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SAIC Solidarity Student Letter

Below is a portion of one of the letters published by students, faculty, and staff of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC): the Black Faculty, Alumni, and Community Supporters Letter; the SAIC Solidarity Staff Letter; and the SAIC Solidarity Student Letter. What you’ll read below is the SAIC Solidarity Student Letter, which was started by Nadia Frierson, Toni Ivory, and Nicholas Zepeda, a Black and Latinx student-artist-trio, who are “standing in solidarity to dismantle implicit and overt racism rooted within the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” They started with a 13-page letter to their school’s president, Elissa Tenny, calling out performative “anti-racist” initiatives–a letter that has sparked campus-wide attention. Their efforts have brought an overwhelming amount of support via the Instagram account @dismantle_saic, which has become a space for communities to voice support, present demands, and ask questions. Using their inside experience from working in the school’s admissions department, the student trio are pushing for accountability and transparency from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago regarding residual layers of institutional white supremacy.

All of these letters are in conversation with and building upon one another, so we ask that you take some time to read each one and sign your name in support if you’re moved to do so.

Sixty Inches From Center is a platform co-run by and for Chicago and Midwest artists, curators, cultural workers, and advocates, including those who work at and attend SAIC. We are committed to interrogating exclusive art historical canons and uplifting neglected perspectives in spaces of knowledge-creation because doing so is an essential step toward creating more inclusive future canons–ones that have Black, Indigenous, and Latinx artists, and artists of color at their core. Therefore, we support these letters as actions that get us closer to the kind of cultural landscape that isn’t just a figment of our dreams, but is an adjacent reality that we create for and with our communities each and every day.

In the words of the organizers, “We need to put the force of our community’s creativity and innovation behind actively dismantling the systems of oppression within our own institution. The pattern of empty platitudes and gestures is no longer acceptable — we need to act now.”

Image created by Hanna Field.


To:

  • Elissa Tenny, President of School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Rose Milkowski, Vice President of Enrollment Management
  • Jefferson Pinder, Interim Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs
  • Additional School of the Art Institute of Chicago Leadership

From: ​

  • Nadia Frierson, Admissions Student Ambassador Coordinator, B.F.A. 2020 Fiber & Material Studies
  • ​​Nicholas Zepeda, Admissions Student Ambassador Coordinator, B.F.A. 2021 Painting & Drawing and Chicago Scholar
  • Toni Ivory, Admissions Student Ambassador, B.F.A. 2023 Painting & Drawing, Interdisciplinary Studies

For immediate action, we request:
Establish and schedule a series of meetings with Elissa Tenny (SAIC President), Rose Milkowski (​Vice President of Enrollment Management)​, and Jefferson Pinder (Interim Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs) with Student and Counselor delegates.. Meeting details should be agreed upon by July 1st, with a meeting no later than July 10th with additional results-based meetings on a consistent schedule.

  • Student delegates: Nadia Frierson, Nicholas Zepeda, and Toni Ivory
  • Counselor delegates: Jackson Moore, Kate Perryman, and Sheika

AS A COLLECTIVE OF STUDENT WORKERS IN THE ADMISSIONS DEPARTMENT, WE HAVE CONCERNS REGARDING THE INSTITUTION’S COMPLIANCE TO TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY. THIS LEADS US TO BELIEVE THAT THE ABILITY FOR SAIC TO DEVELOP CONCRETE ACTIONS TOWARDS ANTI-RACISM IS COMPROMISED.

These concerns are in response to the following:

  • A growing collection of over 165 statements collected anonymously regarding individuals’experiences with SAIC via google forms.
  • The attached email chain regarding the announcement and passing of Art and Technology StudiesProfessor Lynika Strozier. This correspondence, as seen on ​page 14​, is between students and Christopher Baker (​Department Chair/Professor of Art and Technology studies​), and includes Felice Dublon (​Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs​). It was also sent to the newly appointed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director for Academic Affairs: Jefferson Pinder.
  • The apology from Elissa Tenny sent on June 28th, 2020 that both acknowledges errors in the announcement of her death the presence of systemic racism at SAIC: “​Given Lynika’s passing from complications due to COVID-19, and knowing that the virus disproportionately affects people of color like Lynika, a Black woman, the inconsistent distribution of the message has raised further concerns. Our feelings of grief over the impact of this terrible pandemic and anger that systemic racism make some of us more vulnerable are real, and those feelings were exacerbated by the poor handling of the message. The messaging error was unintentional, and I am sorry.​”, but doesn’t announce an investigation into those “inconsistencies.”
  • “​Art Institute of Chicago​ staff are demanding increased transparency, accountability, and racial equity from museum leadership, citing concerning decision-making in regard to a new round of institution-wide layoffs and preparations to reopen in late July. An open letter signed by 186 employees—nearly 30 percent of the museum’s staff—urges that decisions during “this chaotic moment” not be made as they currently are, by a “very small group of the most highly paid staff in the museum with privileged identities.” The letter, which was obtained by ARTnews, was sent last Friday to seven policy heads, including president James Rondeau, deputy director for curatorial affairs Sarah Guernsey, and vice president of museum development Eve Jeffers. Several of those who signed the letter, which also offers alternatives to layoffs, have since been laid off.​” published via ArtNews on June 27th, 2020.

