In an open letter decrying disrespectful behavior toward artists of color and the first Black woman guest curator at Bellevue Arts Museum, dozens of artists and arts supporters are calling for the museum to remove Benedict Heywood as its executive director.
The letter, dated March 15 and addressed to BAM’s board, alleges a pattern of disrespectful treatment leveled at Tariqa Waters, owner of Pioneer Square’s Martyr Sauce gallery, during her time as the guest curator of the exhibition “Yellow No. 5,” which opened at BAM in November and runs through April 18. The letter also says the museum was disrespectful toward “her mostly BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] exhibition artists, and others over the past year affiliated with this exhibition.”
“In documenting this harm, we intend to hold accountable Heywood and the Bellevue Arts Museum board and staff to confront BAM’s racism and other intersectional systems of oppression, and to repair relationships,” the letter states. “We want BAM to do better than they have done.”
BAM board leadership said in a statement Monday that the museum acknowledges the open letter, which it says it is taking seriously. The museum says it will share more of its actions before the end of the month.
Reached Tuesday, Waters declined to comment beyond the concerns raised in the letter.
The letter, which quickly gained momentum with more than 100 artists and arts advocates and leaders signing on as of Tuesday, says that Heywood never gave Waters clear budgetary guidelines for “Yellow No. 5,” despite repeated requests — an omission that obstructed her work.
“It must be stated that curators can not do their work — especially at this institutional scale — without a budget,” the letter says. “It was highly unusual and unreasonable of Heywood to not provide a budget to Waters, and furthermore extremely undermining of her work. Not giving Waters a budget demonstrated not only a deep lack of courtesy and professionalism, but also a lack of respect for Waters as a curator and as a human being.”
Heywood did not respond to questions Tuesday, and asked that communications on the matter be handled through BAM’s marketing manager, Emilie Smith. Smith said that while the board was still trying to make sense of the communication breakdowns surrounding the budget for “Yellow No. 5,” exhibition budgets at the museum are “typically left flexible.”
“Given the timing of the Yellow No. 5 installation during the height of the pandemic, many artists were not able to provide proposals for their works until installation was already underway, which led to difficulties both in communicating and in estimating a production and installation budget,” Smith said in an email. “With that said, it is clear that the Museum did not satisfactorily communicate to Tariqa Waters or the artists about the delineation of the budget.”
In its statement, the board said it is reviewing its curatorial contract language in an effort to make information around budgeting more transparent to guest curators.
Waters’ letter also describes a July 2020 incident in which Heywood spoke about her in the presence of white colleagues during a Zoom meeting she had convened with Heywood and Seattle-based arts collective SuttonBeresCuller, participants in the “Yellow No. 5” exhibit, to discuss the group’s specific budgetary concerns ahead of the exhibition.
The letter says that when Waters stepped away from the meeting, she overheard Heywood speaking disparagingly of her work and casting doubt on her curatorial experience in front of the SuttonBeresCuller artists, all of whom are white. The letter alleges that Heywood’s trivializing of Waters’ record as an artist and curator “revealed his racist and dismissive views that underpinned how he failed to support her process.”
John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler, the artists who were in attendance at the meeting, have signed on to Waters’ open letter. “We support and stand behind Tariqa 100%. By signing the open letter we are corroborating her report,” they said in an email Monday. “We admire her work and vision and are truly upset at the way she was treated and the situation that unfolded.”
In December 2020, according to the letter, Waters called another meeting, with the assistance of civic arts leader and advocate Vivian Phillips — this time with Heywood and BAM Board President Rebecca Lyman — to address Waters’ concerns “so that an open letter like this would never have to be written.” But despite giving Waters the impression that a public apology was forthcoming, none was given, the letter says, and instead, a diversity, equity and inclusion statement was added to the museum’s “About” page.
Three months after that meeting, BAM still had not apologized publicly to Waters, until Waters’ open letter was posted. The board of trustees responded with a statement Monday apologizing to the artist and curator, and promising to take a number of mitigating actions in response to the behaviors she described.
“Board leadership would like to apologize to the artists of Yellow No. 5 and particularly to the exhibition’s guest curator, Tariqa Waters, for their experience while working with the Museum,” according to the statement from board leaders. “We acknowledge the open letter sent to the Bellevue Arts Museum’s Board of Trustees. We take this letter very seriously and are committed to conducting thorough due diligence in advance of responding to all of the items in the letter. We will be able to share more details about our actions moving forward before the end of the month, March 31st, as requested in the open letter.”
In an account that aligns with both Waters’ and SuttonBeresCuller’s recollections of the virtual meeting with Heywood, the board stated that, “The meeting was set to inform the artist [SuttonBeresCuller] on the call that their project would be receiving a smaller portion of the budget in the interest of equity,” but that, “At the end of this call, Waters overheard Heywood tell the artist not to worry about the budget and claim that Waters was not experienced in museum curation and would need their guidance.” This “not only undermined her ability to curate her exhibition and advocate for the artists, but also contributed to a long history of racism and sexism in undermining black women.”
The board reported that “various communications” followed the July incident, including a mediation. “Operating under a series of incorrect assumptions, the Museum’s leadership did not send a draft of the requested apology to Waters after the mediation,” the statement said.
Waters’ open letter allows readers to add their signatures through a webform. So far, many prominent local gallerists, artists, creative directors and academics have done so. Several artists who participated in “Yellow No. 5” have added their names, including Christopher Paul Jordan, Monyee Chau, Kenji Stoll, Aramis Hamer, Romson Regarde Bustillo and Clyde Petersen. So have a number of local artists and arts advocates, including Vivian Phillips, CD Forum’s Dani Tirrell and Wa Na Wari’s Elisheba Johnson and Jill Freidberg, and Asia Tail and Satpreet Kahlon, co-founders of Indigenous arts collective yəhaw̓.