Censored by de Young Museum

23 11 2009

[UPDATE 11/24/09:  Please go here for our expanded story and lots of pictures.]

[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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.




13 responses

23 11 2009

Your project has hit a nerve and they’re running scared, so they responded in a cowardly and inappropriate fashion.

If it’s any consolation, the fact that the deYoung and AAM are behaving so badly is that your intervention is hugely successful and right on. They’ve stopped playing fair because they know that points you make and the issues you raise are legitimate and they want them to just go away. So please don’t!

Thanks for all that you do–

25 11 2009

Thanks Val. We’re not going anywhere, except forward, conviction strengthened by what happened. And strangely, with gratitude that through their own unwise actions they’ve unwittingly turned what would have been a small one-night installation into yet another intervention gone viral, elevating the meaning of the art in the process.

23 11 2009
Cindy Shaw

I thought one of the main points of art is to provoke. Clearly your work met this basic criteria. It was horribly wrong and unethical to remove the work at the last minute. Far too much work and expense goes into prepping something for a show. In most situations this would be grounds for damages.

Regardless, it’s a shame that the conversation on your exhibit was terminated before it could ever begin.

25 11 2009


Couldn’t agree more. What happened seems so “anti-art”: isn’t art supposed to be about free expression, direct experience, and respect for audience?


23 11 2009
Tron Bykle

(Majime): I am ‘with’ you a 1000%.
I TOTALLY accept your intentions and Efforts, so- a deep breath, -and ONWARD.


24 11 2009

they’re not obligated to show your work. But it’s still stank that they led you along to believe you’re work was wholly accepted and then pull a stunt like that.

24 11 2009

I think congratulations are in order! The museums’ responses was perfectly scripted – how did you manage that? It was like a Borat or Bruno moment where you set them up to act badly. You are a genius!

25 11 2009

shhh, don’t tell anyone! Actually, truth be told, we wish we could claim to have consciously masterminded this blow-up, but we honestly only wanted to show in earnest—no monkey business, this time—and they ended up doing it to themselves. Although, in hindsight there are a number of things we did unconsciously that may indeed have contributed to the culmination of hubris, paranoia, and intolerance that led to the banning of our work from a “college night” art show/faire. For example, we did not publicize on this blog our participation in the event until the day of the show, and we know that the Asian Art Museum is on our rss feed like flies on unko, so did that have something to do with the last-minute timing of their involvement? And even if it did, would we expect them to try to wield their influence in a way that would run roughshod over curatorial ethics? hmm . . . Nah, we were too busy this time just trying to make stuff. That’s why we were so unprepared when it happened. But thanks and much love to you all who have our back!

24 11 2009

I question where the De Young museum’s priorities are. Are they so caught up in throwing nightly cocktail parties, carnivalesque fun-houses, and craft faires that they can’t get their act together to even review their exhibits?

When a museum is so concerned with how they look that they will censor art, there’s clearly a problem. This isn’t the first time it’s happened in history though.

Hopefully the art and dialogue you generate continues to provoke discussion.

25 11 2009

Thanks, Silly. One point of clarification: the program staff did review the exhibit, our work included, with approval. It was the top brass coming in at the last minute, Asian Art Museum counterparts on the line, who committed this act of cultural violence, curatorial process be damned. Once they issued their edict, staff had no choice but to fall in line. So we feel for the staff who had to execute the marching orders, because we know that they themselves actually really appreciated our work.

24 11 2009
How we made “Not Art” « asians art museum's samurai blog

[…] [This is a follow up to the preceding blog entry:  Censored by de Young Museum] […]

27 11 2009
Asiatik Statik

you’re an azn Bruno 4shore, way to go. maybe next location JANM? WLAM? Univ Hawaii art gallery? they need the shakeup. keep up the great gaman.

28 11 2009
Have You Heard The News? Recent updates « beyondasiaphilia

[…] collective responsible for this summer’s smash hit intervention, Lord, It’s The Samurai, had a little dustup at the deYoung Museum last Friday when they attempted to show artifacts from the project at the museum’s latest Friday […]

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