversity in over five years is unacceptable.” As the last public statement by NOMA was released on August 7th, 2020, I reached out to the museum for an interview to see how the “Agenda for Change” is currently progressing. NOMA denied my request for an interview. As for the current state of the collective Williams tells me, “We’re hearing that NOMA thinks that we’re just going to go away. That we are going to tire and that we are going to stop our actions against them. We want to be clear that we are committed as a collective to continue this work along with our community partners that have signed on in solidarity with us.”