In an open letter addressed to the Bellevue Arts Museum's board of directors on Monday, several artists called for the removal of the museum's executive director, Benedict Heywood. They also demanded greater transparency behind BAM's work around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The letter comes just a few weeks after writers and artists at both Hugo House and Pottery Northwest called for the removal of each respective organization's executive directors following allegations of racism and discrimination.
In the letter to BAM's board, the artists claim that Heywood treated Tariqa Waters, the acclaimed gallerist behind Martyr Sauce and the curator of BAM's Yellow No.5 group show, with "so much harm and disrespect" by not providing her with a budget, speaking ill of her to other (white) artists, and failing to publicly apologize for his previous actions. The letter notes that Waters, fresh off her 2020 Neddy Prize win, is the first Black and Black woman curator to run a show at the museum.
Waters, former Seattle Arts Commission commissioner Vivian Phillips, writer and professor Jasmine Mahmoud, Wa Na Wari's Elisheba Johnson, and several artists showing work in Yellow No. 5—Monyee Chau, Romson Regarde Bustillo, Aramis Hamer, Clyde Petersen, Kenji Stoll, and the SuttonBeresCuller collective—count themselves among the letter's signatories.
The letter outlines five alleged "abuses" Heywood levied against Waters. First, he allegedly "refused to give her a budget" to curate Yellow No. 5, a move the letter says is "highly unusual and unreasonable" and demonstrated a "deep lack of courtesy and professionalism." Second, during a work Zoom call in July of 2020, Waters stepped away from her computer and overhead Heywood allegedly speaking "contemptuously" about her to the (white) exhibition artists SuttonBeresCullers, explicitly promising the white artists money while "trivializing" Waters's curating experience at her own gallery.
Third, the letter claims Heywood "deliberately ignored Waters throughout the initial run of the show" and refused to "acknowledge that he might have done anything wrong" during the July Zoom call until Waters called a meeting with Phillips, who served as a mediator, later that year. Fourth, Heywood allegedly "dismissed harm caused to others affiliated with the exhibition" by not providing a budget. And, finally, the letter claims that Heywood and the museum's board "failed to issue a public apology they had promised to Tariqa Waters" back in December.
The letter claims that BAM board president Rebecca Lyman and Heywood both promised "verbally and later in writing" to issue a public apology to Waters, but instead buried vague language about having "not treated members of our artistic community with the respect they deserve" on their "About Us" page.
The signatories call for the immediate removal of Heywood as executive director, a public apology to Waters naming the specific harm to her and others at BAM, and at least "two year’s worth of transparency about the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work that BAM purports to be doing." They gave a March 31 deadline for a response.
The museum's board of trustees responded to the open letter in a March 15 statement titled "Holding Ourselves Accountable and Our Commitment to Doing Better." In the statement, they apologize both to the artists of Yellow No. 5 and to Waters "for their experience while working with the Museum." The statement acknowledged that Heywood's comments over Zoom "undermined [Waters's] ability to curate her exhibition and advocate for the artists," contributing to "a long history of racism and sexism undermining black women." They also acknowledged their failure to post a public apology a few months ago.
Though they outline some of their next steps to "doing better," BAM's board of trustees did not, however, remove Heywood from his position as executive director at the museum. In an email, a BAM representative said the full board will follow up with a statement that "directly addresses the requests in the open letter" by the deadline of March 31. I've written to two board members and Waters about the decision to leave Heywood in charge and will update this post if I hear back.
The past month has seen a similar struggles play out at other arts organizations in the city. Last month, writers of color at Hugo House organized against the now former executive director Tree Swenson after her allegedly "dismissive" attitude towards racial equity. After some back and forth between the writers and Hugo House's board, Swenson stepped down. At Pottery Northwest, several clay artists published an open letter calling for the removal of James Lobb as executive director after "alarming accounts of racism, sexism, classism, elitism, misogyny and threats" at the org. Lobb also stepped down. It remains to be seen how long Heywood will last.
If you're interested in signing the open letter against BAM, you can do so here.