Story at a glance
- Artist Trust is an organization that distributes funding for artists living and working in Washington.
- In an open letter, a number of artists are calling out the organization for an allegedly sexist and toxic workplace.
- The leadership has apologized and promised change, but some of the artists remain wary.
With sources of funding drying up during the coronavirus pandemic, Satpreet Kahlon, an artist and curator based in Seattle, was anxious to hear back about the Artist Trust Fellowship she applied for in March. So when she got an email on June 9 saying the fellowship had been cancelled, all her hard work felt like a waste.
Instead, Artist Trust said it would be giving out smaller grants from its COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund. And while something was better than nothing, Kahlon was back to square one.
"[The $1,000 grant I received] doesn't replace a $10,000 award, because a thousand dollars in Seattle isn’t even enough to pay your rent," she said.
What really upset her, she said, was the lack of communication from Artist Trust. A month later, the organization has apologized and is now saying that the fellowship isn’t being cancelled, but postponed until winter. But it wasn’t until she posted about her experience on Facebook that Kahlon realized the fellowship was merely the latest misstep in the 33-year history of a nonprofit that distributes nearly $500,000 in awards each year to local artists.
She and dozens of other Washington artists signed "An Open Letter to Artist Trust," published online on July 6. The letter makes three complaints against the nonprofit and its board, including the lack of transparency in its cancellation of the fellowship.
"This sits in direct opposition to the organization’s publicly stated mission to ‘support and encourage artists’ with processes that are ‘open, transparent, responsive, and forward-thinking.’ In light of community testimonies, we, the undersigned, call for a prompt and thorough investigation and restructuring of Artist Trust’s internal culture and processes," the letter said.
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The letter’s third allegation is the gravest, citing nearly a dozen employees who left Artist Trust after reporting sexism or racism to CEO Shannon Halberstadt. In its response to the open letter, the nonprofit acknowledged treating members of their staff unfairly and failing to provide support.
"We sincerely apologize to our community for the harm we have caused; we see how the patterns of our actions have cooperated with, or even reenacted, systems of oppression," the organization said in a statement that also addressed both the fellowship and another complaint of the letter: its handling of the $25,000 Arts Innovator Award.
The open letter was a product of a community call-in over Zoom on June 26, organized by Shin Yu Pai, an artist and writer, and Anida Yoeu Ali, an artist and professor at the University of Washington, who served on the jury panel for the Arts Innovator Award this year. It was during that call that they learned about the experiences of current and former employees, some of whom have signed the letter.
"It became really clear in our meeting that folks for years had been suffering from and experiencing a really toxic and misogynistic work environment under [program director Brian McGuigan]," Kahlon said, citing an environment of fear, self-doubt and misinformation.
After reading the open letter and Artist Trust response, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, author and founder of the Till residency, shared a letter she sent to Halberstadt and the board on Facebook. In it, she accused McGuigan of sexism as director of the advisory board for Lit Crawl, a street literature event, which she served on in 2015.
Changing America has been unable to reach McGuigan, and requests for comment from Artist Trust have not been returned.
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Ali and Pai, who has received a grant from Artist Trust in the past, had their own history with McGuigan, who oversaw the jury deliberations for the Arts Innovator Award.
As part of a panel of five jurists, they evaluated 127 applications through February, selecting eight finalists for in-person interviews and then choosing two awardees and one alternate. During the discussion, some of the jurists disclosed indirect conflicts, meaning that they knew the applicants but were not closely related. They were asked to speak last, but said McGuigan, who was in the room, did not ask them to leave, abstain from discussion or withhold their vote.
So when they heard that Artist Trust’s board was completely dismissing their recommendations and restarting the process due to an “undisclosed conflict of interest,” Pai, who had served on the jury in 2014, and Ali were surprised and dismayed after putting in about a month of work.
“In my six years at Artist Trust, I don’t recall the board ever not approving a panel’s recommendations for award winners,” Zach Frimmel, a former program coordinator at Artist Trust who left in February and who signed the letter, told the Seattle Times. “That was surprising.”
After pushing for answers, Ali learned that it was a conflict of interest that she had disclosed during the process. The board apologized for “miscommunication,” but said they were still dismissing the panel’s final decision.
“We have wondered if there is specifically an anti-Asian sentiment at play,” said Pai, noting that the panel consisted of four non-white jurists and one white jurist. “There’s a strong anti-Asian sentiment in the air [due to the coronavirus pandemic] and with Asian women being perceived as model minorities, of course we can step all over their recommendations or just brush them under the carpet.”
Part of this impression, Pai and Ali said, came from a private discussion witnessed between the one white juror and McGuigan after the proceedings had ended.
"The more that I think about it, I feel that we were Karen-ed," Ali said, referencing the stereotype of a white woman who uses her privilege to behave in an entitled manner at the expense of others.
As part of their response, Artist Trust committed to a series of public forums beginning in August 2020 facilitated by appropriately compensated Black, Indigenous and nonwhite facilitators. Kahlon and Pai have accused the organization of inappropriately asking for unpaid labor from them and other artists in the past.
"They don't seem to be keen on supporting us in ways that they can't advertise..and that the organization could accrue social capital for," Kahlon said, saying that Artist Trust's statement felt disingenuous to her. “Their response has a lot of strategic omissions from the demands we made in the letter.”
Artist Trust has committed to an internal audit by a to-be-formed racial equity committee, rather than the independent, community-vetted equity audit the open letter asked for, as well as reconsidering their decision on the Artist Innovator Award, although the letter asked for an immediate acceptance of the original recommendation.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity, to talk about what we’re doing, and how we can change and improve,” Halberstadt told the Seattle Times. “This is what every organization wants, right?”
Ali raised an eyebrow at this comment and said that the language of the response from Artist Trust felt superficial, especially considering the risk she and other signatories took by publicly criticizing such a major source of funding.
"It's filled with words that give the perception that they are going to be accountable…[but] it's going to take a lot of work, a lot of thoughtfulness and I think that’s what's really missing from this letter," she said. Still, she's motivated by the opportunity to provide a platform for artists. "What I’ve been moved by is the response from our community and our community being not just the people here but the arts community as a whole."
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