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Posted under: News Art

Former Employees At Smithsonian African Art Museum Accuse Leaders Of Racism, Say Curation Team Is Exclusively White

The former employees said diversity has remained an issue even as the museum was flooded with interest from Black artists, curators and people wanting to work for the institution.

The people in charge of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art have been accused of racism and bigotry in a letter from 10 former staff and board members, according to HuffPost.

The letter, shared exclusively with HuffPost, details a number of troubling situations and facts about the museum, which is located in Washington D.C. and is focused exclusively on African art. 

According to former staffers, there are no Black curators at the museum, and the entire curatorial team has been exclusively white for at least a decade. The museum employs just five Black people on a staff of 40 people. The letter said these concerning diversity numbers have remained consistently low even as the museum was flooded with interest from Black artists, curators and people wanting to work for the institution. 

“Persistent racial disparities at NMAfA are apparent in the application of institutional policies. Recent events have brought deeper attention to systemic racism within museums across our country. In this spirit, we write to you to express our outrage about the current state of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Our goal is to collectively express our concerns and to engage in building an equitable and inclusive museum for our community,” the letter read.  

The two-page letter, addressed to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, focuses most of the blame for the "culture of racism" on the museum's deputy director and chief curator, Christine Mullen Kreamer. The former staffers are calling for her to resign, alleging she has been the subject of at least a dozen complaints of discrimination and verbal abuse. 

Bunch became the first Black overseer of 19 Smithsonian museums last year, and the letter says removing Kreamer is the only way to “enable real, systemic changes in the museum’s practices and policy implementation.”

Staffers wrote that Kreamer has repeatedly ignored complaints and reports of “racial bias, hostile verbal attacks, retaliation, terminations, microaggressions and degrading comments,” some of which she was involved in herself. 

When vacancies at the museum would open, Kreamer made a point of trying to circumvent the institution's competitive application policy so she could promote white employees, according to the letter. She is also accused of racism, aggression and hostility toward the museum's Black employees. 

Kreamer initially joined the museum's curatorial staff in 2000 and was promoted to her current role in 2009. Much of the furor around her actions, the letter said, focused on the firing of two senior Black employees this year and last year. 

In addition to complaints about Kreamer, former Director Gus Casely-Hayford was criticized for his role as head of the museum from 2018 to 2020. Casely-Hayford, who is Black and is from the United Kingdom, did not address the complaints of Black employees, which largely allowed Kreamer to continue her actions, according to the letter. 

“Unfortunately these incidents and concerns about systemic racism only grew during Gus’ tenure. He did nothing to address them. It’s so important that there’s self-examination within the Black community and there’s a discussion about internal racism,” an unnamed employee said. 

“As a person of color in a titular position, I think there’s a responsibility to make sure that diversity and inclusion — particularly inclusion — are at the front and center of the organization. It’s not just about hiring people of color to make up the numbers. It’s about making sure there is fair and equitable opportunity in that particular organization for people to be seen, heard and able to progress. There’s often a tendency to open the door for yourself and do well in your career — but the mark of your legacy is that you open the door behind you and bring more people forward,” the employee added.

This letter follows up another sent by nine members of the museum's 13-person advisory board earlier this year complaining about similar issues. That letter references the firing of a Black employee for no apparent reason just one week before her probationary period ended. 

As outrage over the most recent letter grew on Tuesday, museum officials released a statement on Wednesday that admitted the museum has work to do in terms of increasing diversity. 

"At the National Museum of African Art, we are committed to increasing diversity across the museum and all disciplines; equally essential, we are cognizant of the need to recruit, employ and empower more curators and artists that represent diverse fields and backgrounds. While our collections and exhibits represent a rich diversity of thought, artists and scholarship, we recognize that we must continue to increase diversity within the museum, and drive inclusive behavior among all Smithsonian staff," a spokesperson for the museum said.

The statement goes on to deny any unfairness in the hiring or firing process, saying that because the museum is a federal entity, it has "established policies and processes in place to review employee complaints, and other human resources matters."

"At the Smithsonian, not only do we adhere to these rules — fairness and equity are core to our culture, mission and who we are as a leader in the museum field," the statement said. 

Bunch spoke to The New York Times about the letter on Wednesday, telling the newspaper that he will personally look into the matter and address it. Bunch, who was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s widely adored National Museum of African American History and Culture, has already installed Deborah L. Mack, who is Black, as interim director at the African art museum.

“This is professional and personal — this is really important to me. What I will do is evaluate this, look into this, put my own fingerprints on it, understand exactly what’s gone on and try to get to the bottom of it. There is no room for racism at the Smithsonian. Too many times, I was the only Black person in the room and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m not going to explain something I did not create. My goal here is to make sure this is something we address. Every museum is made better if it’s got a diversity of opinions,” Bunch said.

Despite being lauded for his work with the African American museum, Bunch and other leaders faced widespread criticism in 2018 when it was revealed that the museum put a white woman, Timothy Anne Burnside, in charge of curating the hip-hop exhibit, according to NPR. 

Outrage spread online when the museum refused to back down from the decision and kept her in charge of managing the exhibit, Essence reported.

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