Criticized for racial inequities and other workplace issues, the Neon Museum finds itself in an unaccustomed glare
Since its founding in 1996, the Neon Museum has established itself as one of Las Vegas’ foremost cultural institutions, a home to treasured artifacts that embody the city’s vivid history: neon signs. It’s a simple mission, really, to protect and preserve iconic neon signs, as well as the stories and people that the signs represent. But recent events and allegations have complicated the museum’s public image, portraying it as an organization ill-equipped to meet the diversity and workplace challenges of the current moment.
The issues of systemic racism brought to the forefront by the George Floyd protests can be especially problematic for museums and other cultural organizations. They are widely presumed to adhere to progressive values and practices, yet often have leadership teams and boards made up primarily of affluent whites. The recent Black Lives Matter movement has sharpened these longstanding criticisms, and the Neon Museum is far from the only institution facing such scrutiny.
It began in late June, with a black square on the museum’s Instagram feed. Around the globe, businesses and nonprofits had posted such squares to express support for racial equality. The Neon Museum had not. When a local artist found that the black square contained not the expected BLM statement, but rather a graphic about museum safety, she reportedly left a comment about racial justice — only to find it restricted. She and fellow artist Justin Favela subsequently determined that the account was restricting or deleting comments related to BLM, Favela says.
A former programs administrator and volunteer coordinator for the Neon Museum, Favela responded with a series of Instagram stories condemning attempts by his former workplace to tokenize Black history and employees rather than addressing BLM. His posts also alluded to the lack of diversity in the museum’s leadership.
“It was not their inaction or silence that made me react,” Favela says. “It was the silencing and deleting of comments on their Instagram. I was done protecting an institution that treated people with little to no respect.”
He says a subsequent phone conversation with Neon Museum CEO Rob McCoy and a couple of board members didn’t allay his concerns, particularly when McCoy rejected Favela’s suggested changes to a draft of the museum’s BLM statement. When it became apparent to him that “management of the Neon Museum does not have the best interest of their staff or community at heart,” he posted “An Open Letter to the Neon Museum” on change.org. In collaboration with former and current staff, Favela outlined the steps he says need to be taken to address the institution’s equity and inclusion problems. Those include robust BLM and inclusivity statements, qualified diversity training, more hiring of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) — and McCoy’s removal.
In response to our interview request, McCoy offered several rebuttal points — including that Favela’s “grievances are with the leadership that preceded me” — but otherwise indicated the museum has nothing to say beyond its previous public statements.
“I was tasked with making the necessary changes so we could move the museum forward,” McCoy said in his email response. “Change management is not easy. ... It comes with risk and reward and a lot of accountability. I’m incredibly proud of what we have accomplished in the last four years and even more proud of what Team Neon has become.”
As of press time, Favela’s change.org petition had gathered more than 1,900 signatures and spawned a related document, “Share Your Neon Museum Workplace Story.”
As a nationally recognized artist and a popular podcast host, Favela may be a prominent critic on his own — but he’s not the only one. Eight former employees, five of whom asked to remain anonymous, have came forward with stories concerning a range of alleged toxic workplace conditions at the museum. Not all of them bear on issues raised by or related to those aired by Favela, but some do.
One employee spoke of McCoy’s repeated comments regarding her skin color. She recounts one instance in which herself and another employee, both Latinx women, were outside in the Neon Boneyard when McCoy allegedly said they were lucky to have “beautiful brown skin,” adding, “the white people would just burn out here.”
“He (McCoy) never knew my name, but he always commented on how tan I was,” she says.
Another employee allegedly used the N-word on multiple occasions, and had a habit of making racist comments to employees of color. Although his actions were reported repeatedly to higher-ups, former employees say he faced no major repercussions before being let go amid a recent round of layoffs.
In June, while the museum had not yet publicly acknowledged BLM protests, a video appeared on the museum’s Instagram in which Tiffany, a museum ambassador and the only Black worker then employed there, described the history of the Moulin Rouge, the historic Black-owned casino. The timing of the video made the request to feature her in it feel tokenizing, according to several former employees. This underscores how easily even a well-intentioned move can turn awkward, and suggests the tricky path institutions have to navigate between doing the right thing and gesturing to the right thing.
At an organization-wide sexual harassment meeting, the museum’s head of HR allegedly carried out a presentation that several former employees who were present describe as shocking. During the meeting, witnesses recall the presenter allegedly suggesting that employees should resolve issues involving sexual misconduct among themselves, so as not to waste company time.
According to the same former workers, the person leading the meeting also said that oftentimes allegations of sexual assault are false, and that what is worse than being sexually harassed or assaulted is someone who’s been falsely accused of doing so. To underscore their point, the presenter reportedly displayed a photo of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his family, reminding employees that “a false accusation ruined this man’s life.”
The human resources executive in question did not reply to a request for comment.
In an email, McCoy offered some bullet points: “Of the museum’s 22 board members, five identify as LGBTQ+, one identifies as Hispanic, one as Black and one as Asian-American. ... The Neon Museum’s front-line staff comprises 58 percent LGBTQ+, people of color and Latinx.”