    https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/art-institute-of-chicago-layoffs-open-letter-1202692804/
  • The following article published by ​FNews Magazine​ on March 10th, 2020 outlining the events and institutional correspondence surrounding Martin Berger’s use of a racial slur during an SAIC presentation. It includes interviews conducted with students, staff, and faculty that express concerns regarding the relationship between confidentiality and accountability involved in multiple stages of Berger’s promotion: detailing the institution’s public and administrative response. The article shows how this situation continues to inspire a collective distrust in SAIC as an institution.

    https://fnewsmagazine.com/2020/03/when-the-dean-said-a-slur-and-then-got-promoted/
  • Interviews from the linked ​FNews Magazine​ article detailing the growing feelings of “disappoint[ment] by the lack of accountability” which came from students, faculty, and staff that followed the open forum which occurred on October 22nd, 2019 (​13 months after the delivery of the letter)​ . Additionally, it states that SAIC sought a third-party moderator despite the letter’s request for moderation and negotiation of event planning from the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for said forum. The letter included signatures from 55 individuals.

    The Letter:
    https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1DeQG8AB0nNV1SnshJm15OCRfzucjPGa_DezBnPj7HA8/viewfor m?edit_requested=true&fbzx=2767069301105330203
  • The apology emailed to all students on June 26th, 2020 from Martin Berger that addresses the petition, open forum, and his use of the racial slur during an SAIC presentation and concludes with a commitment to “ensure funding and implementation of the structural changes that emerge from their [​Jefferson Pinder and his presidential antiracist advisory committee​] work”. Berger does not explicitly acknowledge the confidentiality surrounding his promotion or prompt an investigation into the individuals involved.
  • Our interpreted escalation of concerns from student government that Berger and his team are not satisfying the demands of the student-body are the result of the discussed quality of their past meetings as described by Berger’s statement: ​a​ ​frank conversation in which they articulated frustration with my and the School’s lack of response to the petition and its underlying concerns”​) be created and released. The petition has continued to gain signatures.
  • A case including Former student [redacted] V. former faculty John Phillips, former Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright, Former Director of Student Conflict Resolution Amanda Dasilva, current Vice President for Human Resources/Chief Human Resources Officer/Diversity Advisory Group Member Michael Nicolai, current Chair of Faculty Beth Wright, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago was filed on 06/18/18.
    • The following statement is included in the case: “When [redacted] was a student at SAIC in 2015-2016, she was repeatedly subjectedto extreme sex discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, retaliation, and other forms of emotional and physical abuse and injury by John Phillips, a member of the faculty at SAIC and [redacted]’s direct advisor. Before he was appointed as [redacted]’s advisor, Phillips had previously sexually victimized other students at SAIC. SAIC officials knew of Phillips’ past actions, and were aware that [redacted] was receiving services from SAIC as a student with disabilities”. The Chicago Sun-Times article states: “The school fired Phillips in August 2016.”


Chicago Sun-Times article:
https://chicago.suntimes.com/2018/6/19/18394637/woman-sues-school-of-art-institute-ex-tea cher-over-extreme-sex-discrimination

Case files:
https://www.docketbird.com/court-documents/Doe-v-School-of-the-Art-Institute-of-Chicago- et-al/COMPLAINT-filed-by-Jane-Doe-Jury-Demand-Filing-fee-400-receipt-number-0752-14 601482/ilnd-1:2018-cv-04240-00001

Lisa Wainwright resigned as Dean of Faculty and is currently employed as a Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism to teach the following courses in the Fall 2020 semester:

  1. ARTHI 4155 – Pop Art and It’s Legacy
  2. ARTHI 5002 – Graduate Survey of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The institutional response and content of these correspondences lead us to believe that SAIC is ​neglecting and failing​ to enforce its policies of transparency and accountability across the institution. In addition to the investigation of involved staff, SAIC should investigate those who engage with policies of sharing the deaths of members of the SAIC community to avoid and punish curatorial practices institution-wide.

The full letter includes a list of over 15 key recommendations, initiatives and demands. Read the full letter here.