Content Warning: Racism, Sexism, Classism, Police Violence, Sexual Harassment, Abuse
To the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, current and former Guggenheim staff, the A Better Guggenheim community, and allies:
We are a collective of Guggenheim staff, past and present, who united in the wake of the national unrest around the killing of George Floyd, tethered by our dismay at the Guggenheim’s failure to affirm the most basic fact: Black Lives Matter. Our collective discussion about the museum’s inadequate response evolved into a broader dialogue about the countless ways in which the museum has failed its community, especially its BIPOC constituents. It became clear that the Guggenheim had been a site of pain for too long, and we dedicated ourselves to dismantling systemic racism and all other toxic workplace behavior at the institution.
We referred to ourselves as A Better Guggenheim, a name that represents our core mission. On June 29 we sent a letter to the Guggenheim’s Board of Trustees with the support of 169 signatories consisting of current and former staff. We listed 22 calls to action that targeted the institution’s white dominant culture and toxic work environment, and we requested that the Board meet with signatories to set a course toward sustainable, long-term action that prioritizes equity, access, and inclusion as much as it does diversity. Nearly three months later, the Board has yet to respond to our letter, or to our five follow-up messages, except to call our request for timely action “unrealistic.”
Their silence only motivated us to take further action. On July 10, we launched our website and Instagram account, and gathered and shared resources for BIPOC and furloughed staff, as well as managers and allies. Then, we posted a call for submissions. Each of these actions was informed by a desire to uplift those who had for so long been subdued and silenced by the violent, exclusionary structures at the Guggenheim. It was through these actions that we were able to begin building the community we wish existed within the museum and offer a path to restorative justice for those disempowered and erased. With 225 signatures on our letter and over 1,900 followers on Instagram to date, we are well on our way. Nonetheless, the museum continues to pretend we don’t exist with the hope we will disappear.
Leadership’s indifference to the pain of their constituents will not stop us.
A Better Guggenheim has a responsibility to its signatories and larger community to pursue accountability and action from leadership. In our June 29 letter, we called for the Board, within six months of receipt, to replace members of the executive cabinet who have repeatedly proven that they are not committed to decisive, anti-racist action and those who do not act in good faith with BIPOC leaders. Through our community, we have since learned of a broader scope of toxicity than we could have imagined, perpetrated by leadership and extending from years ago through the current triad of crises—COVID-19, a recession, and ongoing police brutality against Black communities.
Our documentation of this ecosystem of abuse shows members of senior leadership have not met their job responsibilities or complied with the Code of Ethics to which all Guggenheim staff must adhere. Still, the Board remains silent.
Through their complacency, the Board has demonstrated their support of leadership’s negligent and oppressive behaviors. It also betrays their belief that they bear no responsibility for the injury these behaviors cause to staff or the Guggenheim’s survival probability.
Upon joining the Guggenheim’s Board, Trustees accept the responsibility to “oversee the management of Guggenheim assets, including its collections, programs, facilities, financial assets, and its staff, to ensure they are effectively protected.” They have failed to fulfill this obligation.
Therefore, we today demand that to “stabilize the museum to be solvent for the next 60 years” the Board take decisive, urgent action:
Director Richard Armstrong, Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Duggal, and Artistic Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator Nancy Spector must immediately resign or be removed from their positions.
We believe this action to be necessary for the following reasons:
1. Richard Armstrong
Richard Armstrong has sullied his twelve-year tenure as director by nurturing a culture of unchecked racism, sexism, and classism across all departments, levels, and locations associated with the Guggenheim. He has endorsed a work environment that is fundamentally unsafe for staff, who are subjected to abuses by coworkers, visitors, and managers. Those who harm are rewarded, and those injured are pressured into silence. Armstrong’s Guggenheim is unquestionably defined by secrecy, intimidation, gaslighting, and the exploitation of employees.
Through his example, Armstrong has sanctioned managers to berate their employees and disparage external collaborators, instilling a fear among staff so visceral that many inequities remained as private burdens on the victims until now. Ruefully, we recognize many continue to suffer in silence, fearful of the retribution they will face if they speak their experiences. Moreover, Armstrong has little regard for treating colleagues and coworkers with respect, equity, and courtesy or for preserving the Guggenheim’s goodwill in the community, two tenets of the Guggenheim Code of Ethics. His reputation for casually inserting racist, sexist, and classist remarks into conversations with colleagues both within and outside of the institution is well earned.
Through his atavistic worldview, Armstrong is also in breach of the four core values of the Code of Ethics of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), of which he is a member. His actions also betray the fundamental principles of Diversity, and Outreach & Community Service, which guide AAMD and its members. Further, Armstrong’s actions have placed the Guggenheim in violation of the American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics for Museums, which among other things declares “working relationships among trustees, employees and volunteers are based on equity and mutual respect.”
