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SFMOMA director apologizes for deleting comment by black ex-employee

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 6/5/2020 Tony Bravo
a man wearing a suit and tie: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Neal Benezra. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Neal Benezra. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

After several days of public backlash, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Director Neal Benezra issued an apology for the deletion of a former employee’s comment on the museum’s Instagram page last week.

The gesture, issued on the museum’s Instagram account Thursday, June 4, comes after Benezra spoke with Taylor Brandon, a former museum communications associate at SFMOMA, who had criticized the San Francisco institution’s response to protests against the police killing of George Floyd as well as how the museum deals with issues of race internally.

Benezra apologized not only to Brandon in the statement but also to “current and past Black employees who may also have experienced pain or anger in this decision” as well as the larger museum community.

The public fallout between SFMOMA and Brandon stems from a post the museum made on Saturday, May 30, featuring Glenn Ligon’s screen print “We’re Black and Strong (I),” with a quote from the artist. The 1996 image shows raised fists against a white banner inspired by the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Brandon questioned why the image and the post were being used to make a statement of support for African Americans “that needs to come from the institution.”

a close up of a wire fence © Michael Macor

Ligon and Brandon are both African American.

“You don’t only get to amplify black artist during a surge of black mourning and pain,” Brandon’s comment on Instagram read. “Having black people on your homepage/feed is not enough.”

Brandon continued to allege that “the museum has a history of using black pain for their own financial gain,” and went on to name three SFMOMA employees, including Benezra, as “profiteers of racism.”

Her comment was swiftly deleted, and comments for the Instagram post were disabled.

“Yesterday I spoke with former SFMOMA employee Taylor Brandon who has raised serious and important concerns about our recent decision to limit comments related to a post she made on our Instagram feed,” Benezra’s statement on Thursday reads. “I reached out to Taylor to offer a personal and sincere apology for this decision, a decision that has now been reversed based on the strong and justified concerns she raised.”

a black and white tile floor: The exterior of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle The exterior of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Over the weekend SFMOMA’s labor union, OPEIU Local 29, had shared a screenshot of the deleted comment on its Instagram account and a message of support for Brandon, garnering hundreds of likes and several comments for the post.

On Monday, June 1, SFMOMA posted a statement saying “We can do better” on its Instagram account, acknowledging its initial post, but by then the issue had gained traction with artists throughout the Bay Area weighing in.

Artist Leila Weefur and writer Elena Gross and the Heavy Breathing collective insisted that SFMOMA post a statement from them on the museum’s Instagram account before they would continue their involvement with SFMOMA-sponsored programing. The post features a black square with the words “Uncensor Black Narratives,” with the collective’s statement appearing below.

“SFMOMA’s apology fails to acknowledge that their act of censorship, in deleting and disabling comments on their May 30th post, is a silencing act that is complicit with and enables systemized violence against Black individuals,” read the statement posted Tuesday, June 2. “Heavy Breathing, Weefur and Gross support criticism of the museum’s initial media response to the protests.”

Oakland black artist group the Nure Collective, which had been hired to create content for SFMOMA’s #MuseumfromHome initiative, also posted an open letter on its Instagram page stating that it was “directly supporting Taylor and are holding SFMOMA accountable.” On Thursday, the collective said its members “are currently in conversation with Taylor and other collectives regarding next steps.”

The incident comes at a time when discussions about race, representation and accountability are happening across America in response to deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. As a result, many major cultural institutions are discussing how their organizations can better reflect more diverse groups of people in their missions and programming.

Last year, SFMOMA sold the Mark Rothko painting “Untitled, 1960” for $50.1 million at auction “to enhance (the museum’s) contemporary holdings and address historical gaps,” Benezra told The Chronicle in May 2019. He said proceeds would be directed “to broadly diversify SFMOMA’s collection.”

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