The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s latest exhibit preaches equity, but behind the scenes artists and former museum employees are demanding real change.
By Kerry Cardoza
When we shut down in March 2020, we pivoted our programming immediately," MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn wrote in a recent column for Art in America. The most important new programming was "The Long Dream," a wide-ranging exhibition featuring more than 70 local artists, which was meant to reflect the museum's "commitment to equity." "When most institutions were furloughing their front-facing employees, we went in the opposite direction," she wrote, going on to list the ways the museum has supported staff since the pandemic began, such as allowing visitor services staff to work from home and offering anti-racism workshops.
The op-ed, which appeared in the magazine's December 2020 issue, was published online on January 22. The day prior, the MCA laid off 41 employees. To many people in the Chicago art community, particularly those involved in "The Long Dream," the back-to-back news of Grynsztejn's self-laudatory column and the devastating blow to her employees was unconscionable. Attempts to reach Grynsztejn directly for comment were unsuccessful, though the MCA did provide the Reader with a statement commenting on the "difficult decision" to reduce staff and reiterating its commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility initiatives. Artists Hương Ngo and Hồng-Ân Truong, who had work installed in the museum's "Alien vs. Citizen" exhibition, cancelled a January 23 performance out of solidarity with MCA employees. "It felt really unethical to move forward with the performance," Truong says.
This wasn't the first incident that prompted Ngo and Truong to speak out about the MCA. MCA workers began publicly agitating for changes in June, when the museum's Teen Creative Agency called on Grynsztejn to cut ties with the Chicago Police Department and "to acknowledge the systematic abuse of power and overt brutality exhibited by the police." That same month, a coalition of MCA workers across departments formed MCAccountable in order to make demands for accountability and for eradicating racial injustice. Those demands were laid out in an open letter to Grynsztejn published on July 16. The most urgent demands concerned the museum's reopening, which was scheduled for July 24. The human resources department had sent a survey out to gauge employees' comfortability in returning to work. Despite 50 percent saying they felt uncomfortable and another 13 percent saying they felt uncertain, leadership moved ahead with reopening. MCAccountable called the reopening "dangerous, irresponsible, ableist, and racist," as COVID-19 cases were still on the rise, particularly in Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. As the letter pointed out, the front-facing positions in the museum—employees in visitor experience, retail experience, facilities, housekeeping, security, and the museum's restaurant, Marisol—were held predominantly by BIPOC workers. MCAccountable demanded the museum remain closed until front-facing workers felt safe returning, and that part-time workers be guaranteed $300 per week of remote work. More specific demands were stipulated on a yearlong timetable, including securing a minimum wage for interns and Teen Creative Agency members and institution-wide pay transparency.
Ngo didn't learn about the letter until she was at the "Alien vs. Citizen" opening on July 17. Ngo and Truong sent Grynsztejn their own private letter that week expressing support for MCAccountable's demands. "We ask that you recognize the direct connection between the demands of institutional reckonings with white supremacy and the demands of workers for safety and pay equity in the face of the coronavirus," they wrote. Grynsztejn thanked the artists for their letter, and then directed them to curatorial staff with any further concerns. Ultimately the artists did not reach out, noting that the curator was more or less powerless to change anything.
"There's kind of this stark discrepancy between what is happening on the surface, in the programming rosters that we're seeing, and what is happening behind the scenes and how staff are feeling as part of this institution," Ngo says.
Around the same time MCAccountable began organizing, the museum started to organize "The Long Dream." Many artists who were invited to participate in the exhibition over the summer were immediately concerned with what that participation would mean in light of the MCA's action, or inaction, around employee concerns. Neither Grynsztejn nor anyone else in leadership has ever directly responded to MCAccountable's letter.
On August 12 the museum announced that the 28 part-time visitor experience associate positions would be eliminated, and eight full-time positions would be created instead, which current employees would have to apply for. As MCAccountable noted in a second public letter, released August 21, this position restructuring was not a part of their demands. The layoffs, MCAccountable wrote, impacted workers "in a majority-BIPOC department" and "seem to functionally retaliate against, divide, and disrupt the organizing of junior-level staff toward real equity and racial justice."
