A row has broken out in the international art world over the departures of Tanya Barson, the English curator, and Pablo Martínez, the head of programmes, from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (Macba).
The pair departed on 16 July, the day after Elvira Dyangani Ose, the director of the Showroom in London, was appointed as the museum’s new director.
Barson and Martínez were informed by email that, as a result of restructuring, their positions no longer existed. Barson, a former curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London, believes they just wanted her out.
“I strongly believe that a major motivation for the restructuring was a way of effecting our departure from the museum because we had permanent contracts,” she told the Observer.
The museum, designed by the American architect Richard Meier, opened in 1995 in the working-class neighbourhood of El Raval. The permanent collection of about 5,000 works dating from the mid-20th century includes sculptures by Eduardo Chillida and Anthony Caro, and works by Keith Haring, Paul Klee and the photographer Brassaï.
About 700 people from the Spanish and international art world have signed a petition condemning the manner of the departures and the lack of consultation over the restructuring of the museum’s management.
The incident prompted two other staff to resign, the philosopher Marina Garcés and the anthropologist Yayo Herrero, who issued a statement describing the departures as “a sad step that once again shows no consideration for staff and students”.
Mark Godfrey, the former curator of the Tate Modern, was among international figures who spoke out. He wrote on Instagram: “You both contributed incredibly to Macba and one would have assumed that the city and government would have been so proud of these achievements.”
Donna de Salvo, the senior adjunct curator at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, also posted, calling it “a classic bureaucratic manoeuvre with no thought or respect for the dedicated professionals for whom this is more than a job”.
Some staff at the museum say they are dismayed at the manner of Barson and Martínez’s departure but add that neither were popular among their colleagues and that Barson in particular was aloof and was never really integrated, either on a professional or a personal level.
Barson accepts that the cultural differences were sometimes challenging but also believes that Catalan cultural institutions appoint outsiders for their prestige but then have difficulty accommodating them.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t encounter elements of xenophobia,” she said. “There is real resentment towards someone from outside. There are only a few people from outside Catalonia in the team and only a couple from outside Spain. The phrase ‘Spain is different’ was spoken quite frequently, sometimes with a bit of irony.
“There’s a culture of denunciation in Spain,” she said. “Instead of coming to me with problems, people would go behind my back and talk to someone else about it, but then neither party would come to me and say this was an issue.”
In a statement, Macba rejected all of Barson’s allegations, including that of xenophobia. It asserts that the museum has clear protocols for dealing with any form of discrimination or discontent, which it says Barson never availed herself of, and that Macba encourages freedom of expression, conciliation and equality and takes pride in its international outlook.
The statement also asserts that the restructuring was not imposed from above but was the fruit of eight months of discussions and was arrived at by consensus.
Nevertheless, Dyangani Ose, whose appointment as director has been overshadowed by the dispute, admitted that the departures could have been handled better. She said she wanted to refocus the museum towards key issues.
“Macba needs to become a necessary museum, indispensable to citizens’ lives,” she said. “It should be a place where memorable things happen and where people, workers and visitors are cared for. We want to foster a caring and nurturing environment at Macba.”