SFMOMA Faces Censorship, Racism Accusations Over George Floyd Response

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated June 4, 3:15pm

On Saturday, Taylor Brandon was at home in Oakland, resting after protests against the police killing of George Floyd roiled her hometown. She decided to check in on the social media presence of her former employer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Brandon, who is black, had quit as a communications associate in April after experiencing racism in the workplace, and she was frustrated to find her former employer addressing the extrajudicial killing of Floyd only indirectly.

On Instagram, SFMOMA had posted a picture of New York conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s We’re Black and Strong (I), a 1996 screenprint showing raised fists and a white banner inspired by the previous year’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C. “I was taken aback,” she said in an interview. “SFMOMA, you can’t use the work of black artists to make a statement you should make. You can’t stand behind the work of black people to do the work you need to do inside.”

Brandon, the only black employee in the marketing and communications department when she quit, left a comment on the post calling it a “cop out,” writing that the museum has a “history of using black pain for their own financial gain.” What happened next strengthened her view that museum leadership is afraid to discuss racism: The comment was deleted, and all comments were disabled. “It was very true of my experience there—speak out and be silenced,” Brandon said.

SFMOMA's labor union account calls the museum's deletion of Brandon's comment racist censorship.
SFMOMA's labor union account calls the museum's deletion of Brandon's comment racist censorship.

SFMOMA’s labor union, OPEIU Local 29, shared screenshots of Brandon’s deleted comment over the weekend, calling it an act of racist censorship. And the outcry is catching on: Brandon and the Nure Collective, a group of 11 black artists in Oakland and San Francisco who’d been hired to create content for SFMOMA’s “#MuseumfromHome” initiative, on Tuesday issued an open letter condemning the museum’s actions and demanding several restorative measures.

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Brandon and the collective are calling for SFMOMA to publicly apologize to all current and past black employees; re-examine complaints of racial and other forms of bias; consider replacing senior marketing staff who they say have exhibited racial bias; create a permanent gallery space dedicated to featuring the work of black artists; create a program to advance black curators; and make donations to memorial funds for George Floyd and Tony McDade. (Read the entire list of demands and letter here.)

On Monday, SFMOMA issued a statement on Instagram saying its post from Saturday “should have more directly expressed our sadness and outrage as an institution at the ongoing trauma and violence that continues to disproportionately affect Black lives.” The statement names Floyd and other black people killed by police and vows to foster change within the organization.

The response is “too little, too late,” Brandon said. “They’re trying to save themselves.”

Nan Keeton, SFMOMA’s deputy director of external relations, elaborated on the museum’s decision to delete Brandon’s comment at a staff meeting Tuesday. Because Brandon’s comment named senior museum leadership figures and included the phrase “museums kill black people too,” SFMOMA deemed the remarks “potential threats” that “target individuals,” Keeton said in a video acquired by KQED. “This language threatens the safety of the museum and its staff,” she said.

Brandon, after seeing the video of the staff meeting, described Keeton’s statement as a bad-faith misreading of her comments that continues a legacy of casting black people as threatening figures. “I was struck by the choice not to use my name. I mean, Nan has met my mom,” she said. “It’s more of this narrative that I’m a part of the violence of this moment.”

Local artists Leila Weefur and Elena Gross, with the Heavy Breathing collective register their objections to SFMOMA.
Local artists Leila Weefur and Elena Gross, with the Heavy Breathing collective register their objections to SFMOMA.

Other artists commissioned by the museum for online programming are registering their objections to SFMOMA’s treatment of Brandon. Local artist Leila Weefur and writer Elena Gross, with the Heavy Breathing collective, refused to continue with planned museum-sponsored programming unless SFMOMA posted their statement online, verbatim. The resulting post features a black square with the centered phrase, “Uncensor Black Narratives,” an image Weefur created.

“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,” the statement reads in part. “Heavy Breathing, Weefur and Gross support criticism of the museum’s initial media response to the protests.”

Brandon, who aims to find work as a curator, said SFMOMA’s reactions to her and others’ criticisms follow a crisis management approach familiar from her own time at the museum as a communications professional. “It’s always, how can we remain in conversation but not rock the boat? How can we not upset our donors and remain neutral? But museums aren’t neutral.”

SFMOMA, which has been closed since March 14, in late March announced plans to lay off or furlough hundreds of workers. After receiving a $6.2 million federal loan, the museum committed to retaining workers through June 30. In April, staff launched a petition calling on leadership to forego pay, among other demands.

On the morning of June 4, SFMOMA posted a letter of apology to Brandon from museum director Neal Benezra on its Instagram page. “Taylor was right,” Benezra’s letter says. “The decision to limit comments was not consistent with our values as a museum.” He apologizes for the “pain and anger” the museum’s decision to delete and disable comments has caused current and past black employees and SFMOMA’s community, writing, “I take full responsibility for the museum’s actions.”

SFMOMA posted a letter of apology from museum director Neal Benezra to Taylor Brandon on June 4.

This story has been updated to include Neal Benezra’s apology from June 4.