A controversial email sent by the now-fired University Art Museum director at Cal State Long Beach gives a glimpse into some of the behind-the-scenes tension that was brewing leading up to her abrupt dismissal days before the launch of an exhibit focused on police brutality against African-Americans.
Museum Director Kimberli Meyer wrote in an email that staffers should handle feedback about the exhibit based on their own race and the race of those offering their concerns, according to a copy of the email provided to the Post.
This was inappropriate and put staffers in the difficult situation of having to assess the racial identity of callers, according to Jennifer Moran, a union representative for university employees who provided the email to the Post.
Meyer, however, said her instructions were an effort to be inclusive as well as protect museum staff from possible backlash regarding artist lauren woods’ exhibit, American MONUMENT. (woods prefers her name be lowercase.)
The email was sent to multiple museum staffers and a student in early August in response to an inquiry from the Black Student Union asking what cultural groups were consulted during the development of the exhibition, Moran said.
On Tuesday, the BSU took issue with Moran’s characterization, saying the person who made the inquiry was acting as an individual, not as a representative of the BSU.
In her email, Meyer states a staffer named Catherine Scott, referred to as “Scoti,” a woman of color and Curator of Public Engagement & Participatory Practices at the museum, should be the one to respond to the inquiry.
“In general, we should be generous with these kinds of questions—our goal is to bring people into the fold with this show,” Meyer writes in the email. “Ideally, Scoti should be the one that addresses concerns of POC [people of color], and I should be the one that addresses concerns of the white people.”
While Meyer may have been acting in an effort to be racially sensitive, Moran iterated in an email to the Dean of the College of the Arts Cyrus Parker-Jeanette a week later that these instructions put staff in the position of having to assess the racial identity of anyone who contacts the museum about American MONUMENT, and that it’s inappropriate to assume the racial identity of staff members or give them assignments based on race.
“Doing so is contrary to our university’s commitment to non-discrimination and anti-racist values,” wrote Moran, who is president of the Cal State University Employees Union Chapter 315, and also works as a development coordinator for the College of the Arts at CSULB.
Meyer, however, said who is speaking to whom matters.
“It’s coming out of thinking about things from activist points of view,” she said. “It’s not atypical as an activist tactic.”
Meyer said the instruction was probably based on multiple conversations she’d had with woods in consideration of who are the best voices to be dealing with concerns regarding the racially-charged exhibit contents, as well as being cognizant of “what kind of voices are going to be heard from what kinds of communities.”
“I was certainly worried about protecting Scoti and other people of color in and around the museum from any kind of white backlash that was going to come at us, which the administration kept thinking was going to happen,” Meyer said. “Again, it came out of trying to think about how to shield people from that.”
Statement from the Union
Since Meyer’s dismissal, speculation has swirled that her firing had something to do with the content of American MONUMENT.
In a statement, Moran called this a false narrative, saying the staff supported Meyer’s vision for a social justice-centric museum. But Meyer’s ability to follow the policies and procedures of a state-run institution were limited, said Moran.
“The UAM Director’s position requires unique artistic vision and operations competency,” the statement reads. “Kimberli excelled in the former and struggled with the latter. The union asserts that there were rightful causes for termination, stemming from a disregard for needed compliance to union and university rules, regulations, restrictions, policies and procedures. Kimberli’s director’s vision of anti-racist policies was, and continues to be sincerely respected and supported by UAM staff. Her conceptual legacy is honored with continued constructive conversations about systematic oppression and exhibitions that uphold social justice issues. Narratives to the contrary are factually inaccurate and defamatory to UAM staff.”
Moran also said no one informed the University Police Department about the exhibit, given that it could cause a reaction in the community.
“While we hoped it would be unnecessary, it was reasonable for the union to assert the need for preparedness surrounding a project that was likely to be controversial,” Moran said. “It was alarming to me that Kimberli had not had so much as a conversation with UPD at that point in time regarding public safety.”
In email Tuesday, Meyer said Moran’s statement is “disingenuous and inaccurate,” declining to elaborate further.
Faculty and student concerns
On Tuesday, Sep. 25, university officials hosted a forum where students and faculty could make known their questions and concerns about the timing of the firing and a lack of transparency.
They voiced concerns that upper administration didn’t fully understand how the firing would affect the campus community, and that it was difficult to conclude that Meyer’s dismissal was unrelated to the contents of the exhibit. (Artist lauren woods was not present, having already traveled home to Dallas when the email was sent out announcing the Q&A).
“We are all shaken from this,” Dean of the Arts Cyrus Parker-Jeannette said to attendees.
I’m here at Cal State Long Beach for a Q&A with Dean of the Arts Cyrus Parker-Jeannette about the University Art Museum, regarding American MONUMENT and the firing of former museum director Kimberli Meyer. @LongBeachPost pic.twitter.com/M9WuL9JF5u
— Asia Morris (@TheAsiaMorris) September 25, 2018
In response to a question as to whether Meyer could continue her collaboration with woods while no longer employed by the university, Parker-Jeannette said that Meyer has not been banned from campus or the University Art Museum, that if there were resources available (not from the university) she could foresee that a collaboration might continue.
