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Call to boycott US museums divides the art world

20201007 US museums boycott
As the majority of American museums get ready to reopen, the @changethemuseum group is calling for a boycott of US cultural institutions. Image: AFP/Angela Weiss.

The Instagram account @changethemuseum is calling for a boycott of United States museums in the month of October, while many such institutions are just reopening after months of closure. This controversial campaign hopes to encourage museum directors to take concrete measures to combat racism and discrimination in the art world. The initiative is supported by over 37,500 art fans.

This internet-based advocacy group is encouraging U.S. citizens to steer clear of museums until they publicly commit to offering hazard pay to their essential frontline workers and make pledges to combat racism and inequality at such institutions.

This call to boycott comes after the anonymous creator of @changethemuseum shared hundreds of shocking accounts of everyday instances of racist and discriminatory behavior experienced by people working or having worked in American museums.

“At a Honolulu Museum of Art board meeting, one of the senior trustees stated that Hawaiian art didn’t belong in the art museum, it should be in the natural history museum,” is one of the examples on the group’s Instagram page.

Although the boycott campaign was launched at the end of September, few voices from the art world have come out in support for the movement. However, U.S. feminist collective Guerrilla Girls has shared the @changethemuseum initiative on its official Facebook page.

Fighting racial injustice

On the other hand, some web users have expressed reservations about the legitimacy of the measure, which they fear could disproportionately impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) museum staffers.

“Hi, art museum frontline staff worker here! We definitely deserve hazard pay, but calling for a boycott will not achieve this goal. From inside the belly of the beast, I can say with absolute certainty that upper management will not hesitate to lay off or furlough frontline workers if revenue decreases,” wrote one Instagram commenter.

In fact, a study from the American Alliance of Museums recently highlighted a particularly critical situation for the country’s art institutions. One-third of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a “significant risk” of closing permanently by fall 2021 or that they “didn’t know” if they would survive another 16 months of crisis conditions.

In response, the founder of @changethemuseum has assured followers they do not underestimate the considerable risks involved in boycotting U.S. museums. While this initiative has proved controversial, it falls within the many repercussions of the Black Lives Matter protests, which sent a shockwave through the culture sector.

The resurgence of this protest movement even led to the International Council of Museums publishing an ambitious call for action in the sector, reminding institutions that “museums have the responsibility and duty to fight racial injustice and anti-black racism at all levels, from the stories they tell to the diversity of their personnel.” CC


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