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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCan an Instagram...

Can an Instagram initiative ‘Change Berkshire Culture’?

Change Berkshire Culture has joined a nationwide call to bring attention to the issues of nonprofit cultural sector workers. Will it work?

This is the first installment in a three-part series.

Wikipedia lays out the history of Berkshire County, Massachusetts in three paragraphs. The first concerns the land’s “purchase” by European settlers from the Indigenous Mahican people for “460 pounds, 3 barrels of cider, and 30 quarts of rum.” The second paragraph jumps to the Gilded Age and the elite dotting the hills with their “cottages.” The two sentence-long summation of present-day Berkshire County ends with: “It includes attractions such as TanglewoodBerkshire Museum, the Norman Rockwell MuseumMASS MOCA, and Hancock Shaker Village.”

That brings us to a new effort that’s attempting to peel off our golden veneer. In the past three weeks, all but one of those five cultural institutions has been the target of damaging, anonymous online complaints via an Instagram site curated by two professionals who work in the cultural field. (They wish to remain anonymous.) Change Berkshire Culture (CBC) is: “Advocating for the rights of workers in Berkshire County’s nonprofit cultural sector.”

CBC has joined in a nationwide uprising against the boards of directors, human resource departments, and, especially, executive directors of our museums and theaters. The creators of CBC say workers are “fed up,” and done with working in “toxic” conditions for wealthy institutions that are “entrenched in colonialism and white supremacy.” While the workers’ long-term aims are not yet clear, their discontent is, and expressed in their first communication, sent in mid-January to a mailing list that has grown to more than 100 of the county’s cultural workers:

Image courtesy Change Berkshire Culture

“We are disgusted by overpaid, elitist, often incompetent arts administrators taking advantage of underpaid, overworked, low- and mid-level workers. We are done with being told we should be grateful for our jobs, which we all know is a veiled threat implying how easily we can be replaced in an oversaturated market. We are over participating in diversity trainings that satisfy the shallow statements in support of BLM [Black Lives Matter] while, in practice, institutions continue to uphold colonial models of hierarchy and white supremacy. We are over closed-door promises.”

Change Berkshire Culture opened the door by inviting aggrieved staff to call out the injustices they’ve experienced, and got things going with quite an opening salvo. The first part of their email read:

“On December 10, 2020, Hancock Shaker Village terminated the employment of almost half of their full-time staff, gutting the curatorial, development/membership, events, and PR/marketing departments with no notice. Mere weeks before the holidays and at the height of the pandemic, this incident was the culmination of years of toxicity and abuse at the hands of the institution’s leadership — notably the director, who has a long-standing reputation of exploiting, dehumanizing, and gaslighting her staff.

Image courtesy Change Berkshire Culture

“This experience is by no means a singular occurrence in the Berkshires. In a region celebrated for its rich and diverse cultural landscape, dysfunction and toxicity are endemic within the arts. For decades, dedicated and passionate staff members have tolerated untenable situations for the love of what we do and where we live.

“But no more. It is time to make the cultural organizations of the Berkshires accountable for the mistreatment of staff, volunteers, and interns.”

“Change” came on the national scene last summer. Change the Museum appeared on Instagram in mid-June 2020, with the country still reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and in the grip of Black Lives Matter protests that were the largest in American history, involving up to 25 million people. Most institutions in the country were compelled, many for the first time, to directly address racial injustice.

Change the Museum (CTM) offered a platform for “front-facing” employees to anonymously report incidents of racial insensitivity and mistreatment, using the tagline: “Pressuring U.S. museums to move beyond lip service proclamations by amplifying tales of unchecked racism.”

On CTM, you will find tales of gross pay disparities between white and BIPOC employees, implicit and explicit bias against Black and brown staff, and the frustration of a Black employee who feels he’s “talking to a bunch of brick walls” when he brings up these issues. There is a “call out” of the Frick Collection’s takeover of the Met Breuer Museum, and its plan for “lavish” expansion during a pandemic when thousands of employees have lost their jobs. “No surprise,” the post editorializes, “that a Gilded Age mansion and monument to white supremacy is doing this.” There’s a confession by a white employee regretting the inequity of interning. With her family wealth and working partner, she had privilege enough to take an unpaid internship. “I realize now,” she writes, “how exclusionary this system is.”

Image courtesy Change the Museum

Revelations disseminated via Change The Museum have resulted in the ouster of at least one cultural leader. Gary Garrels, curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was forced to resign last summer after comments he made became public via the page. Discussing an exhibit by artists of color, Garrels remarked, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.”

Bucolic Berkshire County is not immune from the disaffection boiling over elsewhere. Three weeks after launching the page, Change Berkshire Culture has 1,125 followers, and has posted 32 allegations against eight county cultural institutions, with MASS MOCA and Hancock Shaker Village taking the brunt of the hits.

The site’s curators say their initial goal is to create community among their peers in the field. In coming months, they intend to expand Change Berkshire Culture’s scope into more visible, public, and inclusive efforts that will engage management.

