SEATTLE — It’s a perfect afternoon to take a picture underneath Johnathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” (1991), a giant kinetic sculpture created by the artist to acknowledge working-class people. And the Seattle Art Museum, reopened last March, is a great way for pandemic-weary locals and tourists to take in some art for a few hours.
As the hammer swings up and down above, patrons arrive at the doors of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to a sign declaring it had reopened, and directing them to the main entrance around the corner.
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Tucked away in a small vestibule near the sign, missed by most, are two sand-colored stone bollards with a few cigarette stubs littered around them. Innocuous as they may seem, their color is the only neutral thing about them.
That’s because the installation of these bollards in June 2021, along with the contracting of private security to patrol the grounds, has ignited a controversy among SAM staff. The workers are speaking out, frustrated that the museum implemented the structures in an effort to deter unhoused people from the museum’s campus.
In response, a collective of anonymous workers called Decolonize SAM is calling for a boycott and demanding the museum dismantle the bollards, stop removing unhoused people from museum property, provide de-escalation training for frontline staff, and other intervention strategies that center around harm-reduction and mutual aid.
But at the moment, some of the security guards at SAM are worried about Sheronda — an unhoused woman who has been sleeping in this little vestibule outside of SAM for years. They haven’t seen her in a few weeks.
“At the beginning of the year, she had a tent,” explains one guard and member of Decolonize SAM, who requested their identity be shrouded in fear of retaliation. “Then she would be by the bollards, and she would just be under a blanket.”
But the guards feel fraught, a complex tension overlapping their concern. Because Sheronda doesn’t know how much they care about her.
“We honestly, on purpose, don’t talk to her. Because we know what our department has done to her,” they professed.
It was a central issue during the recent elections for mayor, city attorney, and city council, and a contributing factor that pushed the historically left-leaning city towards more moderate candidates, and even one Republican, who promised tougher laws and more encampment sweeps.
To a lot of Seattleites, the housing crisis seems more visible than ever, especially downtown, where SAM is located.
In June, SAM Director Amada Cruz sent staff an email regarding the two new policies, shared with Hyperallergic by Decolonize SAM.
Citing recent “potentially dangerous, stressful and frustrating” incidents outside the museum, Cruz wrote, frontline staff are “stressed and exhausted by dealing with angry unpredictable people, sometimes under physical threat.”
In particular, she wrote, “several SAM staff have been physically threatened in the last few weeks, one with a broken bottle. Another was punched.”
During the pandemic, frontline staff say they have had to deal with incidents involving unhoused people that they described as “exhausting” and “uncomfortable.”
“Admissions and security especially have to deal with weird stuff happening,” the Decolonize SAM representative acknowledged. “But in my experience, I literally have been more threatened by regular-ass patrons not wearing their masks, or yelling at us. Those are regularly more threatening interactions for most of us.”
Cruz wrote that despite outreach efforts done in partnership with the Downtown Seattle Downtown Business Association, “many of the people we’ve been in contact with have refused help.”
Cruz also announced finding outside security staff to patrol SAM’s grounds during museum hours. “We are not looking to hire cops or soldiers,” she wrote. It would be a small crew “who would adhere to the same customer service values that the rest of SAM has.”
But the workers at Decolonize SAM disagree.
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“It was very clear they wanted to make it a space that was more policed,” says the guard and Decolonize SAM member, “because it just inherently means more police interactions, if someone’s there, watching people, forcing them to move.”
The Decolonize SAM organizer says this creates situations that criminalize homelessness. And the bollards, which Cruz wrote do “not prevent anyone from sleeping there, but do block a tent,” are examples of hostile architecture.
“Because if you’re sleeping on the street, a tent is the tiniest amount of protection from weather and other people,” they explain, adding they believe these policies perpetuate harm on a marginalized population. “It is physical violence to make it impossible for someone to have the protections they need. And that’s what the bollards do.”
The day after receiving the director’s email, a group of frontline workers formed Decolonize SAM and put out their petition in defense of the museum’s unhoused neighbors.
“I think we just had this realization that they weren’t going to care if it was just us. I mean, they’ve so consistently not listened to us or tried to include us in decisions,” the member of the collective says.
In response to the petition, Cruz defended her decision to hire outside security in an all-staff email, which was obtained by Hyperallergic. “Because of the enormous negative impact of COVID, I had to make some really tough decisions … I have no choice but to protect all of you,” she wrote. “And now a small angry group of you decided to issue a petition online and really hurt SAM publicly.”
But Decolonize SAM insists it’s not just a small angry group, and that it didn’t create the petition just to stir up trouble — the workers care about the museum and want to see it do better.
