By Steven Monacelli
Leaked documents from the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) — including email communications, internal reports, meeting recordings, and employee departure surveys — reveal a long-simmering conflict between staff and leadership regarding issues of diversity and inclusion. Talks boiled over in the early months of 2021, resulting in the resignation of several employees who served as members of a staff-led Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee.
In Fall of 2020, DMA leadership contracted with an external consultant, Collins Collaborations, to assess the state of diversity and inclusion at the DMA and create a plan outlining recommendations for how to make the institution more accessible and welcoming to a diverse audience. The move came as many museums sought to reconsider their culture in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In January of 2021, a volunteer staff-led committee, which became known as the Staff Advocacy Alliance, was formed to facilitate employee input and work in partnership with Collins Collaborations over a three month period. Nearly two dozen staff members would participate in the group, roughly ten percent of DMAs total staff count. The result of this effort was a report detailing findings and recommendations, which was obtained and reviewed by DW. It presents a number of stark truths.
“Total staff population is racially diverse at 50% white and 50% BIPOC. However, segmented demographic data indicates a disproportionately high racial/gender concentration of white-identified or non-BIPOC Women in Executive, Director, Manager, and Professional roles,” the report reads. Other findings included “mistrust” and “fear of retaliation” from leadership among employees of color. In terms of recommendations, the report outlined three key areas of improvement: expanding diverse representation among leadership positions, the adoption of new metrics to assess progress toward EDI goals, and new trainings and town hall meetings to promote inclusion.
Emails between staff suggest the work of the Staff Advocacy Alliance, save for a few tense email exchanges with museum leadership, went smoothly for weeks. But when it came time to discuss their findings with leadership in April, things got bumpy. Several members of the committee who resigned in the wake of the meetings expressed that the report findings and recommendations were not well received by leadership.
A recording of a meeting between members of the Staff Advocacy Alliance and museum leadership regarding the final EDI report is tense and awkward. The frustration is palpable in the voices of staff, who describe the emotional toil the work has taken on them and bemoaned the longstanding nature of the problems at the museum. “This has been going on for years and years,” said one staff member. “None of this is new.”
Comments from leadership come across as doubtful and dismissive. “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Dr. Agustin Arteaga, the head director of the DMA. “You’re not the only voice and there are many other voices, there are other ways we are getting feedback.” Emails between staff paint the meetings with leadership in more colorful terms, describing one “All Staff” meeting regarding the EDI report in April as a “trainwreck.”
After presenting their findings to leadership, the Staff Advocacy Alliance was asked to recompose its membership and change its name in response to concerns that their work was not truly representative of staff opinion. In particular, questions were raised as to why some members had stepped down. Instead of complying with the request to reform, the Staff Advocacy Alliance chose to disband and issue a parting email. It included explanations for why particular people stepped down from the committee: two left because they said their viewpoints were well represented, one left because of workload. The email also included a list of statements that acted as “motivation and common cause” during their time as the Staff Advocacy Alliance. Among those statements is the charge that “DMA staff members experience daily discrimination.”
In response, Arteaga acknowledged the work as “bumpy, messy, and emotional,” but also noted that it is “important to acknowledge that the sentiments expressed in the email sent earlier today to all staff by the Staff Advocacy Alliance was representative of the beliefs and feelings of that group and not the museum as a whole.” Arteaga went on to say that the DMA is committed to addressing historical inequities and reducing barriers, but also casted doubt upon the direction the Staff Advocacy Alliance had taken.
“Some of the committee’s recommendations mirrored those shown at the All Staff meeting in April,” Arteaga wrote. “The Museum has already implemented several changes and has others planned over the next several months. However, we are still in need of a diverse internal body focussed on this work that can represent an ever greater range of perspectives across the Museum.”
The final EDI report and staff emails reviewed by DW reveal that several DMA staff are deeply distrustful of leadership and operate in a culture of fear and mistrust. Several specifically expressed concerns about their work on the Staff Advocacy Alliance being “co-opted” or subject to “whitewashing.” Some employees appeared to have held hope that this latest EDI initiative could do some good, but they also indicated that it soured over time. “That one meeting took me from being an extremely dedicated volunteer staff member who was serious about making progress on EDI at the DMA for the betterment of all staff and our community to doubting that the work would ever be successful or carried forward, no matter who sat on the committee,” wrote one employee in their departure survey.
After progress was derailed in April, at least four employees involved in the committee resigned from their jobs, specifically citing the way the EDI initiative was mishandled by leadership. Their departure survey responses are quite telling. “All of the work that I witnessed and was a part of on that team was extremely positive up to the meeting with the [directors of the museum],” said one long-time employee in their departure survey. “That meeting was overall devastating and left many, including myself, feeling belittled.”
Emails reviewed by DW reveal that these problems at the DMA have been long-standing, but that staff have been hesitant to say or do anything that might besmirch the museum’s reputation or put their work at risk. “No one at the museum is interested in airing our dirty laundry,” wrote one member of the Staff Advocacy Alliance to a colleague. “We all have things to lose were we to do that. We want only to be as effective for the entire museum as we can be.”
Museums and cultural institutions across the country have grappled for years with the question of what it means to become more inclusive and accessible to a more diverse audience of people. The murder of George Floyd was an impetus for many museum employees to speak out internally and externally. In June 2020, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York received a scathing letter from employees denouncing an “inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy and other discriminatory practices” and demanding reforms. Since then, the museum says it has prioritised diversity and inclusion, noting that all staff members have completed anti-racism training.
Whether the leadership of the DMA will respond similarly is uncertain. After all, some museums have experienced backlash for making sweeping changes in the name of diversity and inclusion. In September, the Art Institute of Chicago fired its mostly white female, upper class volunteer docents. The firings, supported by diversity and inclusion consultants, were ordered to diversify the docent team, a goal the Art Institute views as a necessary step toward making the museum feel more welcoming to a more diverse audience. Critical articles and op-eds have since appeared in conservative leaning outlets. The Chicago Sun Times decried the move as anti-white bias. To be clear, none of the recommendations in the final DMA report suggested changes near as dramatic, but nevertheless, it is understandable that DMA leadership may fear public backlash.
Yet no matter how scathing some of the departure letters from disillusioned employees may be, employee surveys and emails demonstrated their belief that the DMA is an important institution in Dallas that would only be improved if it just listened to the voices of its employees.
“I enjoyed working with most of my colleagues. However, this environment is toxic and has both interpersonal and institutional racism,” reads one departure email. “I believe if management loosened control and let staff, especially women of color, do their jobs, the DMA would become more relevant to the community and flourish even in this difficult funding environment.”