Three museum directors have resigned from their positions as board members for the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), dissatisfied with how its top figures have handled and responded to debates that first emerged earlier this year over censorship. On Monday, Van Abbemuseum Director Charles Esche, SALT Director of Exhibitions and Programs Vasif Kortun, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art Director Abdellah Karroum announced their joint resignation, citing lack of confidence in the organization’s board in general and specifically with CIMAM President Bartomeu Marí. The three still remain part of the 460-member network, comprised of museum professionals from 63 countries, but are stepping down from its board because they felt they “no longer had any influence over the board’s decision-making,” as Esche told Hyperallergic in an email.
Their frustrations stem from a controversy that began in March, when Marí suddenly cancelled The Beast and the Sovereign, a group exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) — where he was then director — objecting to a sculpture by Austrian artist Ines Doujak. The work, titled “Not Dressed for Conquering/HC 04 Transport” (2011–ongoing), portrays former king of Spain Juan Carlos I being sodomized by the late Bolivian labor leader Domitila Chúngara, who is in turn being mounted by a grinning wolf. Many denounced Marí’s act as censorship, and while Marí reversed his decision three days later and resigned, he also fired Valentín Roma and Paul B. Preciado, two of the show’s four curators — a move that only stoked public outrage. (Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, co-directors of the Württembergischen Kunstvereins Stuttgart, were the exhibition’s other co-curators.) In April, CIMAM’s board publicly endorsed Marí’s position as its president, a call with which Esche, Kortun, and Karroum disagreed, and one that was allegedly made without the input of the entire board.
“We resigned because we had an unresolvable disagreement with the majority of the board, at least as far as we know, as there was never a vote of confidence in the president during our time on the board,” Esche told Hyperallergic. “After the censorship of Ines Doujak’s artwork at MACBA, we felt that the historic commitment of CIMAM to be a clear opponent of censorship by and in museums was compromised by the position its president had taken in relation to Doujak’s work and to the curators who were sacked for failing to remove it from the exhibition.”
The position Marí took ultimately cost him his job of seven years as director at MACBA when he was pressured to resign after receiving complaints from many, including the show’s curators and artists who, released a statement expressing their “indignation and disgust” at the turn of events. Marí had initially asked curators to remove Doujak’s work the day before the show opened, saying he did not learn of the sculpture’s inclusion until then, according to El País; Doujak, however, shared with local media a loan form signed by the former director that dates to February 28, three weeks before the opening. When the curators refused to comply with Marí’s order, he cancelled the show. Some participating artists, including Julia Montilla and Jorge Ribalta, voiced their suspicions that Queen Sofía’s position as honorary president on MACBA’s board influenced the sudden development; Marí, however, denied any relation between his reasoning and the board’s roster, according to El Cultural, stating that the sculpture was not consistent with the museum’s usual showings.
CIMAM’s board — which, following the three resignations, consists of 12 people — had announced that the “events at MACBA have raised important questions regarding freedom of expression, censorship, and institutional responsibility, with complex ethical, legal, and artistic implications” and decided such issues would be debated at the committee’s Annual Conference in Tokyo, which occurred this past weekend. Although disappointed with the endorsement of Marí’s position, Esche, Kortun, and Karroum had remained on the board in hopes that the conference would provide an opportunity for open discussion. The conference’s agenda, however, ended up not specifically including the issues raised by the MACBA fiasco, and none of the exhibition’s curators or participating artists were invited as speakers.
“We asked [organizers] via email to directly address the MACBA affair from the podium and to appoint another spokesperson in place of the president, given his compromised position,” Esche told Hyperallergic. “These requests were ignored, and nothing was changed. At this point, we resigned [in private] …. Again, our proposals were not addressed, but we were repeatedly asked to delay the announcement until the end of the conference in order to not disturb its smooth running.” However, according to Marí, “No input was given by the three directors who now have resigned.”
