Hazardous conditions for art and people at Mexic-Arte, say museum workers

Photos posted online show mold, exposed wiring, rodent traps where art is stored and staff must work

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Former staffers from Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum have turned to social media to bring attention to what they call hazardous working conditions and other issues at the downtown museum.

The group launched the Instagram account @changemexicartemuseum on May 11, posting images and video showing mold growth on walls and ceilings, exposed wiring, leaking ceilings, holes in floors, rodent traps and feces, and piles of clutter. One image showed a gaping hole in the ceiling directly above a public restroom.

Another image showed part of the 1500-piece collection donated by Juan Antonio Sandoval (1946–2021), a specialist for art and Chicanx studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, with the caption “Mexic-Arte Museum now holds this collection laying on the ground of a condemned floor in a pest infested room that includes rats, carpet beetles, Powderpost beetles and temperatures that reach over 100 degrees.”

 

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The group also used Mexic-Arte’s official Facebook page, posting to the museum’s nearly 20,000 followers. “We demand an apology to the Austin community for failing to provide a safe space for visitors,” wrote the group. They also demanded all staff be paid “a living wage and receive healthcare.” They also accused museum director Sylvia Orozco of creating a hostile work environment.

Sightlines was able to verify the images — all of which had been taken in the last several weeks, and all of which came from museum’s upper two floors. In 1993, those floors failed a city inspection and have since not been open to the public.

The museum’s publicly accessible gallery and gift shop are on the first floor.

Several individuals behind ChangeMexicArteMuseum — verified by Sightlines as either current or recently former museum staff — said that along with others, they were assigned to work stations on the second and third floors. One person reported seeing rats in the building. Another said: “We shouldn’t have had to work there. It was dangerous. My lungs would hurt because of the mold.”

The individuals requested anonymity fearing retaliation from the museum’s board and director. In the last month six staff members have either been fired or quit. All are Latinx.

Mexic-Arte Museum.
The building that houses Mexic-Arte Museum dates to 1869. Its upper two floors failed a city inspection in 1993 and have since not been open to the public though staff has been assigned to work there. Photo courtesy Creative Commons Code.

Multiple engineering and architectural studies over the years have found the three-story building to be in poor condition. Originally constructed in 1869, the structure does not meet art preservation standards for temperature and humidity control as set by the American Association of Museums yet the space is used for art storage.

The ChangeMexicArteMuseum group called on Orozco to prioritize “the conservation/care of the collection.”

Multiple attempts to reach Orozco and Mexic-Arte board president Michael Torres went unanswered.

Orozco was one of three artists who co-founded Mexic-Arte in 1984. She has led the museum since then.

Group members also demanded more transparency in operations from Orozco and the board. One individual said they had been hired with the promise of health insurance only to learn later the museum offers staff no such benefits. “There’s no human relations person on staff, there’s no accountant on staff, there’s no accountability for anything,” one person said.

Additionally, one former staff member said that the museum had failed to refund tickets to the museum’s 2020 Taste of Mexico fundraiser after it had been cancelled due to the pandemic. When the museum recently restaged the event, it prevented staff from contacting previous ticket holders about refunds or re-issue of the tickets.

Since the pandemic, Mexic-Arte has received multiple grants from the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). Mexic-Arte was awarded $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The museum also received $75,000 from the Mid-America Arts Alliance COVID relief fund, and $100,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Futures Fund, an COVID emergency grant program.

And in 2021, Mexic-Arte received $1 million from Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Members of the ChangeMexicArteMuseum group said that had they had reported the building’s condition numerous times to the Occupational Safety and Health and Administration (OSHA).

“At one point we were calling OSHA daily, but they said the could never get in contact with the museum’s director to gain access to the building,” said one individual, who also said complaints were made to various city of Austin departments.

The city of Austin purchased the building at 419 Congress Avenue on Mexic-Arte’s behalf in 2001, using $740,000 from the city’s general fund to do so. Mexic-Arte also has $20 million in voter-approved city bond money for the rehabilitation of its building. The museum has multiple contracts and agreements with the city.

However in 2020, the Office of the City Auditor found that despite having had some of the bond money for years, the museum had failed to start any improvement project and the city had failed to exercise enough oversight to compel the museum to comply.

Related: ‘Audit finds city oversight of Mexic-Arte lax’

Group members expressed frustration that, as one of the few places emerging Latinx museum professionals could gain experience, mismanagement and poor work conditions meant that ultimately Mexic-Arte ended up a disservice to the museum profession.

“(Working at a museum) is not just a job,” said one individual. “We believe in the mission of the museum and what it could be for the community.”


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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