[UPDATE June 2011: This project has been detailed in a new book, The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, edited by Janet C. Marstine, in a chapter on "Museum Censorship" by Christopher B. Steiner .]
By Majime Sugiru
At the event we announced in our previous blogpost at the de Young Museum last Friday night, our art work was CENSORED by administrators at the de Young Museum, working in concert with their counterparts at the Asian Art Museum.
Consider the following:
1. This was an open call juried show. Our work was selected by the de Young’s jury, and I was invited to show our work there. Six weeks passed between the time of the invite, and the day of the show. During that time there was no indication from the de Young of any problem with our work.
The whole point of our submitting this project to show in a one-night art event at this museum was to be able to present “institutionally sanctioned institutional critique,” and once approved, that’s how we promoted it. We were impressed that they chose to invite us because we thought it showed a real openness to being part of a discourse around issues of representation and museum practice and an admirable willingness to be play a constructive role in honest civic dialogue on the part of a major city-funded museum.
So we thought.
2. Their order to remove a large portion of our installation came about one hour prior to the show’s opening. They waited to act until after we had completed several hours of installation work. They never questioned the work when we arrived or while we worked, or any time before this. They waited until the work was done, and there was no time for us to respond. They waited until after we had invested the time, energy and materials in developing and producing this work over the past six weeks.
3. This show was put on by the de Young’s Education Department, so the decision to ban our work ultimately is the responsibility of their Director of Education. But she did not act alone, but rather in concert with the de Young’s PR Director and their counterparts at the Asian Art Museum.
4. None of these directors even looked at our work. Instead they stood about 30 feet away, on the phone with their cronies at the Asian Art Museum. Their decision was made entirely among themselves, and not based at all on any substantive evaluation of our work.
5. They refused to talk to me, instead sent their staff to do their bidding. When I later demanded to speak to the parties responsible for this decision I was denied access. (By the way, this is exactly how people who abuse power and know they are in the wrong behave.)
6. Their reasons for why a central part of our wall installation had to be removed:
- “It’s not art.” The ignorance speaks for itself. Obviously this comes not from a member of the de Young’s curatorial staff, but it does come from an educator. R. Mutt spins in grave.
- “The Asian Art Museum is our sister museum, so it has to come down.” They knew that when their jury selected my work, invited us to show, included us in the program six weeeks prior. Why only now, in the final hour, as they spoke on the phone with their counterparts at the Asian Art Museum, did this become a deciding factor in the gutting of our art work?
- “Because of our sister relationship, this would create bad feelings.” What would create bad feelings? They didn’t even look at our work to identify what it was they were ordering removed.
- “It’s not the same as what you proposed.” The initial proposal included a 36″ x 24″ poster which did not appear in the finished installation, but all changes were pre-approved per the de Young’s protocol. The finished piece consisted of racks of 9×4″ rack cards and documentation of the discourse generated by this intervention. The material they ordered removed had nothing to do with poster or no poster; it was the documentation.
7. Censored Material: Our wall installation consisted of racks with rack cards, and documentation of the intervention in the form of all the media coverage (reviews, feature articles, blog posts, interviews, dialogues). The documentation consisted of the broad spectrum of thoughtful debate, by parties other than ourselves, generated by our web+rack card intervention.
- Why was this banned? This is open dialogue, plain and simple.
- Why would the presence of this material create bad feelings?
- How do you order the removal of this material without even knowing what it consists of?
If they had actually looked at what was up on the wall they would have seen articles from sources [full hyperlinked list here] such as the San Francisco Chronicle (with reader comments, many highly critical of our work), Frog in a Well (Japan History Group Blog, by Japanese Studies scholars), PMJS Listserv (premodern Japanese Studies scholars listserv), a blog by one of the Asian Art Museum’s own volunteers, media blogs such as sfist and CBS5, a culture blog from Korea (uniformly critical of our work and not the museum’s), and a Japanese American online newspaper article that questioned our work as well as the museum’s, Asian American culture blogs, and at the very bottom, a major museum curator’s response to our work.
- What of curatorial integrity? They didn’t even look at our work themselves. They spoke on the phone with the Asian Art Museum instead.
- What of human decency? The decision-making director(s) refused to even speak to me, and I was denied access to them.
- What of professional ethics? They waited until after we had finished installing our work to say anything.
And what they said was take it down, period. (check back later for additional coverage.)
***Visuals of the project’s development and photos at the de Young of before/after coming soon POSTED HERE***
Letter Writing: please address concerns to
John E. Buchanan, Jr., Director, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
c/o de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Thank you for all of the outpouring of support.