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  • Jul 28, 2020

Australian Art Museum Accused of Toxic Work Conditions

*updated Monday August 3.

The exterior of

One of Sydney’s primary cultural destinations, The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), has recently come under fire due to accusations of racial discrimination and mistreatment of its workers.

The first to blow the whistle was artist Lilly Lai, a former gallery host at the MCA. In their essay posted on July 4 on Medium, Lai recounted what they described as some of their “most traumatising workplace experiences.” Lai joined MCA at the age of 18 as a business administration trainee, which they said was touted as an “outreach program to help ‘disadvantaged’ youth” by the museum director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. However, despite the low annual salary of AUD 20,000 (USD 14,280), which made buying new clothes difficult, they received regular criticism from their supervisor saying that their “appearance [was] not up to standard.” Furthermore, they were made to feel humiliated about the circumstances of their personal life. 

Lai described how, as a “First Nations, Black, or Person of Colour (PoC) Gallery Host . . . White visitors will regularly take issue with a non-white person holding a position of authority in the gallery space,” which they said was “exhausting to experience, each microaggression, each racially motivated slur.” According to Lai, when they reported these encounters to their supervisors, they did not know how to respond and the museum did not have a policy to “support and protect their Gallery Hosts from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.” Lai further noted the lack of representation, recalling “that with every hiring round of hosts, fewer hosts of colour would be hired until the last round of hires before I left, where only one PoC was hired.”

Lai’s allegations were picked up and circulated in an article published in The Sun-Herald newspaper, which includes details about a separate workplace grievance filed by another gallery host. Anni-Jane Linklater has reportedly taken her case to the Industrial Relations Commission through the Australian Workers Union, arguing that the museum illegally disciplined her over an email she sent to colleagues regarding the provision of chairs for gallery hosts. The email, titled “Chairmageddon and other issues,” was labeled as “disrespectful, unprofessional, threatening and intimidating” by the MCA, according to The Sun-Herald newspaper. Linklater told the newspaper that she was subsequently removed from her position as a team leader. The national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Daniel Walton, criticized the MCA's response to Linklater, and was quoted by The Sun-Herald as saying "rarely do we encounter a toxic culture comparable to what we see at the MCA."

The MCA disputes Linklater's accounts, saying she worked as a "back-up team leader" for specific events, which is considered an "opportunity for professional development" and not a "permanent shift." Because the MCA considered that she violated its code of conduct and internet policy, the museum says she "was removed from the opportunities to work additional shifts in this capacity."

As reported by The Sun-Herald, in response to the increased scrutiny, Macgregor sent an all-staff email defending the museum’s commitment to “providing a safe workplace and culture free from racist, sexist, homophobic and all discriminatory behaviour.” She added that “staff are treated fairly and equitably with all incidents taken very seriously and investigated in line with MCA policies . . . The MCA is committed to continuous improvement, particularly with regard to diversity and inclusion, and we are seeking staff feedback as to how the MCA can better support the wellbeing of our staff and artists of colour.”

Editors' note: This article was amended to reflect two factual errors. Anni-Jane Linklater's case preceeds Lilly Lai's allegations, and Linklater is still employed by the MCA.

The MCA Australia disputes the characterization of Linklater's position as team leader, saying her contract is only as a gallery host, not a permanent team leader.

The MCA Australia also disputes Lilly Lai's characterization of the Business Administrative Trainee program, which the museum says is "an officially registered program offered for school leavers with no formal tertiary qualifications for a period of 12 months. It was established to give young people from economically, culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds the opportunity to receive training and a qualification." The museum also notes that the program is managed by the MCA but in fact is administered by the nonprofit MEGT that monitors the trainee's progress, and is supported by the Australian Government. The salary is paid at the National Training Wage, which is "determined by the highest level of schooling completed by the successful applicant."

The MCA Australia's director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, sent ArtAsiaPacific a full statement and responses to five questions about its practices and policies in light of Lai's allegations. A separate article addressing the museum's response will be published on August 4.

Kaitlin Hao is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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