They insist that the problems they want to address — “systemic abuses of power, pay inequity, burnout (where they hire very young people and offer them poverty wages as a chance to get their foot in the door and overwork them, along with unpaid internships which keep them very privileged and white), colonialism, white supremacy”— are more acute at large cultural institutions than they are elsewhere.

This is partly caused by “very privileged, tone-deaf boards,” often hand-selected by the executive director. “The board members come in with certain expectations, of elevating the provenance of their own objects they collect, or creating these exclusive environments in which to rub elbows and have cocktails with other people like themselves. They never want to donate to something that isn’t flashy or sexy, so they never give it to the bottom line, to paying the employees. They always want to create a new project, which in turn creates more work for underpaid employees. It’s this constant cycle.”

Image courtesy Change Berkshire Culture

These problems are particularly egregious, they say, since “museums were founded as public institutions, yet the majority of the American population does not feel welcome in these spaces, which is why they are so at risk, and relying on these very wealthy patrons to hold them up.”

Jennifer Trainer Thompson, the executive director of Hancock Shaker Village, the organization called out in the initial email, had this to say about the Change The Museum/Change Berkshire Culture phenomenon.

“There is no question that museums across the United States need to make significantly greater efforts to diversify their staff and boards, programming, and audiences, and to work to ensure better pay equity, too. I support these goals for change, but I question the long-term efficacy of a social media campaign driven by anonymous comments rather than direct, interpersonal engagement.”

Tracy Moore, the interim director at MASS MOCA, offered a similar response to the same question. “I think there are both benefits and drawbacks to the CBC effort. On the one hand, groups like Change the Museum and Change Berkshire Culture can serve to shine a light on policies and practices that create inequitable conditions and help us understand how to do better. On the other hand, a system that encourages anonymous and unverified comments can hinder the kind of productive dialogue that supports change.”

The CBC creators insist that they and their peers have tried the interpersonal route, and it has not worked. “The overarching thing about CBC is that we’ve been having these conversations behind closed doors all along, and we’ve complained and complained about these things to HR for years. Nothing goes anywhere.” An out-of-whack power dynamic stifles workers’ demands for change. “What’s happening now is you [management] have too much power. When people start calling that out, it feels like an attack. But in reality, we’re just trying to even the playing field a little bit.”

A human resources professional employed by a Berkshire County nonprofit admits to “stalking” the CBC page. “I love whistle blowers!” she says. She took with a grain of salt the Valentine’s Day greeting from CBC that read, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Boards are corrupt, and HR is too.”

Image courtesy Change Berkshire Culture

“I understand that HR is seen as the bad parent. That comes with the territory.” On the other hand, the anonymous posts she also takes with a grain of salt. “There are two sides to every story, and there’s just not enough information to get a real sense of what’s going on.” She’s especially skeptical of accusations that call out organizations breaking masking and distancing rules related to COVID, because, she says, “It’s nearly impossible, with the changing nature of things on a daily basis, to stay totally on top of things.”

Erik Bruun, who’s served on nonprofit boards in Berkshire County for over 30 years, agrees that there is a lot of room for improvement in CBC’s areas of concern, and thinks there should be “a serious discussion about the difficult conditions in nonprofit and cultural organizations that talented people work under.”

But, he says, “A series of cryptic anecdotes directed at the executive directors and board members who are struggling to keep their organizations relevant or even alive is not that conversation. Several of the posts come across as petty, anonymous hit jobs, with little or no verification … That format makes for good gossip, not serious dialogue. If you do not take responsibility for your words then you make it difficult to take your words seriously.”

I spoke to a former board member at one of the organizations accused of misdeeds. She’s saddened by the CBC phenomenon, which, she says, is taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook. “As far as I know they have blocked every ED and some board members of these organizations. If they are trying to create a healthy dialogue that’s transparent I question their tactics.”

She agrees with the impetus for change, though. “I hope that each institution’s executive director is opening up a positive, safe, and supportive dialogue among their staff that helps move everyone in the right direction to address these serious workplace issues. But I hope that everyone is able to see the difference between personal attacks and vendettas vs structural changes within the institution. The current Instagram posts seem to be allowing some personal attacks with only innuendos and hearsay — that’s dangerous … There is no recourse. There’s no way to defend the situation. There are so many deeper nuances where HR was involved and it’s illegal to comment, but that side of the story can’t ever be told.”

What response do the CBC creators have to the complaint that their community’s allegations are not verified?

“Our disclaimer is that these are stories that speak to the truth of their experience. Sure, there are multiple sides to all things, but if this is how the individual sees the dynamic, and experienced the incident, we are validating that … They [directors] have their own mouthpieces. They should be held to a higher standard. They’re making $300,000, and they’re supposed to be caring for these workers. I don’t think the burden of proving it should lie with the workers.”

The second installment in this series will focus on pay equity.

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