Maria Gaspar and Aram Han Sifuentes, two artists invited to exhibit in "The Long Dream," expressed their concerns to the museum, which led to a meeting with Naomi Beckwith, the show's lead curator, who has since announced she will be leaving the museum in June. The artists, both of whom make work that explores societal inequities, told Beckwith that if they were to participate in the show, then Grynsztejn needed to meet with MCAccountable. The artists got an e-mail from Beckwith the very next day, relaying that Grynsztejn refused their idea, Sifuentes says, because she didn't "want to prioritize any meeting with any group."
As a result, the artists, two monumental local talents (Gaspar is a 2021 USA Fellow, Sifuentes is an artist-in-residence at Loyola University), withdrew. "For me what was so unsettling about it is like, these are a lot of young, BIPOC employees making very legitimate and really strong points in terms of the inequities that are in the museum itself, and asking for action and accountability," Sifuentes says. "The demand is ultimately just for a meeting with Madeleine, the director. That she's refusing to meet with her staff just is crazy to me."
Before "The Long Dream" opened on November 7, other artists, including Monica Trinidad of For the People Artists Collective, a group of artists of color that work to uplift liberation movements, and Folayemi Wilson, also withdrew. Meanwhile participating artists were meeting behind the scenes, trying to figure out the best way to support MCAccountable and other museum employees. To these artists, it seemed the MCA caught wind of their organizing and began to make their own plans to try and preempt any bad publicity. A few weeks before the exhibition was to open, chief curator Michael Darling called almost all of the more than 70 artists in the show, to talk through any concerns they might have. Darling left the museum in February 2021.
"That just seemed to be a pretty weird gesture, to make time for that but not to talk with people that actually work at the MCA," "The Long Dream" artist Kirsten Leenaars says. "I think that's a very particular strategy, kind of siloing people versus having a more open public shared dialogue."
The week of the opening, "The Long Dream" artists sent an open letter to Grynsztejn, museum curators, and the museum's board members, expressing their support of MCAccountable and their unmet demands. "It is an honor to present our work in such a large sweeping group exhibition that navigates the complex implications of the current global pandemic, racial justice uprising, and growing inequality," the artists write. "However we find ourselves conflicted given the issues of racism, equity, and transparency within the MCA raised by staff members and the Teen Creative Agency through a series of public letters, and the leadership's troubling response (or lack thereof)." The letter, which was signed by a majority of artists in the exhibition, and dozens of others, asked Grynsztejn to respond to MCAccountable and to meet with "The Long Dream" artists collectively.
Grynsztejn didn't respond until the day before we went to press, following meetings between some of "The Long Dream" artists and MCA curators. Though two days before the exhibition's opening, Grynsztejn sent an e-mail to the exhibiting artists providing an update on the MCA's equity goals. (An almost verbatim version was also posted on the MCA website). "I believe the artists in 'The Long Dream' and the MCA share a mutual goal for our museum: that of an equitable and caring institution in a more equitable and caring Chicago," she wrote. "Our artists should hold us to that standard, and I am grateful to every artist that demands that the MCA be a living example of equity." The letter provided an addendum of the museum's action steps, including: the expansion of sick time for part-time employees, the formation of an anti-racism task force and a trustee task force focused on diversity, increased communication efforts with staff, internal anti-racist trainings, adherence to CDC guidelines, and the layoff of part-time visitor experience staff, which was phrased as the creation of full-time positions "to provide greater benefits and support to frontline staff."
Jina Valentine, an artist in "The Long Dream," noted the lack of specificity in museum communications. "There's very little transparency, if any transparency, about what the administration's actually doing to address that set of demands," she says. "What are you doing actually? What are the concrete steps you have taken to address these concerns?"
Marya Spont-Lemus, a member of MCAccountable who was let go from her part-time position in the Learning Department in the January layoffs, said that museum leadership would frequently send e-mails that skirted MCAccountable's demands but never confronted them directly. "Museum leadership is really only talking about racism in the shallowest of terms," she says.
