MoM’s ‘Amazon vs Microsoft’ exhibit sparks controversy

The show was meant to extend a hand to artistic tech workers. But to many in the Seattle arts community, it was a slap in the face.

White man with long dark hair and dark t-shirt stands in a white room full of art on the walls

Museum of Museum’s director Greg Lundgren, photographed in 2020. (Agueda Pacheco Flores/Crosscut)

“Cringe.” “Tone Deaf.” “Biggest yikes ever.” Clown emoji. A Friday, July 15 afternoon Instagram post by Seattle contemporary art center Museum of Museums had drawn a torrent of reactions. And the commenters were largely in agreement: The plan to showcase artwork made only by people working for Amazon and Microsoft? Not good.

For Museum of Museums founder Greg Lundgren, the “Amazon vs Microsoft” call for art — featuring a cartoon of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates with boxing gloves on, a spoof of a 1980s art poster by Warhol and Basquiat — was meant to extend a hand to people in the tech sector. But for many local artists, it felt like a slight. Why did Amazon and Microsoft employees, who can apply for any other art call like other artists, need a special exhibit? “There are so many artists being actively priced out by these companies …[who] you could be highlighting instead,” one commenter wrote.

The call for art didn’t just hit a nerve, says local writer and curator Sharon Arnold — it hit the spinal cord. “I think the community has animosity towards tech workers, because they represent gentrification and an abject refusal to participate in the arts,” Arnold says, whether or not that is actually the case. “So it's a bit of a slap in the face to present an exhibition of the very people who collectively don't seem …. to support us.” 

By the end of the weekend, the Instagram post had racked up hundreds of comments. It felt, as one commenter described it, like Lundgren had set off a bomb in the art community’s backyard. 

“Amazon vs Microsoft,” while clickbait-y in its name and cover art, was not actually a competition. It was a prompt meant to kickstart a nuanced discussion about the complicated relationship between regional artists and our two largest tech employers and maybe break some stereotypes around what a “tech worker” is, Lundgren says. He knew it would be a hot button to push but never expected this much blowback. “It was supposed to be a lot more playful, a lot more lighthearted. And it just got heavy really, really quick,” he says.

On Monday, July 18, he announced in a new post that the show would be canceled, writing that “rightly or wrongly, I thought that the most mighty economic engine to support local art was the tens of thousands of people employed by high tech in this city,” but that he “heard loud and clear that this was not the way to have this conversation and that the big tech should not be viewed as the underwriters of our future health and vibrancy.” 

The call for art and its cancellation have spawned so many responses and comments elsewhere on the social media app — both in support of and against — that it can be dizzying to track. The comments reveal the pain of a struggling art community, as well as deep fissures in how artists and art advocates think the sector should engage with criticism, tech and philanthropy. 

So did Lundgren succeed in his original goal for the exhibit, namely to “hold deeper conversations around the impact and future roles of technology companies in our region”?

Not really, says Arnold, who has been writing on this very topic for years, organizing talks and creating subscription boxes with their now-shuttered art gallery Bridge Productions. Canceling the show put the brakes on any deeper conversation that could’ve grown from this, they say: “What happened is that [Lundgren] set up a polarity and a divisiveness that he claimed to want to diffuse and then further perpetuated that divisiveness by just pulling the show completely,” Arnold says. “I'm really disappointed because a lot of people offered some really great ideas and solutions and possibilities.”

Some of those solutions offered: make the exhibit free for visitors earning less than the average tech salary in Seattle. Create a show around art and technology and invite the tech community to attend and purchase work. Opt for a sliding scale fee, where higher-wage workers pay more, and give that money to artists who are struggling. Pair artists from tech companies with, say, arts-inclined schoolteachers. 

In a recent phone call, Lundgren didn’t dismiss any of the ideas, nor did he rule out a future show about this topic. He did say the original “Amazon vs Microsoft” show would remain canceled. “I felt like the timeline [the opening date was slated for October 7] was not enough time to do a major revisit,” he says. “What is going away is doing a show called ‘Amazon versus Microsoft.’ What is going away is doing a survey of tech workers between those two companies. Any retooling would be just a different show.” 

The Museum of Museums (Agueda Pacheco Flores/Crosscut)

Not just ‘tech bros’

Beverly Aarons, a local artist, writer and game developer, was also disappointed the show wasn’t re-envisioned instead of canceled. Why not specifically craft the call for the people working in tech who don’t make much money? “Microsoft works with a lot of agencies to bring people in temporarily … to work in their various departments,” Aarons says. “A lot of those people, they’re not all tech bros, they’re not all developers developing databases or [making] big money,” she says. “In fact, in my job there as a game tester, I was making barely more than minimum wage at the time.” 

While Lundgren included those workers, including delivery drivers, in his original call, many commenters noted that a majority of those people, working 40+ hours a week, likely didn’t have much free time and resources to devote to art, increasing the risk that you’d end up with art by a majority of highly paid men (who are already overrepresented in the art world at large). 

“There's no situation where the show was going to be a bunch of white man's art on the walls,” Lundgren says, adding that the tech world is more diverse than people may think. The companies’ self-published 2021 diversity stats back this up: While Microsoft’s staff and Amazon’s corporate workforce skew overwhelmingly male — nearly 70% — about half of both companies’ American workforce is white, and about 35% of their workers identify as Asian, but LatinX and Black people are generally underrepresented. (Notable: Amazon’s workforce at large, when counting its warehouse and other workers, is much more racially diverse.)

The call for art didn’t necessarily allow for that nuance, says local art curator Lele Barnett: “From my experience, I would say the average local Microsoft employee is a man from India who has kids, lives on the Eastside, and sends money home to his family,” she wrote in an email. “The average employee I'm imagining would be surprised, saddened, and offended to read this call [for art]. I don't think he would feel welcome in this exhibition.” 

