In early June, nine faculty members at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts signed an online petition addressed to Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council. Titled “Philly Arts for Black Lives,” the letter called on city leaders to take action in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and reinvest police funds into human services.
It was meant to be a message of solidarity from the local arts community in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The PAFA names hardly stood out in the sea of 2,700 signatures, many of which listed professional affiliations.
But administrators at the prestigious fine arts school and museum on North Broad Street did not miss the shoutout. On June 12, four days after the petition went live, PAFA officials sent a message to staff:
Protest by all means, the message indicated, but keep PAFA’s name out of it.
“As we all continue to participate in our democracy, I want to remind you that we do so as private, individual citizens, and that we do not represent ourselves by our PAFA affiliation or titles in these forums,” Lisa R. Biagas, PAFA’s vice president of human resources, wrote in the letter to faculty, obtained by BILLY PENN.
“This message should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to dissuade anyone from actively participating in events, petitions, demonstrations, or any other form of civic involvement,” the memo continued. “It is a reminder, however, that if and when we choose to do so, it is separate from our roles at PAFA.”
The communique sparked backlash among faculty and students, and spread quickly through the city’s arts community. Stuart Shils, 66, an adjunct professor in the painting department, signed the petition without his PAFA affiliation. Still, he was livid with the administration’s response, and sent an email to fellow faculty expressing his outrage. He suggested that few members of the predominantly adjunct staff were in a position to voice similar concerns without fear of reprisal.
“This is unacceptable to me and to many of us, but we’re afraid to say anything publicly,” Shils said. “I’m probably going to lose my job over this.”
In an emailed statement, David Brigham, PAFA’s president and CEO, said the policy mirrors those held by many employers, and exists to “protect and preserve individual employees’ rights to hold and freely express mainstream as well as unpopular views.”
While the school’s policies around civic engagement have long been in place, many faculty could not recall prior instances when the administration had sent a forceful reminder not to tag the institution. The college declined to say whether it had reinforced the policy in the past.
No PAFA faculty have been formally disciplined, but with similar situations playing out nationwide, legal experts say selectively enforcing company rules around free speech could land employers in legal trouble.
The oldest art school and museum in the nation, PAFA has been reckoning with its commitment to diversity and inclusion long before the recent civil uprising. Current faculty and staff, some of whom spoke to BILLY PENN on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, said the affiliation policy was part of a tradition of tone-deaf decisions made by the institution’s top executives.
“This ties into ongoing discussions about the completely white male leadership at the school,” said one faculty member. “It’s not only a kind of censorship and disapproval for affiliation, it’s explicitly a disavowal of Black Lives Matter.”
PAFA’s message as ‘a political act’
Charles Mason III, a Black artist in Baltimore who graduated from PAFA’s Masters of Fine Arts program last year, echoed that sentiment. Mason felt that by condemning affiliation in this instance, PAFA was indirectly making a statement about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That message is a political act,” Mason said. “I can understand the frustrations of people who are there now. If they had said this while I was there, I would be livid.”
Some academic and arts organizations have vowed unequivocal support for the BLM movement since the death of George Floyd last month. University of the Arts President David Yarger wrote an open letter to students, faculty and staff, outlining voluminous resources for the community to support Black Lives Matter and “empower students to play a meaningful and leading role in institutional anti-racism work.”
With greater frequency, however, nationally recognized arts institutions have been criticized for hollow statements in response to the uprisings over racial justice, often followed by a chorus of vows to “do better.”
Earlier this month, leaders at the Philadelphia Museum of Art faced blowback for an internal email that, while meant to acknowledge the importance of the moment, used language akin to “all lives matter” that staff said clearly served to diminish the movement.
Like the PMA, executive and academic leaders at PAFA are overwhelmingly white — which students of color say creates barriers to an equal arts education. Mason said he chose PAFA in part because the MFA program chairman at the time was Didier William, a Haitian-American mixed-media painter.
“It’s rare to see a Black person be a chair of any MFA program,” Mason said. “When that happens you kinda leap, and I lept.”
William left the school last year for another teaching post.
Following the internal communication about PAFA’s civic engagement rules, Clint Jukkala, the dean of PAFA’s art school, emailed faculty about concerns he had heard. He noted the PAFA leaders had convened a task force earlier in the month to re-examine the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and proposed a staff meeting on the issue soon.
“As artists and scholars, we are called upon to advance the cause of equity both on campus and off,” Jukkala wrote.
Can employers ask you not to associate them with BLM?
“Opinions mine, not my employer’s” was a commonplace caveat for social media bios long before 2020. No one blinks an eye at seeing private sector employees getting political on Twitter, but most internet dwellers can recall at least a dozen instances where someone got fired over a post that even the disclaimer couldn’t protect.
What happens when you affiliate with your employer in public around an issue of racial justice, whether it be signing a petition or giving an interview to a news outlet?
That’s where it gets tricky, labor attorneys say, especially if the policy is not evenly enforced.
Amy Rosenberger, an attorney at Philly-based firm Willig, Williams & Davidson, notes the First Amendment regulates government actions around free speech, not private employers’. Rosenberger pointed to recent litigation against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where reporter Alexis Johnson, who is Black, says she was discriminated against when pulled from covering the George Floyd protests after she posted a satirical tweet. In the lawsuit, Johnson says other journalists at the paper had aired opinions on events they were covering, but were not barred from reporting on them.
“When it’s, ‘This person is going to get a second chance but that person isn’t,’ it leaves the employer open,” Rosenberger said. “It’s a minefield.”
In a statement, school president Brigham emphasized “PAFA’s commitment to fostering an environment where many, often conflicting, personal views and perspectives can coexist in active discourse.” The CEO did not respond to questions about whether the school had reinforced this public affiliation policy around other political issues.
Neil Makhija, an attorney and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, said that if employees argue their support for BLM is related to working conditions and discrimination within their workplace, the employer could face legal trouble for punishing an employee over their public statements.
In that instance, Makhija said, “a negative action against them could be considered retaliation.”