Censorship, Decline, Protest, Bailout

20 01 2011

There have been a lot of museum headlines in the news over the past month.  Here’s a sampling.

Censorship at the Smithsonian

Between a Cross and a Hard Place, by Robin Cembalest, ARTNews
Critic’s Notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole , Christopher Knight, LA Times

In the former, Cembalest puts the current controversy into historical context:

“Clough’s move has been widely compared to the Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation, in 1989, of a traveling Robert Mapplethorpe show, in order to sidestep a debate over federal funding. In that case, the attempt to avoid controversy only generated more; the then director, Christina Orr-Cahall, later apologized, and the institution’s reputation, as many point out, continues to suffer.”

Change in the face of decline

Coincidentally the Washington Post reported on how the Corcoran, “beset by years of financial troubles” and a decline in visitors, has turned “to a team of consultants in attempt to chart its destiny”:

The Corcoran, re-imagined

Long-term karmic implications of censorship notwithstanding, props to the Corcoran for opening itself up for constructive transformation and revitalization.  Perhaps the Corcoran can be a role model for others to proactively re-envision what a museum can be, in the face of adversity.

Censorship or incompetence?

In case you missed the brouhaha in December at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the original story is here:

Museum of Contemporary Art commissions, then paints over, artwork

Blu's mural, before Deitch destroyed it

Italian street artist Blu calls MOCA's removal of his mural censorship

In a nutshell, the MOCA Geffen commissioned Italian artist Blu to paint a mural the full width of one side of the museum, and the recently-hired MOCA director and former NY mega-art dealer Jeffrey Deitch was too busy at Art Basel in Miami to pre-approve or keep tabs on it, so the mural was nearly completed before Deitch returned and promptly ordered it destroyed.

[slideshow of ‘removal’]

MOCA Geffen: "My bad."

In MOCA’s mural mess, LA Times critic Christopher Knight contrasts the present fiasco with a much more successful process that resulted in a mural by Barbara Kruger that stayed up for two years on the other side of the same museum, one that Knight describes as “among the finest commissions the museum has undertaken.”

The current debacle does little to assuage the earlier skepticism that accompanied the unprecedented hiring of a commercial gallery owner to run a major municipal art museum [1][2][3][4][5].


Leave it to artists to hearten us with creative response:

Street artists hold protest performance at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary

Meanwhile at the Asian Art Museum

You may have read in the SF Chronicle that the city bailed out the museum, now taking on liability for the nearly $100 million debt.  Sadly, the article is all about money.

For a more in depth look, putting the crisis in much needed context, we recommend this:
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: Risks Work for Artists, But Not for Galleries, by Judith H. Dobrzynski, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2011.

Dobrzynski concludes:

Courting visitors takes imagination and money, to be sure, and even if those visitors pay the surcharge for special exhibitions that AAM recently added, their total contributions will cover only a small share of the museum’s budget. But crowds also tend to draw donors, who want to be part of the excitement. If museums do that part of their job well, they shouldn’t have to gamble on high finance.




One response

25 01 2011

Blame it on the curators

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic , in his first interviews since the controversy began, G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, defends his decision of censorship, while placing blame for the controversy on his curators:

“We didn’t see that particular work through the lens of how someone else would perceive it — as religious desecration,” he told Lee Rosenbaum. “We could have done a better job there. And we will learn from that.”

“The Smithsonian Defends Censorship,” The Atlantic, Jan. 20, 2011

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