The recent conference did not address the MACBA crisis because, as Marí told Hyperallergic in an email, “it was agreed that the issue of freedom and expression in museums should be addressed in one entire session, not directly as a ‘MACBA case’ but in a more general approach in order for the discussion to represent many more cases that unfortunately happen in the world.” Nevertheless, debate sparked by the MACBA case has emerged online, from conversations on e-flux to articles on L’Internationale Online, a discussion platform for L’Internationale, a network of European museums established by Esche in 2010. L’Internationale as an organization issued a statement in March supporting Marí’s decision to re-open the exhibition and to resign; most recently, Doujak last week provided context to her contentious sculpture in an article titled “The Noise of Silence or ¿Por qué no te callas? (Why don’t you shut up?)”:
This censorship constituted a denial of the history which the work explores: the continuum of colonialism from the past to the present, specifically that of Spain in Latin America, and the involvement of Nazis in the sub-continent’s era of dictatorships …
In the sculpture, the alive and the dead are not separated in different roles but desperately nested into each other so that the moments of overlap and encounters cannot be neatly confined. The border between the present and history, between objects and bodies, between the three bodies are blurred, and what we might see is not several parts but one.
Esche told Hyperallergic that the three museum directors believe CIMAM may now restore its credibility only if Marí steps down as president and if it dedicates itself to the goals laid out by its past leaders.
“Given the actual censorship carried out by the president, we do not believe he has the credibility necessary to defend this position on behalf of the CIMAM members,” Esche wrote via email. “His continuation in office undermines the vital and important work carried out by his predecessors Zdenka Badovinac and Manuel Borja-Villel.
“With a new president dedicated to the primary goals as set out by Badovinac and Borja-Villel, we believe CIMAM will rapidly restore its credibility in the museum field.”
Dressler and Christ also issued a statement on Monday supporting what they called (translated from German) an “act of solidarity and the clear positioning against censorship.
“We hope that this act helps to redeem March’s alleged disloyalty to the institution by the dismissed former curators of MACBA, Valentin Roma and Paul B. Preciado,” the pair wrote in a Facebook post. Württembergischen Kunstvereins Stuttgart currently hosts the group exhibition, which has a new title: Die Bestie und ist der Souverän (The Beast
and is the Sovereign).
When reached for comment, CIMAM sent Hyperallergic the following statement published on its website this morning:
1. When the events at MACBA took place, the board of CIMAM asked Bartomeu Mari to give a response, which he circulated to all of the Board members. At a skype meeting on April 8th, it was agreed that he should remain as President. It was also agreed that a session on the challenges of freedom of expression and institutional responsibilities should be included in the conference. The note of this skype meeting was distributed to all of the Board members.
2. At the following Board meeting in Venice in May, the content of the conference was discussed. It was agreed that day one should be devoted to the topic of Museums as sites of debate, with a key note speaker and four perspectives from different parts of the world. (the overall theme being how global can museums be). Following the Board meeting, the proposed list of speakers was circulated to all of the Board members. A number of Board members gave further input.
3. A week before the conference, two Board members sent a note to the Board criticising the content of the conference and circulating a letter about the MACBA events attacking the President.
4. Board members did not agree that the content should be changed at this late stage.
5. A skype meeting was held just before the conference to ascertain why these board members were only now raising concerns about the content of the conference and the position of the President. Those Board members requested the resignation of the President and when this was not forthcoming, they chose to resign.
Below, Karroum, Kortun, and Esche’s full statement of resignation:
We believe that art museums engaged with contemporary issues should be sites for the free exchange of ideas, where legal debate about and dissension from government policy or majority social opinion are allowed and encouraged. Museums are one of the key places where new ideas and possibilities can enter society. That’s why they are often under threat. We believe CIMAM’s main task today is to defend as much as is possible this space for debate and to set ethical standards of behaviour towards artists, curators and the public.
The recent course of events at MACBA and within the board at CIMAM have led us to doubt whether our current president can defend those values credibly. We therefore feel we have no option but to resign from the board as we no longer have confidence in how it represents the interests of CIMAM members. We will remain members and we do hope that CIMAM can restore its credibility in the near future through new leadership. We wish the board well in setting its future course.
Artistic Director of L’appartement 22, Rabat
Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha.
Director of Research & Programs at SALT, Istanbul.
Director Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Editorial Director, Afterall Publishing, London