Due to rising COVID-19 infections, the museum closed less than two weeks after "The Long Dream" opened, and remained closed into the new year. Once the layoffs were announced in January, MCAccountable set up an emergency GoFundMe, with a fundraising goal of $30,000. The money, organizers wrote, was meant in part to make it easier for laid-off workers to avoid signing "separation agreements," which included a mutual non-disparagement clause, in order to receive severance pay. According to former staff, part-time workers were offered anywhere from the low-$100s to around $800.
The layoffs were announced to staff in a surprise Zoom call. One former staff member said that when the separation agreement was introduced, staff were advised to have a lawyer review it, a tone-deaf, if pro forma, suggestion, because for many staffers, the cost of a lawyer would likely cost more than the severance pay. And while the museum says there has been no retaliation against any staff members, according to one former staffer, of the 19 employees who publicly signed their name to the July letter, only one remains employed at the museum.
This round of layoffs felt particularly egregious to both staff and artists, and not only because it came right before Grynsztejn's congratulatory column. In many prior instances, the director had championed the museum's avoidance of layoffs. In a July article in the Tribune, Grynsztejn said that part of striving for racial equity was not to let people go.
Others questioned the museum's framing of the layoffs as a budget issue, as reported by ArtNews. In 2020, the museum received a $2 million loan through the government's Paycheck Protection Program, and in September, the museum received a $2.5 million award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest foundation grant in its history, meant in part to help accelerate the museum's commitments to the values of "inclusion, diversity, equity, and access." In her July conversation with the Tribune, Grynsztejn mentioned the budget for the year had been cut by $8 million. In a statement to the Reader, the museum said senior leadership has taken pay cuts during "this tough time," though to what extent is unclear. According to the museum's 2018 tax returns, Grynsztejn's total compensation was $690,376, her base pay $625,908.
The most recent layoffs led "The Long Dream" artists to regroup and discuss how best to respond. The exhibition's artists were chosen because their work "offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world," according to the museum website. The disconnect between the museum's programming and public-facing communications and its internal actions was not lost on them.
"You're instrumentalizing this exhibition and you're instrumentalizing the artists that are part of it to kind of say, 'Look we are doing all this great stuff around social justice,'" Leenaars says. "I didn't choose to withdraw immediately before the exhibition because I thought, well I hope that we can have a dialogue. But now I'm like, clearly you're not interested in this dialogue. And you're not sincere in your efforts."
"The Long Dream" organizers have put together options for all the artists in the exhibition to choose from. They can withdraw en masse from the show, which has been extended to May 2, they can sign on in support of the artists who are withdrawing, or they can abstain from action. The organizing artists are well aware that choosing not to participate in the exhibition, or choosing to withdraw, are privileges that not everyone can afford, both financially and professionally. "It's not an easy decision for anybody to engage this way," says artist Max Guy, noting that the $1,500 payment to participate was more than last year's stimulus check.
The artists are at work on a new open letter, announcing their plans to withdraw and voicing their frustrations with the uncomfortable position the MCA has put them in. As of press time, 30 artists had signed on to withdraw. "If you want to instrumentalize this particular type of artist, and these local artists, it also comes at a cost," Valentine says. "We're going to hold you to account. You also have to be a place that we respect, that we want to show."
A statement provided by the MCA read in part, "We consistently feature the work of female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ artists and are deeply committed to supporting the arts community in which we live and serve, and encourage voices that can lead to social change." While the museum says it considers MCA employees and exhibiting artists part of that community, it is clear many do not feel supported by the museum. Current and former staff in MCAccountable, many of whom are artists themselves, have outlined the ways the museum fails to support them in their letters, which hundreds of others have added their signatures to. Dozens of other artists, who are now showing or have shown at the museum, have also spoken out about the ways the museum is in fact committing harm to its community.
As Hương Ngo noted, the Chicago art scene is tight, artists function as workers, educators, they have many ties to one another. "It's just really shocking and disheartening for the museum to believe that something like this, or these repeated actions, can't have some effect on their community," she says. "And maybe they don't consider us their community, you know, which is a really sad thought."
Marcela Torres, a former staff member in the Learning Department who was laid off in January, hopes this moment can serve to galvanize the Chicago art community to demand change. "Are we gonna continue to support a space that we know is toxic? That has continued to say no to structural change?" she asks. "Because this is our community space. This is our contemporary art museum."