Seattle independent art curator Susanō Hideko Surface has noticed that people tend to make assumptions about tech workers, many of whom are brown and/or immigrants. “Some of the commentary about the ‘us versus them’ actually feels quite xenophobic to me,” Surface says. “I would encourage people to be conscientious about that.” 

Sarah Maker also glimpsed some “blanket statements” in the comment section. A local book artist and the owner of the Georgetown coworking art space Editions who works for Salesforce, Maker has contracted with Microsoft and Amazon in the past. She says that while she largely agreed with the tenor of the conversation about art, access and privilege, she found some things people said about tech workers a little upsetting. 

“Many of the comments were suggesting ‘these tech workers can't possibly be real artists. They're just rich people who are dallying in art because they have money to throw at getting art supplies and iPads’ or whatever,” Maker says. “You know, I’ve dedicated my life to art. The only reason I’m in tech is because art does not pay enough money to support my family.”

Thousands of millionaires 

While the debate can get a bit intractable — given the way the call was crafted, what kind of, and whose art, would have been on view? Do tech workers need “humanizing,” as Lundgren has said? Can you separate the tech worker from big tech? — almost everyone in the conversation agrees on Lundgren’s premise: Seattle’s art sector, and its artists, are struggling. 

“Over the 25 years that I've ran independent art spaces in Seattle, I've watched our art community shrink, galleries go away, artists leave town, art critics lose their job,” Lundgren wrote on Instagram. “.... how DO we protect and grow our artists when we are all struggling?”

It is here – the approach, the solution – where opinions diverge. 

For Lundgren, who has long fashioned himself a bit of a provocateur, and never shied away from talking about the relationship between art and money, the answer has largely been found in a sort of hybrid model of philanthropy and for-profit businesses that sometimes operate more like nonprofits (including MoM, of which he is the sole owner). A potential solution, he says, is fostering a larger audience that can support regional art both in terms of foot traffic and cash — and that includes wealthy tech workers. (While the museum has never received donations or any other monetary support from Amazon or Microsoft, Lundgren says he’s not opposed to it.) 

“The reality is that we have hundreds, thousands of millionaires, thousands and thousands of people with the resources to support our community,” he says. “So why isn’t that happening? … Part of the reason is that our technology sector and our art sector are not communicating well. They're not playing well together. … One of the ways to help correct that trajectory — one of the ways I thought would bolster our economy — was greater dialogue and greater participation between technology companies, technology workers and our community.” 

Systemic issues 

By now, it should be clear that it’s foolish to keep waiting for the tech industry to save the arts sector, says longtime Seattle arts writer, advocate and artist Kim Selling. Selling compares it to the Liza Minnelli Cabaret song "Maybe This Time.” “Maybe this time, she’ll get lucky, maybe this time, her life will turn around, her lover won’t leave her,” Selling says. 

The call for art, Selling says, wrongly assumed that the arts sector just hasn’t “reached out to big tech enough.” Overall, the idea felt very “both sides,” says Selling, who now works in tech themselves. “It almost felt like a Democratic Call to Action email where politicians are like: ‘We just haven't tried hard enough.’ ‘We just have to reach across the aisle’ and it's like: ‘No, singing Kumbaya doesn't fix the city … a few people in tech deciding they like art now is not going to change major systemic issues.” 

Those issues run deep. A 2019 “Creative Economy” report noted that, while Seattle is home to the highest-paid computer workers in the nation, its arts workers were the lowest-paid in the country. 

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, a person employed in computer systems design and related services in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area made on average $182,675 a year, while people working in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector made about a quarter of that, $48,908 on average. And while many tech workers were insulated from pandemic layoffs, people working in Seattle’s arts and entertainment sectors were proportionally the hardest hit. They still are: Employment in the arts and entertainment sector remains at 24 percent below pre-pandemic levels, lagging behind most other industries due in part to inflation. 

Seattle musician, writer and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo says that’s why the call for art hit such a nerve. “The way that people reacted, it's an anger that comes from people not knowing how they're going to pay their bills, not knowing if they're going to be able to stay in the city that they grew up in, not knowing if they're going to be able to have a sense of community because everyone has to move somewhere else. That's a really painful thing.” 

The anger is not personal, Oluo notes. “This has nothing against those [tech] employees. … People have to work to make a living. People in my family have worked for Amazon, Microsoft,” Oluo says. “But to present art by these companies without very specifically diving into the extreme damage and the deterioration of the art community in the city at the hands of those corporations … it’s a really hard time to stomach that with everything that artists in the city are going through.”

Philanthropy, Oluo says, won’t make up for the damage done. Even if some nonprofits or artists are getting funding from the company — “it’s nothing compared to what should be given,” Oluo says. 

“What we need to happen,” says Selling, “is for massive businesses that should be paying massive amounts of taxes, to [actually] pay their taxes. We need those taxes to go into city funds that provide housing and job opportunities, accessible health care and things that people need on a street level.”

Janet Galore, a longtime Seattle artist and co-owner of Beacon Hill art space The Grocery Studios, who also works for major tech companies, agrees. “What artists need is affordable housing, places to make art … places to exhibit art, people writing about art,” Galore says. “We need livable, affordable spaces for the huge community of people who aren't the face of the arts —all the people working behind the scenes, and doing the lighting, the audio setup, the video, helping with programming. … We also need the ability for people who are interested in those kinds of roles to get educated without getting in debt.” 

“Art vs. Tech,” Galore adds, is a red herring. “I think as soon as you start saying, ‘there's these two sides, and how do we bring them together?’ That's totally the wrong conversation,” she says. “Focusing on fundamental shifts needed to make a sustainable creative ecosystem is the primary thing we need to do.” 

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