For the Tulsa Artist Fellowship's end of the year exhibition, I exhibited my email correspondence with Ken Levit, the executive director of GKFF (George Kaiser Family Foundation). These emails are a follow up to a meeting that I had with him where I was asked to be transparent about all of the wrongdoings of Julia White, the current Program Manager. Instead of reliving all of the trauma that I endured due to the unqualified staff, I provided stories that stood out. This included her racist remarks concerning my partner, Brandon Brooks.
To encapsulate how troublesome the staff at TAF is, three artists of color, including myself, left the fellowship before the 1st year even ended. That should say enough. The Declaration of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion featured on their website is obviously just a front.
Akiko Jackson and I both exhibited pieces that "are openly critical of the leadership of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship."
We both found it necessary to use our platform to fight for true equity and justice in the fellowship. We want the future artists, specifically queer and poc artists, to thrive in this community because we struggled immensely.
News of hiring a new program director came out on February 5th, along with a notice that "Any questions, comments or suggestions can be directed to Judy Rabinowicz and team at email@example.com."
I sent the following to Judy,
"Greetings Judy Rabinowicz,
I have a few suggestions concerning the requirements for the Director position.
I believe the following are necessary for the success of TAF:
1. A Master's Degree
2. Listing of salary and benefits
3. A national search/call that lasts 4-6 months
4. Transparency concerning the hiring process
5. Extended experience in the arts outside of Oklahoma
6. Preferably a Woman of Color
I hope to see a replacement of current staff with qualified staff to better serve the needs of the TAF artists and community as well. The long term success of TAF depends on hiring staff with remarkable experience in the arts.
I truly hope to see change in the upcoming years.
I am happy to share more of my experience in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship anytime.
I hope you're doing well. I've been meaning to write with various concerns about our TAF staff and the need for help. One latest concern was regarding a man roaming the halls of the Archer studios, a new 2018 Fellow and guest. We were not given a formal introduction and from what I understand, this was startling for fellows to hear.
There have been many concerning and problematic issues with the decision making of both Julia and Megan. My fellow colleagues requested our staff to send out a simple email introduction, and this request was ignored after inappropriate and defensive comments were made in response. Why? It makes no sense.
We were introduced to Rett during our monthly meeting on Wednesday, and we requested an introduction be sent out through email to all the fellows, as everyone was not present. This still has not happened. He has been roaming the halls for over two weeks without proper introduction. To illustrate "why" this is important, this is for the awareness, safety, and comfort for everyone. An unfamiliar man walking through the hallways late at night is startling. If I turn a corner and walk into an unfamiliar man, this is traumatizing for both of us, moreso for me. How do I know he isn't someone that broke into the building? Archer is very easy to access and forgotten doors are always left propped open by construction when I come to work. Yes, we can ask Amanda to make sure doors aren't propped after her workday, but we ask for the common foresight of why an introduction email is simple and important to begin with.
In addition, may we request Julia and Megan receive sensitivity/cultural awareness training and generally be held accountable for poor management practices? This has been requested on numerous occasions with Stanton, and we have brought this up in our meetings as well. Fellows have had many ignored emails when asking questions with our staff. Ignored. In addition, evading response to questions, illustrated in an email, that was accidentally sent saying: "Do not respond." from Julia, meant for Amanda. We know this is unprofessional. Ken, I hope you can see the extreme frustration we face with constant incompetence. Myself, and all the fellows, are just trying to work in a functioning program. I personally believe in the mission of this organization, and wish to see it improve on all levels of management and thus improving the experience for fellows.
To be direct, last year there were 12 fellows affected by mismanagement. I heard about the lack of professionalism shortly after arriving in Tulsa this year. After 21 months and now 34 fellows, more people are affected by poor decision-making and inappropriate behavior of our staff. We have fellows leaving the program early as a result of the program not treating them well, amongst other reasons. Our current staff may have told you they simply leave for other opportunity, of course, however, this is selective information and censors the true reasons.
We ask for your help. We ask for a harmonious work place. We also ask our reputation in Tulsa not be tarnished by our staff speaking poorly or misrepresenting fellows by telling known Tulsa artists "they wouldn't be interested" in connecting or "they're out of town, don't bother" when this is not the case, has happened, and I keep hearing it continues to happen. This clearly blocks our ability to work with specific people in our community and is extremely unprofessional.
