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The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is bucking a call from faculty, staff and alumni to fire its CEO and president. The demand came after the nation’s oldest arts school and museum reminded employees not to affiliate it with ongoing protests around institutional racism and police department funding, as first reported by Billy Penn.
In response to an online petition calling for school president David Brigham’s termination, which garnered over 1,100 signatures, the institution’s board of trustees issued a statement saying it “remains committed” to Brigham and the senior leadership team.
“At this time of urgency, the board is committed to working in close partnership with them to accelerate the implementation process for the needed change,” the board wrote.
PAFA has now hired an outside consultant to handle what’s often referred to as “crisis communications.” Mustafa Rashed of Bellevue Strategies said he’s been retained to assist with the academy’s messaging around racial equity and social justice.
Meanwhile, the policy around employees publicly announcing their PAFA affiliation on petitions or protests is under review, school officials told Billy Penn.
Some faculty and staff, like graduate instructor Kaitlin Pomerantz, say they’re looking for clarity after being blindsided by what they describe as the policy’s recent selective enforcement.
“Our main frustration was being reminded of a policy we had never heard about, specifically after so many of us at the school signed a petition in support of Black lives,” Pomerantz said. “The policy was not in any onboarding papers, or in any employee handbook that I or others were able to find.”
Pledges to hire more POC faculty and audit collection
The internal turmoil first came to public light last month.
As the city convulsed with protests, the administration sent faculty and staff a message reminding them not to affiliate the academy with political movements. The directive came after nine faculty members noted their PAFA affiliation when signing a citywide petition in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and redistribution of police funds toward social services.
The school had expressed solidarity with protesters in early June, and leaders have since explicitly confirmed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time, Brigham, the CEO, defended the non-affiliation policy as a means to broadly protect free speech among faculty. He also later told the Inquirer that “specific language around defunding the police” in the Philly Arts for Black Lives petition was a sticking point.
Following the Billy Penn article about the controversy, the PAFA-centric petition appeared. More than 1,100 faculty, alumni and members of the local art community signed on, demanding a raft of changes at the school, including Brigham’s termination. Among the signatures were alumni of international renown in the art world, including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian-born painter who earned a prestigious MacArthur Grant for her visual artwork in 2017.
The Change at PAFA petition also asks the board to “restructure its leadership” by reviewing its deans, the women’s board, and the board of trustees, as well as all public statements leaders have made on matters of racial justice.
For their part, Brigham and other school leaders unveiled their own reform plan, which includes a pledge to hire more faculty of color at the school and an audit of the museum’s entire collection for racist ties.
A promise to improve diversity and engage in ‘tough conversations’
Also planned is a new committee that will make recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion at the academy. “The Board acknowledges that to accomplish this, we must engage in tough conversations and learn from honest feedback from our students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” the board statement reads.
Many outraged students and faculty, both current and former, have already begun having those conversations on social media. Many have shared testimonies alleging a long history of racial inequity at the school and museum.
As discussions progress within the academy, Pomerantz, the graduate instructor, said faculty were referred to the school’s social media policy.
The policy is similar to those held by most companies and institutions that prohibit employees from hitching their employers to political speech and other personal behavior. However, Pomerantz said the official policy is “different in spirit” than the reminder sent to faculty about keeping the institution’s name away from ongoing protests around Black Lives Matter and redistribution of police funds.
Board chair Kevin Donohue told Billy Penn the school has decided to review the policy and revise it in accordance with “best practices in higher education and cultural non-profits.”
“We believe that to best serve the PAFA community, we have an obligation to make sure that our policies meet our time,” Donohue said in a statement.