Three Junes ago, I left my full-time job as Development Director at The Drawing Center, a visual arts space in New York City. I was there not even a full year—and, honestly, still overstayed my “welcome”—out of some tired feeling of responsibility to “the work” and not wanting to “burn bridges,” I left… quietly, without fanfare, without any recompense for the ways in which I had sacrificed whole parts of myself to an institution that did not care about me, in the way that too many workplaces fail to care for their Black employees.
I continue to say of those 11 months —without hyperbole—that I felt many nights I was going to die as I laid down to prepare to return to the stress of my workplace environment the next day. I had gained almost 45 pounds over the course of my tenuous tenure. I had cried over too many whiskey and ginger ales to too many friends at too many bars over things like: constantly being second-guessed in my work; made to feel completely worthless; gaslit over racially-insensitive artwork that I was being asked to promote and fundraise for; at almost every turn reminded that my Blackness at the leadership table was a decoration, a window dressing in the beginning era of “museum diversity” (that summer the Mayor had threatened that if institutions didn’t diversify, funding would be cut). As I had been recruited, brought in for interviews, and hired and I was told repeatedly, explicitly and through executive actions, that I “did not understand the art world” (maybe I wear that statement now, with pride) and that the whole of the institution had “taken a risk” by hiring me.
Every time I called out injustices against myself or my department (fully-staffed by people of color:the other Black woman I hired, and a Filipino gentleman), I was ignored, or told that I was overreacting or “reading too much” into things. Once, we were told that during the 40-minute seated portion of a fundraising gala, we would not have a plate or a literal seat at any of the 30+ tables we had personally set and made placeholders for; that we would not be welcome to sit among the 1500 guests we had handwritten addresses for invitations to. When I brought up the optics of it all—that the only institution staffers who were not white would not have a dinner place setting,— was met with eye rolls and resistance.
We pulled up anyways, in the back corner, and toasted our contributions to the highest-grossing fundraising event the institution had seen in its then 40 year history. We had great pours and nice portions of food because of course we treated the catering staff like human beings and it was then I understood that after this massive lift I would begin a new fight: two weeks later, or 10 months in, I was told it would be time for me to complete a performance review. I did not have—despite being deemed a “risky investment”t—a 90 day review, or a 6-month review, and I had checked with folks who had been there for years, and they had not had annual reviews before.
Knowing my boss didn’t want me in the office and that I didn’t want to be there (because truly, I wanted to live), I didn’t fill out the review and mentioned that I would support staying until the end of the fiscal year. So that was that. I had a little over a month left, and a few more paychecks to figure out my next move: throwing myself full-throttle into Red Olive, and, I didn’t even know it yet, making room for Black Art Futures Fund to form within me.
It didn’t soften the blow when my position was posted at a 46% increase over my salary offered at hiring, for the same work, while inheriting the solid team I had helped develop. Despite my success after my departure, and despite the fact thatI now cannot imagine a full-time job that would bring me back into the office, in some ways I still feel as though I left defeated. White supremacy will do that to you. Strip you of every fiber of confidence in yourself and your years’ experience despite your commitment to excellence in the workplace against the odds and in the face of all forms of racial terror.
It’s become so clear to me that we have had art in this world all this time in spite of an environment that was hostile and life-threatening to so many of us. Red Olive and Black Art Futures Fund stands in solidarity with Black culture workers across the United States who are speaking out after days, weeks, years of enduring erasures and violences toward their personhood, their important and necessary contributions to the field at large. Speaking out to secure their future as a no longer invisible, no further maltreated, workforce.
As we celebrate our 7th year as a firm this summer, Red Olive will continue to think of ways to push the conversation forward, and continue to advocate for the workers, the doers, in all of our engagements, which has been a core tenet of our work. Black Art Futures Fund also moves to position our work to highlight the people who, especially for small Black arts organizations, do so much of the culture work while under- or unpaid. This is the work of today. This is the work ahead.
In Black Love,