A Tale of Two Resignation Letters
I probably don’t have to ask if you’ve heard about Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times, where she was an op-ed editor and writer until last week. Even if you haven’t read her letter to her former employer, which she posted on her website, you’ve likely gotten the gist, perhaps reading or hearing it discussed in tandem with Andrew Sullivan’s simultaneous, final New York magazine column, which technically wasn’t a resignation letter but an announcement that he’d been fired.
No need to rehash those conversations here, but Weiss’s missive invites comparisons with a resignation letter you might not know about unless you inhabit a particularly stifling sub-bubble of the Twittersphere occupied by art museums and their relentlessly woke detractors. Coming on the heels of Weiss’s farewell, word of the resignation of Kelli Morgan, an associate curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, made the rounds after she copied her message to CEO Charles Venable and the HR director not just to board members, but to various arts leaders, professors, artists, and the Indianapolis Star. Both departures were prompted by their protagonists’ mounting incompatibility with their workplace cultures — “hostile” and sometimes anti-Semitic according to Weiss, who is Jewish; “toxic” and often racist according to Morgan, who is black — but the contrasts between what the two letters allege are at least as striking as the parallels.
Weiss complains of “constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’” Morgan complains that “‘microagressions’ on the Newfields campus came to a head in September 2019 during an art committee meeting where curators presented pieces to bring into the collection to board members,” according to the IndyStar article, which did not include the full letter, although writer Domenica Bongiovanni interviewed Morgan, who was satisfied enough with the recap to link to it in her Instagram bio. An unnamed board member offended Morgan after she spoke in support of another curator’s suggested acquisition of a racially themed artwork by saying “‘things have gotten so much better for Black people.’ … Then it became verbally directed at me, and not like anything super blatant, but it was just like, ‘You have a seat at the table, so you should be grateful,’” Morgan told Bongiovanni.
I’ve worked at a museum and before that covered the art beat at a daily newspaper, so I’ve rubbed elbows with enough board members, who tend to skew old, rich, and prone to patronizing the hired help, to take Morgan’s account at face value — but also to note that these codgers, not unlike some newsroom editors, almost always think the hired help (of any race) should be grateful to have a seat at the table.
But while the encounter doesn’t sound fun — “Morgan said she cried, cursed at the board member, and left the room” — it sounds like a cakewalk compared to having your work and character “openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in,” as Weiss alleges. “There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action.”
Nothing Morgan describes comes close to that “super blatant” level of hostility, which is not to suggest she should have stuck around if she was so unhappy at the museum “that the pandemic quarantine ‘has provided much needed relief.’” But Morgan’s allegations regarding the museum’s failure to support her work as a curator also pale in comparison to Weiss’s complaints of serious infringements on editorial freedom.
“Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired,” Weiss wrote. “If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.”
Morgan makes no comparable charge. The museum acquired Roberto Lugo’s The Expulsion of Colin Kaepernick and John Brown, the 2017 artwork that prompted her uncomfortable moment in the boardroom, and Morgan doesn’t cite a single declined accession or exhibition proposal, though she does claim her exhibitions didn’t get the push she wanted from the marketing department. Again, I can readily believe that complaint, since curators of all races who organize non-blockbuster shows feel shortchanged by marketing departments, and they’re usually right. As an art writer, I’ve had white curators approach me begging me to cover scholarly exhibitions of long-deceased artists, known only to aficionados, for which their museums hadn’t even deigned to draft a press release.
So yes, the promotional budget for Samuel Levi Jones’s debut museum exhibition was probably negligible compared with that of, say, Edward Hopper and the American Hotel. Then again, it would probably also be a lot smaller than one devoted to a Jean-Michel Basquiat show, and as Morgan acknowledges, Newfields’s publicity efforts, rightly or wrongly, are more focused on its beautiful, sprawling grounds than on museum exhibitions. The problem — and it’s a real one — has less to do with white supremacy than box-office supremacy.
I can also understand why Jones and Morgan were displeased with the museum’s use of one of his images on social media in the early days of the George Floyd protests. After Jones responded negatively to the ham-fisted gesture, Morgan “said Venable was upset with her for letting it happen,” Bongiovanni reports. But Morgan doesn’t claim to have been reprimanded for claiming, on the museum’s website, that American society was “founded upon the demise” of people of color; blasting “the duplicitous and oppressive nature of American power structures, particularly those that substantiate our education system, the criminal justice system and healthcare, as well as the American historical narrative”; and denouncing “the fields of law, Western medicine, academia, and athletics, which are some of humanity’s most powerful and omnipresent institutions. Art institutions, too, are particularly guilty of misrepresentation and erasure.” (No curatorial equivalent here of Weiss’s ideal of allowing “a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.” Morgan seemingly prefers to draw viewers’ conclusions for them.)
Nor does Morgan allege getting disciplined for a recent screed published both in the Indianapolis Recorder and on Burnaway.org. In that piece, she called out “how nefarious the culture of white supremacy in art museums really is,” complained that her employer was “demanding mental and emotional acrobatics,” and wrote: “If white folks and governments will not do what it takes to dismantle white supremacy once and for all, we will tear it all down. Racist monuments around the country have been torn down at a rapid pace, and museums need to be next.”
I don’t doubt that she means that, either — she’s not alone — or that many of Weiss’s former colleagues believe that newspapers, too, need to be next.
This piece also appears at the author’s page on Medium