When the Board first hired Armstrong, they expressed that they sought a director “who would put the needs of the institution and the staff first.” He has persistently demonstrated these are not his priorities. If the Board still holds this objective and is truly committed to “creating an equitable, inclusive and safe Guggenheim for all,” then they can no longer continue their partnership with Richard Armstrong.
Among the ways Richard Armstrong has violated his commitment to the Guggenheim’s mission are:
- Issuing culturally incompetent comments, including a derisive remark on the overlap between the Met Breuer’s 2019 Julio Le Parc and Lucio Fontana exhibitions as having “a lot of Latina flair,” thus demonstrating his belief that there is such a thing as too much representation, a troublesome quality for someone who must lead the Guggenheim’s mission to “explore ideas across cultures”
- Making haughty, sexist comments, such as asserting exhibitions by women are “basically all the museum is allowed to show anymore in this new climate” in response to someone praising the acclaimed Hilma af Klint show, which, core to the foundation’s mission to interpret modern art, is cited to have “definitively explode[d] the notion of modernist abstraction as a male project”
- Claiming museums have long been fully democratized and that expertise-based hierarchies are unimpeachable—a fictitious assertion that excludes the many communities who do not feel welcome in museums, belies the need for museums to welcome criticism, and betrays the foundation’s mission to “[engage] both local and global audiences”
Among the ways Richard Armstrong has violated his commitment to establishing and upholding the highest standards of professional practice and ethical conduct are:
- Being actively aware of the malicious campaign perpetrated against guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier and furthering her mistreatment instead of protecting her
- Refusing to meet with LaBouvier when she attempted to escalate reports of her experience to his attention unless Nancy Spector was also present at the meeting, despite the clear conflict of interest
- Approaching LaBouvier with a combative, condescending, and dismissive attitude when he finally agreed to meet with her in November 2019
- Showing “deference” to a different museum collaborator, to the extent, per Spector, that Armstrong allowed the collaborator to “tak[e] full advantage of the institution” and Armstrong “should have defended the institution, and couldn’t,” while concurrently harming LaBouvier, an examination of which must take into account those two collaborators’ differences in race and gender
Among the ways Richard Armstrong has violated his commitment to promoting an atmosphere of mutual support, respect, engagement and learning are:
- Shepherding a museum culture where racist incidents are plentiful and abusive managers run rampant, including but not limited to:
- A department director saying “You people are everywhere” to an Asian American staff member
- Department heads prohibiting staff from speaking Spanish
- Managers promoting white employees over their more experienced BIPOC colleagues
- Managers subjecting BIPOC staff to hyper-surveillance
- Department heads failing to pass along reports of vile acts of racism by other supervisors, even in the case of repeat offenders
- Departments prioritizing white employees when providing accessibility-related work equipment
- Members of HR forcing staff who report instances of racism to sign retaliatory documents admitting they questioned the ethics of their superiors and the museum
- Senior staff mocking the dire conditions under which staff work by coining terms such as the “Guggenheim Cracked Molar” to describe their suffering
- Fostering a work environment so toxic that employees are forced to work with people who have sexually harassed them while those who commit sexual harassment are not censured, but promoted, and, in the case of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, which Armstrong also oversees, staff members sexually harass interns and offer special projects to them in exchange for sex
- Prioritizing nonessential wants for himself, such as new shelving in one of his offices, which was classified as an “urgent” project and delayed providing four staff members with proper work spaces
- Authorizing a climate where interns are discriminated against and favoritism is permitted for those related to donors
- Trumpeting his disregard for the institution’s broader cultural problems, stemming from vast pay inequity and quality of life concerns, by saying staff should just consider themselves lucky to work at the museum, and declaring “my concern is that people be treated as well as we can afford to treat them” at all staff meetings; by joking about insufficient staff salaries to external parties; and by entrusting managers to admonish or fire colleagues who seek raises or promotions
Among the ways Richard Armstrong has violated his responsibility to perform his professional duties with honesty, integrity, and transparency are:
- Mocking a Director from a fellow NYC art institution on a 2019 panel, in which he participated as a representative of the Guggenheim
- Exiting a 2014 interview with Finland’s National Public Broadcasting Company about the Guggenheim Helsinki Plan, saying “I’m not liking this interview,” adding: “These are typical bad questions,” and only agreeing to resume after consulting with his PR professionals
- Using his position for personal gain at the expense of the Guggenheim, its mission, its reputation, the public it serves, and the livelihood of its staff, at least 20 of whom could have remained at work had Armstrong taken a deeper cut to his base compensation, which remains at over $600,000 during an unprecedented pandemic and economic crisis
2. Elizabeth Duggal
In just two years, Elizabeth Duggal has repeatedly violated the Guggenheim Code of Ethics’ mandate to treat colleagues with respect, equity, and civility. Within months of joining the museum, Duggal abruptly implemented layoffs as a first resort of reducing operating costs. This action dealt a severe blow to staff workload and morale that is still felt more than two years later. At the very least, Duggal might have recognized the gravity of her decision. Instead, she called it natural selection in jest. Her thoughtlessness precludes even the appearance of sincerity.
