An 18-week exhibition dedicated to Dana Schutz’s recent work opened today at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, and it won’t be without controversy. Protestors released an open letter yesterday expressing their disappointment that the museum is honoring an artist they believe should instead be held accountable for her portrait of Emmett Till, “Open Casket” (2016), which many see not only as an insult to Till’s memory but also as a white woman’s violent vision of a history that isn’t hers.
Addressed to curator Eva Respini and her team, the six-page open letter outlines the concerns of the group of local artists, activists, and community members, followed by a list of their working demands. They include this request: “Please pull the show. This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability.”
The splotchy painting of a 14-year-old Till — which sparked a protest earlier this year while on display at the Whitney Biennial as well as furious debate over censorship, race and representation, and white privilege in the art world — is not on view at the ICA. But the letter writers argue that the museum’s support of Schutz, which marks an institutional continuation of the Whitney’s own backing, will ultimately benefit both itself and an artist they believe should reap no rewards for delivering trauma.
“The institution will be participating in condoning the coopting of Black pain and showing the art world and beyond that people can co-opt sacred imagery rooted in oppression and face little consequence,” the letter reads, “contributing to and perpetuating centuries-old racist iconography that ultimately justifies state and socially sanctioned violence on Black people.”
The writers include Megan Smith, Allison Disher, and Stephanie Houten, who were among nine people the ICA invited to meet with Respini to discuss issues around the show, simply titled Dana Schutz. As the letter describes, the group spoke with museum staff last week for three hours on the museum’s responsibility to the communities it serves and how the exhibition may impact Boston’s black community and other people of color. The ICA decided to move forward with the show, and the group left with “many questions unanswered.” To continue the dialogue, they published the open letter.
“We question whether this exhibition is appropriate or responsible in the context of the sacrifice of Black bodies that is still exerting trauma on urban streets and in urban neighborhoods across the country,” the group writes. “We do not feel that the ICA is making a responsible decision as an institution of art and culture. At this point we are unconvinced that ICA has the will to challenge the egregiousness of continued institutional backing of this type of violent artifact. People’s humanity cannot be up for debate.”
The museum had invited Schutz to exhibit her work two years ago. In the wake of the controversy around “Open Casket” this year, the show includes in its wall text a sentence that addresses the discussions that ensued, but only vaguely.
“This year she was included in the Whitney Biennial, where one of her paintings ignited a vigorous debate around the role of art, artists, and institutions in the representation of race, a conversation that resonates with larger issues in our current political and cultural landscape,” it reads. “At its best, art has the potential to illuminate aspects of our humanity, expose fault lines in the culture, engage experiences both personal and universal, and inspire inquiry and dialogue.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, ICA director Jill Medvedow praised Schutz as “one of the leading painters of her generation, and we wanted to share the exuberance, skill, and vibrancy of her work with Boston audiences.
“This past March when her painting ‘Open Casket’ was shown at the Whitney Biennial, there were a range of responses, including many who felt that the painting embodied privilege and had caused them pain,” Medvedow said. “Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and ‘Open Casket’ raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation. Though ‘Open Casket’ is not in the ICA exhibition, we welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art and social justice. Complex, challenging, sensitive, and urgent, these are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.”
The museum has organized three programs related to the exhibition so far: a curator’s talk with Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros-Georges; a forum with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research on representation and responsibility; and a talk by artist Josephine Halvorson. Schutz, however, will not be present at any of them. The first will occur in September, which the letter writers argue is too late a date to begin having a public discussion around the exhibition.
While they ultimately want the ICA to pull the show, their other demands include the ICA hosting a conversation with Schutz present as well as an exhibition text that addresses “Open Casket” as “in line with a long tradition of white supremacy obscuring and ultimately erasing narratives of the continued genocide of Black and indigenous peoples.
“Please know that we will continue to organize around this regardless of the decisions the ICA makes,” the document concludes. The exhibition is ongoing through November 26.