museums as political weapons

The recent decision by the National Portrait Gallery to remove artist David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from its “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition has, quite expectedly, caused a a flood of reaction.  Everyone from bloggers to media watchdogs to the Catholic League have weighed in on the video’s merit, or lack thereof. With all of the hand-wringing and proselytizing regarding whether the four-minute video (only 11 seconds of which depicts Christian imagery)  is “art” or “hate speech” or its removal  “censorship”, the larger point is lost: Why this exhibition? Why this video? Why now?

don’t ask, don’t tell

Surely it’s pure coincidence that this controversy presents itself in the midst of the Pentagon’s release of its report on repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on homosexual and bisexual men and women openly serving in the United States military, right?  The chief finding of that survey is “a solid majority of Service members believe repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will not have a negative impact on their ability to conduct their military mission.”  Everyone knows that this last vestige of legal segregation is on its way out the door. What better way to mobilize the opposition than by juxtaposing gays in the military with gays in federally-funded museums? See what happens when we let them work out in the open? Chaos!

there’s a new sheriff in town
One of the loudest opponents of Hide/Seek is U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston (R – GA).  A member of the all-powerful House Committee on Appropriations, he is openly bucking for the top spot of Chairman. With stars in his eyes, he has single-handedly taken up the charge of ensuring federal fiscal responsibility in these challenging economic times. He has gone so far as to call for an investigation of the Smithsonian’s funding (his first act of business once he assumes the throne Chairmanship, undoubtedly).

Absolutely we should look at their funding.  If they’ve got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget. — Jack Kingston, via Fox News.

Take heart, Smithsonian employees, Mr. Kingston has your back! Once he dismantles the world’s largest museum and research complex, he can continue to vote against extending unemployment benefits for the jobless.

fear mongering & funding

Arts and culture under assault by the U.S. Government is nothing new. Whether via public condemnation, reduction or outright elimination of financial support, many politicians on both sides of the aisle have gladly picked up this political football in an effort to further their own agendas and propagate the idea that government should not be in the business of  supporting the arts.  Recent examples [all emphasis mine]:

  • 1956: U.S. Congressman George Dondero (R – MI) likens modern and contemporary art to Communism, writing: “Modern art is a term that is nauseating to me. We are in complete accord in our thinking regarding this subject and its connection with communism. No one is attempting to stifle self-expression, but we are attempting to protect and preserve legitimate art as we have always known it in the United States.”
  • 1988: Senator Jesse Helms  (R – NC) rails against the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.  While not a federally-funded museum, the Corcoran received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency. When the museum’s leadership caved under the pressure and nixed the exhibition, Helms was dismayed that he no longer had an axe to grind. Not one to be outfoxed, he switched his focus by introducing an appropriations amendment to forbid the NEA from funding projects deemed “obscene or derogatory.”  The Helms amendment ultimately failed but did result in new restrictions to NEA funding.
  • 1994-1995: Veterans groups, the Air Force Association and a bipartisan delegation of 81 Congressmen protest the National Air and Space Museum’s planned exhibition of the  Enola Gay, the B-29 airplane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, claiming that it portrayed the Japanese as victims rather than military aggressors. Despite pleas from historians, repeated changes were made to the Enola Gay exhibition. Ultimately Dr. Martin Harwit resigned his position as the museum’s Director before the revised exhibition opened stating, “I believe that nothing less than my stepping down from the directorship will satisfy the museum’s critics and allow the museum to move forward with important new projects.”

history will teach us nothing

To me, the most striking thing about this “controversy” is despite having past lessons to draw from, the National Portrait Gallery swiftly removed the contested artwork while simultaneously reiterating its belief that A Fire in My Belly is not sacrilegious (with the full support of the American Association of Museums in direct opposition of its strategic plan) and ignoring its obligation to honor the intentions of the exhibition’s private funders.

Boiled down: We stand by this art, but we’re not willing to make waves to do so. 

With howls of protest ringing in his ears, National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan, in a phone interview with Jeffrey Brown, continued to defend the action but admitted “in retrospect, there may have been better ways to do this, but we certainly wanted to focus the attention on the exhibition as a whole.”

It’s shameful that this museum’s actions have only achieved the opposite.

Do you agree with the National Portrait Gallery’s decision? What is a museum’s role concerning censorship?


are museums guilty of navel gazing?

If a museum conference happens and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The 104th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums just wrapped up in Los Angeles, California.  Although I couldn’t afford to attend physically or virtually, I avidly consumed hundreds of attendees’ blog posts and tweets detailing the proceedings.  But with over 5,000 museum professionals from all over the world descending upon the City of Angels, why the media blackout?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of professional development.  The best practices, information, collaboration and scholarship that result from regional, national and international conferences  are invaluable to the museum industry.  But a common thread exists among these gatherings:  museums talk to each other about each other–and that’s where the conversation stops.

Where are the press releases announcing the findings of these meetings? Where are the articles regarding the latest groundbreaking museum interactive? Where are the stories detailing how museums are bridging educational gaps in struggling school districts?  Why the heck aren’t museums tooting their collective horns to the outside world?

With 60 AAM-accredited museums in California alone (including the Granddaddy of them all, the Getty), their namesake annual gathering didn’t merit a mention by the Los Angeles Visitor & Conventions Bureau or the Los Angeles Times’ exhaustive Culture Monster.   A cursory Google search finds some announcements, but they are overwhelmingly posted by organizations and individuals related to the museum industry.  (I did find one art fan’s write-up here.)

During a recent conversation with three museum directors regarding the current state of the field  (Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Maxwell Anderson, Julián Zugazagoitia of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Selma Holo, USC Fisher Museum of Art) Sarah Spitz, of KCRW‘s Politics of Culture, bemoaned the lack of “mainstream” media coverage for an event that she deemed “quite stellar.”

Although Ms. Holo mentioned hearing a notice on her local National Public Radio affiliate that morning, I think Mr. Zugazagoitia was spot on when he described museums as “very inward looking sometimes.”  He urged museums to “engage major communications firms or media in joining some of these sessions and make it public what we’re discussing” while noting that “there are very, very many relevant conversations that are addressing societal issues at large that happen to be reflected through the prism of the organizations that we lead.”

[For the sake of full disclosure, I must mention that Mr. Zugazagoitia (or JZ as I have affectionately nicknamed him) is the incoming Director & CEO of the museum where I am employed.  I wanted to shout “Amen!” when I heard that remark.]

It is my belief that museums are entirely too modest when it comes to self-promotion.  They have no problem with proudly displaying their wares when fundraising, but what better way to raise funds and awareness  (and possibly attendance) than to make sure that your programs,  events and staff accomplishments are prominently covered by local, regional and/or international media?

Museum expansions, acquisitions, deaccessions, theft and  scandal are covered ad nauseum.   While those subjects are definitely worthy of attention, news about how museums have become culture centers, community gathering places, industry think tanks and educational hubs is sorely lacking.  For that, museums must accept some of the blame.

Rather than limiting themselves to inside conversations, museums should invite their respective communities into the clique.