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From tomorrow, February 16, to Tuesday, February 21, 20 percent of the permanent collection galleries at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College will be shrouded or removed. A 19th-century Thomas Cole landscape will be missing, as will a 1949 geometric painting by Ilya Bolotowsky, while a 1985 wood-carved and gunpowder-burned Ana Mendieta sculpture will be masked. The absence is a statement, as each of the 120 hidden pieces was created or donated by an immigrant to the United States.
“Removing and/or cloaking works made or donated by immigrants lets us articulate what immigrants contribute and what we would lose in their absence,” Davis Museum Director Lisa Fischman told Hyperallergic. “It’s symbolically and visually very powerful.”
Each missing work will be labeled “made by an immigrant” or “given by an immigrant.” (Other institutions that want to participate can download the labels at the Davis’s website.) As the Davis only reopened its permanent collections galleries in September, the extensive curatorial research behind the reinstallation allowed the museum to identify the rich histories of cultural exchange represented by both artists and donors. These range from recent acquisitions like a 2015 mixed media piece by Sara Rahbar, born in Iran, to a 19th-century wilderness painting by the Westphalia-born Albert Bierstadt, and a 1919–20 oil on linen painting by the Hungary-born Laszló Moholy-Nagy, who fled fascism in Europe to the United States. In the African galleries, 80 percent of the art will be under black cloth, as it was donated by the Polish Klejman family who came to the United States after World War II.
The Davis announced the initiative, called Art-Less, today, noting it was in support of a statement from the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) that condemned President Trump’s January 27 executive order that banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. AAMD expressed its concern that “artistic and scholarly collaborations could now be in jeopardy, just at the moment when cultural exchange and understanding are more important than ever.”
AAMD is one of several cultural institutions and organizations that have decried the ban. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York made a statement against the executive order by replacing works in its permanent collection galleries with eight by artists from Muslim-majority nations impacted by the ban. Although the disruption at the Davis is brief, it does cover Monday’s Presidents’ Day, aka Washington’s Birthday. During that patriotic holiday, the museum’s 18th-century portrait of George Washington will be nowhere to be seen, as it was painted by Swedish artist Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, an immigrant who came to the United States in the 1790s.
“As an academic institution, located on the Wellesley College campus, we uphold the educational mission and values of the college — inclusivity, access, integrity, excellence,” said Fischman. “I think this statement goes to the heart of those values, and keys to the sense of our communities as rich in their diversity — and endlessly better for it. It also demonstrates the many ways one might find a voice, or articulate a perspective; one hopes we are educating by example the next generation of cultural citizens.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the reason why Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller’s portrait of George Washington would not be on view. We regret the error. It has been fixed.