Duggal’s inability to manage operations with grace has continued and compounded since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her inclination to institute more layoffs and furloughs and failure to research or understand programs that could have prevented such decisions have illustrated a frightening lack of empathy and disregard for human dignity. Though alarming, this is very much in concordance with her brief history at the museum.
In 2018, Richard Armstrong cited Duggal’s “expertise in strategic museum management coupled with her acumen in all aspects of operational administration” as the reasons behind her hiring. Yet, her actions since joining the Guggenheim indicate no such expertise. Under her watch, there has been a mass exodus of staff, including a startling number of department heads, and the museum’s financial health has become increasingly dire.
Among the ways Elizabeth Duggal has failed in her oversight of museum operations are:
- Prioritizing cuts to staffing as a primary means of reducing operating costs during her first months in office, failing to account for or mitigate the impact on staff workload, and treating the decision with grotesque levity, referring to the process as “survival of the fittest”
- Creating a work environment so inhospitable that upwards of 45 employees, including a staggering amount of senior staff, have left the Guggenheim in the mere two years since Duggal joined the museum
- Impeding union negotiations through her indifference, wherein staff had to request the Board to encourage Duggal to “attend more bargaining sessions“
- Wielding her authority to violently silence Chaédria LaBouvier at the November 5, 2019 panel, demanding the panelists shut down the Q&A, after which she engaged in racial gaslighting and posed to a public audience that LaBouvier was ignorant to the way museums work
- Bearing near-silent witness to Nancy Spector’s derogatory statements about LaBouvier and Richard Armstrong’s condescension to her, thus enabling the racism LaBouvier encountered at the museum
- Sacrificing the livelihoods of the museum’s most vulnerable staff at the onset of an unprecedented, worldwide pandemic, first by eliminating overtime and effectively applying a greater pay cut to the most poorly compensated staff at the museum than to senior staff, then by implementing furloughs within a week of receiving approval for a Paycheck Protection Program loan
- Refusing to revisit any of these decisions after recognizing they primarily affected BIPOC staff, which intersects with communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic
- Neglecting to implement steeper cuts to executive salaries with the knowledge doing so would reduce the number of staff affected by furloughs, and despite awareness of the severe pay disparity between staff and museum leadership
- Pleading ignorance or lying when staff have directly asked her about what alternatives were sought before turning to staff reduction
- Displaying a detrimental degree of apathy in her oversight of museum departments, in which front-line staff are regularly subjected to racism and otherwise unsafe treatment by visitors, employees who have reported sexual harassment are neither heeded nor protected, staff are forced to work jobs that fall outside of their responsibilities without proper compensation, Retail staff experienced abrupt layoffs and outsourcing, and managers are not held accountable for their repeatedly problematic and, in some cases, dangerous behaviors
- Overseeing an HR department that squashes complaints of racism and manager abuse, constructs situational “rules” about who can apply for positions to maintain a hierarchy within the museum, and exploits staff, including plotting to underpay and undervalue those who apply for internal positions
- Displaying an unceasing lack of humanity through her proclivity for furloughs and layoffs, indifferent to the way they jeopardize staff livelihoods, and their lives, for the sake of the museum’s bottom line
3. Nancy Spector
Nancy Spector’s tenure as the Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator and Artistic Director has unquestionably bolstered the museum’s white supremacist foundations. Furthermore, she has instilled a culture of fear that has been nourished by her abuses of power and her penchant for widespread revanchism. Spector’s three-decade career at the Guggenheim, nearly half of the Guggenheim Museum’s existence, is proof positive that she is not just the quintessential disciple of the museum’s perverse culture, but one of its chief architects.
With this in mind, Spector’s criticism of the Guggenheim’s “fault lines,” which she blames for the lack of diversity and inclusion in the museum’s collection, exhibitions, programming, and staffing, amount to nothing more than lip service. There is no doubt that these very “fault lines” are a direct result of her own actions and words over her thirty-year career. Her condemnation must be recognized for what it is: performative. Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that expansions to the Guggenheim’s collections and exhibitions in recent years are not a testament to Spector’s individual growth, or acknowledgment of her own biases and racism. Instead, she has only engaged in optical allyship insofar as it can benefit her own career. This is evident in her defiant hostility when faced with criticism or dissent.
