Artist Trust Issues Public Apology And Reinstates Original Panel-Selected Finalists For The 2020 Arts Innovator Award

by Mark Van Streefkerk

In response to the ongoing call for accountability for Artist Trust by a majority-WOC jury panel and the greater arts community, Artist Trust issued a public apology on Wednesday, August 5. But the panelists say that’s just the beginning of what needs to be done.

Satpreet Kahlon, artist editor of New Archives, said, “They’ve had so many chances to prove their readiness to change and move into a more equitable future, and they have done the bare minimum at every step.”

Artist Trust is a nonprofit fundraising organization for Washington State artists. Controversy unfolded in February when the Artist Trust Board suddenly dismissed the jury panel’s nominations for the 2020 Arts Innovator Awards (AIA), alleging an undisclosed conflict of interest between one of the finalists and panelist Anida Yoeu Ali.

The panelists maintain, however, that all conflicts of interest were expressed both verbally and in writing during the selection process, at which time Project Director Brian McGuigan did not ask any panelist to leave the room or suspend their vote.

Only after a closed-door meeting with the one white juror on the panel did the Board unilaterally dismiss the nominees and plan to start the entire process over with a new panel. In late February and March, the dismissed panelists asked the Board to explain their decision, or at the very least honor the chosen nominees. The Board expressed regret for what happened, but doubled down on their decision to start over with a new panel. The Board did not announce a new panel, or award winners, for the next three months. Panelists Ali and artist and writer Shin Yu Pai collaborated with Kahlon and other community members to write the Artist Distrust open letter to demand accountability. It was signed by 415 individuals, including former Artist Trust staff and contractors. Read more about the open letter here. The letter also included a timeline of these events.

“I believe the board did not think anyone would challenge their authority and thought this would all just go away especially with the COVID-19 crisis being most people’s primary concern,” said Ali, an internationally recognized multidisciplinary artist and Senior Artist-in-Residence at the University of Washington Bothell. “The Artist Trust also did not count on the four POC panelists being so passionately united in our disappointment and utter disgust at their unethical, one-sided and unreasonable dismissal of our panel’s labor and deliberations.”

Artist Trust’s apology this week finally expressed regret for rejecting the panelists’ nominations for the AIA in February. It recognized “the amount of stress, labor, mental duress, and trauma that this unfortunate situation has caused the panelists and finalists”; referenced Artist Trust’s own Board-led investigation into the re-adjudication decision in February; and planned for a future third-party review of the awards process. Artist Trust also said they would announce the AIA recipients on August 17.

The Board-led investigation was initiated after Artist Trust received alarming testimonies from former Artist Trust staff and community members, part of a campaign organized by the dismissed jurors. “We organized a letter-writing campaign from the community, directing individuals to submit their stories straight to the board. Those stories were problematic enough that the board had no choice but to launch their own investigation,” explained Pai.

Some testimonies from the community included allegations of Program Director McGuigan’s sexist, vulgar behavior, and inappropriate uses of power, an issue not mentioned in the Artist Trust apology. When asked about McGuigan’s position at Artist Trust, Traver said, “We take these allegations very seriously and as such, are conducting a thorough and unbiased investigation, initiated by the Board and managed by a third-party investigator. To ensure that this process is fair to all parties, Artist Trust Program Director Brian McGuigan is on administrative leave of absence during this investigative period. We cannot comment further on confidential personnel matters.”

The main point Artist Trust’s Board keeps returning to as a reason for dismissing the jury panel and its nominees is the allegation that Ali did not disclose a potential conflict of interest with one of the finalists. When asked what the new information was, brought to light by the Board-led investigation, Immediate Past President on the Artist Trust Board Sarah Traver said, “Our Board-led investigation found that she had disclosed this potential conflict of interest and that there was no real conflict (direct or indirect) present.”

This so-called new information is what panelists have voiced all along. “Community members are forced to continue to do the labor of pushing the organization to be more equitable. It feels like they’re trying to find shortcuts around everything we asked for in an effort to exhaust us and wear us down,” Kahlon said.

The amount of labor Pai, Ali, and Kahlon have put into coordinating a community response has been exhausting. “Launching an uncompensated investigation, letter-writing campaign, and media campaign to bring light to the AT issues completely depleted me,” Pai admitted. “I spent more than 50 hours on community outreach and talked to community members and reporters every day for almost two weeks . . . I heard more than one story of abuse impacting women in our community, with relationship to AT, that deeply troubled and disturbed me. Through holding those stories, I felt the second-hand effects of PTSD and gaslighting and this affected me on a deeply personal and psychic level.”

Mariella Luz, who serves on the Artist Trust Board of Trustees, said that Artist Trust is deeply committed to rebuilding trust in the arts community through the independent investigation of the AIA process with the intention of making policy improvements; the creation of a Racial Equity Committee in July; and an open call for Board member candidates planned to launch next month. Artist Trust announced an updated timeline for their Fellowship Award beginning in September. Current applicants will not need to reapply. “We also have offered panelists an additional honorarium for the added time they have put in,” Luz said. “We hope with time, and through our engagement and actions, we can rebuild trust and confidence in Artist Trust. We are deeply committed to this work, and there’s much more to come.”

However, Khalon, Pai, and Ali had already sent Artist Trust an invoice for their labor in organizing the open letter and community response. Khalon said, “The total calculated hours were 400, and we are asking for $80,000 in compensation. We don’t think that they will pay, but they have yet to even reach out and acknowledge our invoice or the value of our labor.”

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

Featured image by Alex Garland