“Kimberli has asked for an appeal, so that’s in process. So there’s a possibility she would be reinstated,” Parker-Jeannette said to the room.
Meyer said she is indeed trying to get her job back.
“I’m still honoring what lauren is asking for which is essentially reinstatement,” Meyer said Friday. “I’m taking all of my lead from her, at this point, that is the only thing I think makes sense. So I’m still appealing for the reversal of my dismissal.”
While the sound installation of American MONUMENT remains silent, Coltharp added that she and museum staff are working toward bringing the next exhibition to life in January, titled Call and Response, When We Say… You Say curated from the museum’s permanent collection by the founders of Wilmington-based Slanguage Studio, Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday to include Kimberli Meyer’s and the BSU’s response to Moran’s statement. We will update the story as more information becomes available.
Read the full statement from President of the Cal State University Employees Union Chapter 315, Jennifer Moran below:
The administration has denied UAM staff the ability to speak publicly about American MONUMENT. UAM staff have remained silent out of fear for their jobs. As their union representative, I would like to provide some insight to the situation.
There are several false narratives being pushed in the media. One of the most damaging and hurtful to the staff is that they did not support Kimberli Meyer’s vision or lauren woods’ American MONUMENT. Both are categorically false. The UAM Director’s position requires unique artistic vision and operations competency. Kimberli excelled in the former and struggled with the latter. The union asserts that there were rightful causes for termination, stemming from a disregard for needed compliance to union and university rules, regulations, restrictions, policies and procedures. Kimberli’s director’s vision of anti-racist policies was, and continues to be sincerely respected and supported by UAM staff. Her conceptual legacy is honored with continued constructive conversations about systematic oppression and exhibitions that uphold social justice issues. Narratives to the contrary are factually inaccurate and defamatory to UAM staff.
I read an op-ed last night questioning who informed the Long Beach Police Department of the project, implying that the staff were in someway resistant or interested in sabotage. This is incorrect. The Long Beach Police Department was never involved in the process. The CSULB Police Department (UPD) was. I informed the UPD Chief of the project six months ago when I ran into him on an elevator in our administration building. At that point, he was unaware of the project’s existence. I wanted to have a discussion about protecting the safety of the UAM staff, and by extension, the students and public who may visit the museum.
As the UAM staff’s union representative, I have a contractual responsibility to enforce health and safety provisions within our collective bargaining agreement. While we hoped it would be unnecessary, it was reasonable for the union to assert the need for preparedness surrounding a project that was likely to be controversial. It was alarming to me that Kimberli had not had so much as a conversation with UPD at that point in time regarding public safety.
Subsequent to my conversation with the UPD Chief, I met with Kimberli and CSULB College of the Arts (COTA) Dean Cyrus Parker-Jeannette to discuss safety surrounding American MONUMENT. Kimbleri assured me in that meeting that there was a safety plan in place and that every effort was being made to engage all necessary stakeholders in the process. I later learned that no such plan existed and that she had misrepresented her outreach efforts.
Accusations of censorship are unfounded and are in fact a demonstration of a misunderstanding of CSULB safety and preparedness standards and procedures in place to protect visitors, artists, student staff, and staff. Compliance to these regulations is mandatory. The UAM is a state-run organization, and it exists within a government environment that puts the museum in a unique political framework, one that presents bureaucratic requirements that cannot be ignored. Kimberli was made aware of these requirements by staff throughout the development of American MONUMENT but struggled to meet university needs. As a result, certain last minute project management decisions presented significant challenges in implementation despite the UAM staff’s best efforts (I.E. the late delivery of content and a delayed request for recordings and licensed material to be amplified in public space).
The administration is currently using the COTA Dean and UAM staff as political human shields to protect decision makers who are responsible for the terrible timing of this dismissal. Cowardice of top administrators has left the staff and the museum out to dry to the detriment of funding efforts, which are relied upon for future educational programming. To say that I’m disappointed by this cowardice would be to indicate that I find it surprising. It is sadly indicative of a well entrenched leadership deficiency at CSULB’s highest levels.
This project is an opportunity to come together and have meaningful dialogue around systemic oppression. The fact that a personnel matter may overshadow the importance of understanding and exploring the bias in police violence is unfortunate.
CSUEU supports UAM staff and highlights their tireless labor in a situation where they have had their agencies and power stripped away by being silenced in the face of controversy. Their capability to continue to provide public service is intact and their hard work speaks to their unyielding support of this project and the artist’s vision. Their efforts to help develop this project, which are thoroughly evidenced, are acknowledged and appreciated by CSUEU.
Asia Morris is a Long Beach native covering arts and culture for the Long Beach Post. You can reach her on Twitter and Instagram @theasiamorris and via email at [email protected]
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