Confirmation of Spector’s steadfast commitment to the Guggenheim’s exclusionary structures was brought into public view through her treatment of Chaédria LaBouvier. Spector so embodied the violence and hostility of white supremacy that LaBouvier has described her time at the Guggenheim as “the most racist professional experience of [her] life.” Instead of reflecting on her actions, Spector endeavored to silence LaBouvier, to the extent that even staff were unaware of events that had occurred within the museum. For these reasons alone she should be removed from her position. When this harm is contextualized within Spector’s career-long display of bad-faith actions, her commitment to recrimination, and her inability to take personal accountability when faced with the extent of the trauma she has caused, her removal is not only justified—it is imperative.
Among the ways Nancy Spector has advanced a culture of white supremacy at the Guggenheim are:
- Concealing the retaliatory exclusion of LaBouvier from the November 5, 2019 panel, wherein members of senior leadership denied the exclusion altogether, only for Spector herself to later admit the act in a closed-door meeting
- Engaging in bad-faith negotiations through which LaBouvier was guaranteed reprint fees for the catalogue Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, despite the Guggenheim having no intention of reprinting the book
- Initiating a whisper campaign with the express purpose of subverting LaBouvier’s allegations: this involved, but was not limited to, characterizing LaBouvier as “irrational,” “angry,” and “crazy” in the presence of Guggenheim staff, undermining the quality of her work, engaging other department heads to invalidate each of her assertions, and maligning LaBouvier to parties outside of the Guggenheim
- Responding to staff who challenged her sympathetic characterization of the museum’s institutional racism with defensiveness instead of introspection, excuses instead of acknowledgment, and a clear lack of accountability for her own role in the most visible egregious act of anti-Black violence in the museum’s recent history
- Characterizing LaBouvier’s requests for creative agency as unreasonable, comparable to Spector herself asking to be a top chef in a restaurant, in the presence of multiple staff members and COO Elizabeth Duggal, intentionally compromising LaBouvier’s reputation at the highest levels of museum leadership
- Displaying a pattern of damaging, inherent bias, through which she has leveraged hurtful stereotypes against staff on multiple occasions: in addition to denigrating LaBouvier with pejorative stereotypes, she has engaged in linguistic profiling, objectifying the accent of a museum employee, and even failed to conceive that an employee she corresponded with for months was Black
- Issuing a thinly veiled threat to staff in her department at the end of a meeting about LaBouvier’s allegations, stating if anyone felt they could not defend the institution, “we have to talk about how they’ll still work here.”
- Abusing her position as Chief Curator to offer an artwork for loan without consulting other members of senior leadership, which resulted in a national scandal in 2018 and put staff safety at risk
- Berating staff who disagree with her, criticize her actions, or bring attention to general museum issues in the presence of other museum employees
- Refusing to attend staff meetings that are known to be the primary way for staff to voice concerns to members of leadership because she no longer runs them
- Exhibiting a repeated inability to recognize and take accountability for the anguish caused by her inherent biases, choosing instead to scapegoat other parties and view criticism of her actions as something to deprive of oxygen until it goes away; this perspective contextualizes her sabbatical—paid or not—which has afforded her a freedom to hide from inquiries and criticism with the hope they too will go away
The injustices we have shared in this statement are manifold, yet they still do not represent the full extent of the pain staff have experienced at the Guggenheim. The structures that make speaking out such a grave risk are very much at play, especially in this precarious moment. It nonetheless remains clear that the leadership of Richard Armstrong, Elizabeth Duggal, and Nancy Spector has deprived staff of their right to a safe, respectful, and humane workplace. Therefore, for the future of the museum and the safety of its staff, they must be removed from their positions.
Three months ago, current and former staff across departments joined together in a way that was unheard of at the Guggenheim. Staff across departments were united in our grief, our rage, and our hope. The journey has led us through rough, uncharted waters, in which we battled the very systemic racism and toxic culture we have sought to eradicate.
Today, we recognize that much remains the same. We continue to navigate the ever-present pandemic, to weather economic hardships, and to declare that Black Lives Matter. We also recognize that much has changed, that we are more connected than ever, and that this movement will not stop any time soon.
To the Board, we urge you once more to join us in this work, to honor your commitment to addressing systemic racism and structural oppression, and to fulfill your duty to ensure the protection of museum staff,
To current and former Guggenheim staff, we remain devoted to your protection and stand with all who are not in a position to assume the risk of speaking out,
To the A Better Guggenheim community, we reaffirm our commitment to creating a space built on trust, through which we can end the museum’s deep culture of fear and create a work environment where we all, especially our BIPOC colleagues, feel safe, supported, and respected,
And to all of our allies, and to those across this industry fighting to uproot racist, oppressive systems, we pledge to continue this work with the urgency it demands.
A Better Guggenheim
Quotations and anecdotes that are not linked to sources are drawn from the Guggenheim Code of Ethics, correspondence from museum leadership, and unpublished eyewitness accounts of racism and toxic workplace behavior