The Nelson-Atkins Museum, a private art institution in Kansas City, came under fire on social media for allowing patrol units to organize on its property last Friday, May 29. The units were stationed during a nearby protest, one of many worldwide condemning police violence following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white former officer Derek Chauvin.
Following a weekend of mounting pressure on the museum to address the police presence, director Julián Zugazagoitia issued a statement this afternoon explaining that Nelson-Atkins’s onsite security staff had granted the patrol unit permission to station there.
“The museum’s security approved this request from the KCMO Police Department on Friday, and this was not unusual, given the spirit of our long history of cooperation,” wrote Zugazagoitia in the statement. “When I was made aware of this on Saturday, I was in touch with police to ask them to relocate, which they did on Saturday and Sunday.”
Before the statement was released, activists and artists continued to question the museum for its days-long silence.
“Why are you allowing police to stage on your property?” asked one commenter on the museum’s Instagram page on Sunday. “Why have you been silent about the brutality against Black people and against peaceful protesters? Silence is violence.”
In his response, Zugazagoitia expressed regret over the hurt and confusion caused by the incident as well as solidarity for the pain caused by the murder of George Floyd.
The reactions to the statement have been mixed, with some thanking the museum for its acknowledgment and others deeming it insufficient. “You even reinforce what we know, you will continue to side with the oppressor because of your long history of cooperation with them,” said Alex Martínez, an organizer for the ACLU in Kansas, in a comment. “The fact that it took you days to release a statement speaks loudly.”
View this post on Instagram
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art joins in solidarity in the pain and outrage over the murder of George Floyd. The museum stands solidly behind Kansas City’s pursuit of social justice and champions human expression. The museum’s longstanding work toward inclusion was brought into question over the weekend with the image of police vehicles staged against the backdrop of the museum on Friday. We deeply regret and understand the hurt and the confusion that this caused. The museum’s security approved this request from the KCMO Police Department on Friday, and this was not unusual, given the spirit of our long history of cooperation. When I was made aware of this on Saturday, I was in touch with police to ask them to relocate, which they did on Saturday and Sunday. We feel the hurt of the nation. At the museum, our priorities remain firmly in place: to care for our community, to care for our works of art, and to further a quest for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. #BlackLivesMatter Julián Zugazagoitia, Director The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Zugazagoitia said the museum has been closed since March 14 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and its security team made a quick decision on the spot.
Responding to the museum’s lag in issuing a statement, he said, “The reality is we’re not operating under normal circumstances. I wish I could have been quicker with my statement. We don’t have the tools that we normally have.”
The rapidly-circulating images of the patrol vehicles dredged up longstanding and deep-seated concerns over art’s complicity in the prison industrial complex and state-sponsored violence. Photographs of Safariland-branded tear gas canisters strewn across protest sites in the last few weeks have once again prompted references to Warren Kanders, the company’s CEO who was forced to resign from the Whitney Museum board in 2019 after months of protests.
Another Kansas City institution, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, was singled out for what some deemed a tone-deaf expression of support yesterday. Commenters on the Instagram post pointed out the museum’s ties to UMB Bank, which sued the state of Rhode Island in an attempt to keep an ICE detention center open.
Kansas City is only a four-hour drive from Ferguson, the city in St. Louis County where white former police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in 2014. The fatal confrontation and ensuing protests galvanized the incipient #BlackLivesMatter movement, with local chapters sprouting in diverse communities across the nation.
The Kansas City Police Department confirmed to Hyperallergic that a patrol unit had set up a “command post area” on the Nelson-Atkins parking lot on Friday in response to protests at a nearby plaza, but could not provide an exact timestamp for the unit’s arrival and departure. An anonymous witness told Hyperallergic that they noticed the vehicles were no longer at the museum on the weekend.