Artist Distrust: Open Letter to Artist Trust Demands Accountability for Sudden Dismissal of Majority POC Jury

by Mark Van Streefkerk

On July 6, a POC-led group of over 50 community members published An Open Letter to Artist Trust, a nonprofit arts organization that provides funding and resources for artists in Washington. Each year, Artist Trust offers annual Fellowship Awards of $10,000 to eight artists, and two $25,000 Artist Innovator Awards, but this year the longstanding organization abruptly cancelled the Fellowship Awards without any community consultation. The cancellation included a unilateral dismissal of a majority Women of Color jury panel and rejection of that panel’s selected award nominees. The open letter demands accountability for these actions and calls to center Black and Indigenous leaders and artists within the mostly white Artist Trust leadership. Those in agreement with the letter’s demands are able to endorse it by electronically signing their name or the name of the organization they represent. Since the open letter was published, half a dozen women have also come forward calling out the sexism, vulgarity, and rape culture perpetuated by Program Director Brian McGuigan, behavior they say is ignored and protected at Artist Trust. 

The curt dismissal of the jury panel and its nominees happened after a closed-door meeting of the Artist Trust leadership with the only white juror, an individual who has been in Washington for less than a year. The board’s decision to center the voice of a white juror, new to the area, undermines and discredits the labor and expertise of local WOC jurors, who have “over 50 years of experience between them,” according to Satpreet Kahlon, artist editor of New Archives, and a co-writer of the letter. 

One of the dismissed jurors is internationally recognized multidisciplinary artist and Senior Artist-in-Residence at the University of Washington Bothell, Anida Yoeu Ali, who said, “Our word, integrity, forthrightness, and ultimately our truth were called into question because Artist Trust chose to believe a young white juror’s emotional fragility over that of four experienced community-oriented arts professionals who also happen to be People of Color. Simply put, we were ‘Karened’ in this situation.” 

On July 9, Artist Trust leadership published a response to the open letter on their website. The response includes several apologies, and a commitment to eradicate institutional racism, including the creation of a new Racial Equity Committee. However, community members say the “highly packaged PR response” gave the illusion of accountability while dodging explicit issues, especially since it did not address the issue of dismissed jurors or the status of the juror-appointed award nominees.  

“Their words are doing exactly what they intended, which is to give the public a perception that they are being responsive and accountable. However, a lot was omitted and missing from the response letter,” said Ali.

Kahlon said, “I truly feel like we did more work with community in the three weeks of meetings and writing and editing the letter than Artist Trust has done since the AIA panel in March.” She observed that the response “strategically omits community-led and community-vetting processes, as well as our specific demands for restructuring the org to give more power to Black, Indigenous, and Brown community members, reinstating the Innovator panel award decision, and having a community-vetted auditor investigate internal processes.” 

After the open letter and Artist Trust response, author and founder of the Till residency, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, emailed a letter to Artist Trust CEO Shannon Halberstadt and the board describing her experience working with McGuigan, which Werner-Jatzke also posted to her Facebook profile. Speaking about her time on the board of Lit Crawl in 2015 in her Facebook post, she recounted instances of sexism and rape culture perpetuated by McGuigan. 

She says that Artist Trust dismissing complaints about McGuigan, leading to staff members quitting while he remains protected, is all too familiar to the 2016 Lit Crawl board president inviting Brian back to the board after the 2015 board dissolved in reaction to his sexist comments.  “Artist Trust is a place I do not bother applying for opportunities at, since I know that Brian is involved. Because of his ongoing behavior I feel confident I cannot be the only person who believes their applications will not be considered fairly if Brian is involved. This lack of trust grows out of my knowledge of Brian’s sexist decision-making, unhealthy approach to working with women, and ongoing inappropriate abuses of power,” she wrote in her Facebook post. 

The Emerald has reached out to McGuigan for a response.

Werner-Jatzke is one of six women who have come forward with similar stories about McGuigan’s behavior since the open letter was published. She told the Emerald, “I believe the women of color who started this conversation should be at the forefront of it and that the issue at this moment surrounding the award should remain centered.” 

The open letter included a link to the Artist Innovator Award Timeline, compiled with the help of a “community member who looked through all leaked documents of AT Board’s decision to dismiss the AIA panelists,” Ali explained. 

The timeline documents the events leading up to the letter, starting with artists’ applications for awards last November. It includes a resolved conflict of interest between a juror and an applicant, and then depicts the board’s rejection of nominees and their announcement to start over with a new panel of jurors after a closed-door meeting with the only white juror. 

Since the Artist Trust response, form emails have been sent to presumably all signatories of the letter. Additionally some individuals have gotten personal emails from Halberstadt. “Shannon has sent personalized emails to donors and a few folks who forwarded those personalized emails to me (all of whom are, quite notably, white), but not to me, and not to the other organizers,” said Kahlon.

Artist Trust has still not commented on whether they will reinstate the jury-appointed award nominees. 

The open letter, which has reached a count of 386 signatures at the time of this article, calls for the immediate acceptance of juror-appointed Artist Innovator Award nominees, reinstatement of the Fellowship Awards, and a “major restructuring of the Board and organization overall, making community stakeholders a substantial part of the institutional governance process,” among other things.

For some of the signatories, lasting change at the leadership level means some resignation letters are in order. Ali told the Emerald, “Artist Trust must do a lot of hard work to regain our trust and we must continue to hold them accountable. We already outlined the action steps required and it begins with some major restructuring — so I believe resignations are in order. Otherwise the same problematic power dynamics will remain. If they want my trust, people at Artist Trust should begin drafting their resignation letters.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Lit Crawl was officially linked to Hugo House. They are entirely separate entities (Lit Crawl events move around town and Hugo House is one of the venues that hosts the event). The article also stated that Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, in a Facebook post, had implied that board members had quit Lit Crawl and/or Artist Trust due to Brian McGuigan’s behavior, when in actuality, she is aware of staff members leaving both organizations out of concerns over McGuigan but not board members specifically.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image by Alex Garland.