We need some help for the betterment of our program, and it starts with fixing the unprofessional and inappropriate staff we all have been doing our best to navigate and assist. The grander request we have is a national search for a qualified Director. This may seem very direct, however, many fellows are flabbergasted with the current staff whom have no qualifications for managing an art program, let alone, have the passion, sincere, and vested interest in artists, and do not understand 'how' to facilitate this program for the artists in a healthy, harmonious, and professional way. Please, we need a national search to hire a qualified staff, with years of successful arts administration experience, and a masters degree in the arts.
This brings me to the 2018 Fellowship agreement. Many fellows, especially the marginalized folk, are under duress with this agreement. With a rigid deadline of being told to sign a 22-page document without proper review, editing, and joint agreement, we feel forced. In our May monthly meeting, a fellow had an explosive and violent outburst from the stress of our staff attempting to change agreements on us based on their personal feelings, and the conversation to find a solution was extremely stressful for us. There was no workplace trauma counseling, and people were shell shocked. We concluded from that meeting that all 2016 and 2017 Fellows would not be held to any changes in the contract, and be able to serve through their terms of the following years and grandfathered in. We recommended in good faith, new agreements be drafted before people actually move their lives to join a program and commit themselves to TAF. Our security in the program is from the understanding of being protected and supported, not a rug pulled from under us.
This new 2018 Fellowship agreement is unfortunately one-sided and does not protect and support the artist. The language in this contract, upon the sole discretion of our staff, clearly puts a handful of fellows at risk of discriminatory practices. We have endured difficulty with Julia and Megan's shortcomings, but continue onward to work in Tulsa because we believe in the arts. Seeing this contract specifically twist our concerns throughout the last several months into language that says anything can happen to us and hold staff harmless, is quite scary. Especially with our inappropriate and unprofessional staff, unqualified for their positions. I understand my feedback is straight to the point and candid, but please know I wish the best for our program and want to see artists protected, supported, and treated fairly and equally. Four points we've been advocating for in every correspondence.
I sincerely request a stop to this September 20th deadline to sign the newly created agreement so Fellows do not feel forced, and it will open dialogue on how to better this document for the future of TAF. Granted, we are going beyond our positions to help our staff and it is time consuming, but it is clear this contract was created from a defensive perspective and continues to be problematic and punitive. This agreement should truly be worked on for future fellows not already moved to Tulsa.
Writing such a candid and honest email to you is extremely difficult and terrifying for me, however, I realize you may be in the dark of all the unprofessional acts performed by Julia and Megan, which has created the massive distrust many Fellows have for these two specifically. A result of dishonesty and inappropriate behavior that is quite appalling.
Please help, again, we are under duress and seek harmonious solution together.
Thanks for note. It helps to hear various perspectives. This is a complex undertaking and there is clearly room for improvement. The Foundation is spending enormous resources to make the program a success, maybe more than any foundation is in the country, and we want it to be the best it can be. Your feedback helps a great deal. There is a lot to digest so I will reflect on it deeply. I deeply appreciate it and know it is not easy to come forward with candid views.
As to the contract, it may not be perfect and I am working on listening and making changes. But we also have to move forward reasonably given the commitment of the foundation to the program and the people served by it. We have some appointments on Monday and then will see what adjustments need to be made over the next few days. I have appreciated the feedback that several have provided.
Again, thank you very much. I am sorry of the negative experiences you have suffered. I hope that there have been some redeeming features of the fellowship for you and your work. I am committed to significant improvement as we move forward. —Ken
How have you been? What have you been up to?
I just wanted to see if there were any updates concerning hiring a new director for TAF. It has only been two weeks since I've started my fellowship at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington D.C., and I already feel the difference.
Nicole Dowd, our program manager, is an adopted Korean woman who has extensive experience in exhibition design, arts administration, public installations, and more. With her leadership, I feel secure in my practice as a working artist. We just had our grand opening for the pubic yesterday, and she did an amazing job inviting professionals from all sectors of society to listen to our ideas. More importantly, she validates my existence and listens to my experiences. Nicole has been there for me every step since Day 1.
I can't help but compare my experience thus far to the tumultuous 8 months in Tulsa.
I share all of this to emphasize the urgency for a new director for TAF.
Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to hearing updates.
Glad you are doing so well. Working on it all. -Ken
Awesome! What does that look like? I am interested in the concrete steps that will lead to progress and change.
I appreciate your feedback and interest. You’ll have to let me work on it In the best way I can.
No response or update since then. I found out from another source that a call for a new director went out early February.
Mom/Me (in progress)
She no longer fits into them.
I never will.
Dress pins embroidered into my mom's old Ao Dai.