He also touted the Museum’s artist-in-residence program, which has featured artists from diverse backgrounds, including Favela, Lance Smith, and others. He noted Favela’s involvement in a 2017 bilingual tour program, and said the museum has taken pains to properly contextualize signage — such as a restored sign from Chief Hotel Court which depicts a Native American wearing a war bonnet — now widely considered insensitive.
(Favela notes the irony of the museum using his projects to tout diversity, when, he says, they weren’t particularly well-supported. “It’s a perfect example of what happens with ‘diversity’ programming. They act like it’s an opportunity for us, then it’s not really supported, and then there is no follow-up. Just a way to check off a box.”)
While Favela’s open letter centers on the organization’s alleged disregard for diversity, equity, and inclusion, former employees say the division doesn’t end there. While administrative staff and leadership work in an air-conditioned office space adjacent to the museum, docents face harsh weather conditions, including extreme heat, cold, high winds, and rain while working in the Neon Boneyard. Interpreters often work four-to-eight-hour shifts primarily outdoors.
The signs themselves don’t help. “One hundred fifteen degrees on a weather vane is very different than 115 degrees also surrounded by metal and reflective surfaces,” Lagunas says.
Museum leadership has reportedly told workers that the Boneyard will close if temperatures reach 110 or above. But former employees say that when these temperatures hit, management would often claim that temperatures weren’t as hot as thermometers showed.
“Being out there five days a week, eight hours a day takes a physical toll,” a former interpreter said. “Your body just cannot handle it. I would get home, and I was subhuman.”
Even the signs are suffering from exposure, they say. “One of the signs when I first started less than two years ago, the chapel by the courthouse, was pristine. It looked brand-new. A very large portion of the facade of the sign has peeled away, and it looks like shit now,” a former employee said.
In response to Favela’s letter, the Neon Museum has announced plans to address some of the issues described in his call to action.
In a written statement posted to the museum’s Instagram on July 13, McCoy announced the creation of a Cultural Diversity Council comprising museum staff who will evaluate operations and make recommendations for change. Additionally, the museum’s board of trustees has formed a diversity committee to seek community input and consider ways the museum can progress in its diversity efforts.
Favela has also been in dialogue with the chair of the museum’s board, Mike PeQueen. “(PeQueen) assured me that there would be some changes coming and that they were listening to us,” Favela says. “Three days later, they announced the beginning of a diversity council that would include Neon Museum staff members — the opposite of what was asked for in the letter. I communicated this to Mike: You cannot ask the people that are being oppressed to fix the problem.”
“Justin’s view on this is important to me,” PeQueen says, praising Favela’s passion for the museum and the community. “But I am not sure that I see this one exactly the same way that he does.” While staffers will have a voice in the process, “we are purposely not burdening them with doing the work themselves.” The museum has retained an outside firm to confidentially query current and former workers on the subject, and is forming a board-level committee to study and recommend inclusivity measures in hiring and “the guest experience.”
Former employees who left the museum shortly after the diversity council was formed say it’s too early to tell if it will yield any real changes. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it rings hollow when other instances were never properly addressed,” one former employee said.
Among the diversity efforts outlined in McCoy’s statement were plans to refurbish the Moulin Rouge sign, which is significant, as the Moulin Rouge played a role in ending segregation on the Strip.
Until recently, the Moulin Rouge sign was placed so that its rearranged letters loosely read “In Love,” and was used as a backdrop for photo shoots and weddings. Many felt this use of the sign was disrespectful to its history and significance to the Black community.
“(Refurbishing the sign) is good news, but I think the timing is unfortunate,” a former employee says. “I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to Justin’s online petition, which you could argue is tokenism.”
If any one thing arises clearly from these events, it’s how fraught, complex, and volatile the process of achieving real diversity can be, and how differently progress, or the lack of it, can appear from multiple perspectives.
Will the museum’s efforts — which also include free tours for Title I schools and a pay-what-you-can entrance fee for locals on Tuesdays, combined with outreach to the racially mixed neighborhood around its facility — be enough to stabilize its image? This is a time when a pandemic has deepened the emphasis on worker safety, and a social-justice movement has highlighted the inequities in the standard practices of many institutions. Is the museum’s leadership savvy and motivated enough to legitimately meet the moment?
At the same time, can a campaign for change that unfurls largely on social media really get results of the magnitude that Favela and his cohort want to see (which include McCoy’s removal)? In late August, two months after Favela’s issues with the museum simmered into public view, the Neon Museum was voted best museum of all time by readers of the Las Vegas Weekly. If they were aware of the issues raised by Favela’s petition, that apparently didn’t dampen their love of the Boneyard.
The same is true for the former employees who spoke to Desert Companion. What was undeniable in those conversations was a deep affection and sense of protectiveness for the collection itself, the people who champion it, and the history it represents. “If anything,” Favela wrote about the museum in his open letter, “I am profoundly committed to seeing it improve.”