“We are at no point asking for SAM to open a shelter. We’re really advocating for SAM to work with groups that do the work,” says the Decolonize SAM representative. “The most exciting and beautiful museum we can have is based on listening to people who’ve experienced shit we can’t even imagine.”
And other staffers seemed to agree.
A flurry of emails was sent in response to Cruz by staff who supported the petition. (These emails were posted publicly on Decolonize SAM’s Instagram account.)
“We have held down the museum during a pandemic,” wrote Visitor Services Officer (VSO) Aselya Keyes, “but are disregarded when it comes to implementing change in the museum that directly affects our work.”
Hiring outside guards, SAM staffer Rayna Mathis wrote, “demonizes an entire community that is already vulnerable and mistreated. It is also not lost on me the optics of avoiding SAM branded staff to be the public faces of these displacements.”
“With these actions, SAM is sending a clear message about whose patronage we value (aka a white paying audience who requires measures like this before spending money here),” Mathis continued in the email.
Jil Anderson, a night guard at SAM who has experienced houselessness, wrote: “I am angry SAM profits off artists like Basquiat and pieces like the ‘Blind Girl’ by Millais, while rejecting living homeless people … How can we say we support queer artists while disregarding the dangers they faced in the shelter system?”
But by late August, the exterior guards, Star Protection Agency, had been hired. And Sheronda was still around, too — but not for long.
Decolonize SAM provided documentation that on September 1 one of the Star guards paid another unhoused man five dollars to steal Sheronda’s things. The guard filmed it, and told one of the other contractors, who then brought it to the attention of one of the SAM security guards.
When SAM administrators were made aware of the incident, they terminated the museum’s contract with Star. Even though Decolonize SAM members wanted the guard who did it to be held accountable, they didn’t want the entire crew of three working-class people to be punished.
“No one wanted everyone to be fired. But that is what they did,” says the representative.
The guards at SAM who are worried about Sheronda think it’s that incident, along with another on September 4 during which the police were called on her for yelling at a Star guard, that drove her away. (The museum did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiry about the alleged call.)
As of January 2022, SAM tells Hyperallergic it is “working to finalize a contract with a new security firm, which is being hired to address ongoing safety issues, as violent incidents around [its] downtown building continue to occur.” In an all-staff email, sent in November 2021 and obtained by Hyperallergic, the museum made note of “continuing escalations,” including an incident in which a visiting senior was punched, as well as window smashings and intrusions into restricted areas.
In a statement provided to Hyperallergic in October, the museum pronounced that “the intention in providing extra security was to address safety concerns around our building for everyone, and was not intended to antagonize our unhoused neighbors.”
The beginning of what the museum calls an ongoing process for the museum, SAM formed a Special Advisory Task Force on Homelessness to seek advice from community organizations who work with unhoused populations.
The task force, whose first convenings have been delayed by the omicron variant, “was formed in part as a response to community and staff feedback,” according to SAM, and will partner “with leaders and organizations working directly with the unhoused.”
“We agree with their recommendations as SAM is not a service provider, nor do we have the expertise,” the museum says.
“The issues happening downtown are complex, and the guidance we received was to listen to the experts and defer to the organizations who have been doing the work for years,” the museum tells Hyperallergic. “Also in process are efforts to provide additional staff training, including de-escalation training for frontline staff, which has already begun.”
Much of the art in SAM’s galleries these days center artists of color: Barbara Earl Thomas, Do Ho Suh, Jacob Lawrence, and Kimisha Turner, who painted a Black Lives Matter mural on the plywood covering the museum’s entrance.
But should those same values (such as: “art always contains a message and cannot be neutral,” as expressed in SAM’s equity statement) extend beyond the sacrosanct walls of SAM and other institutions like it?
Decolonize SAM thinks yes.
“There’s an appreciation for the aesthetics of revolution and social justice without any of the hurt of it … which is what matters,” the organizer implores, noting that another Black Lives Matter mural SAM had installed outside the museum was meant to keep protesters out. (In an email shared with Hyperallergic by Decolonize SAM, Cruz insisted the museum did discuss opening the doors to protesters, but “frontline staff did not feel comfortable doing that.”)
Decolonize SAM insists that museums, which have profited off Black lives, Native lands, and colonialism have a responsibility to go beyond their walls and engage with the entire community, rather than just people who donate.
“Because it’s the distinction between people who think art is for putting it in a box to keep it safe, so people with money can look at it,” says the Decolonize SAM member and guard, “which I mean, I am part of the box that keeps it safe.”
“But if the box is more about keeping people out of the space, than making sure that the space is safe for everyone, then what the fuck are we doing?”