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Queens Museum Director’s Departure Prompts Call for More Politically Engaged Art Institutions

An open letter signed by 38 curators, artists, and academics praises Laura Raicovich and calls on art institutions to advance “cultural and social as well as political public discourse.”

Following Laura Raicovich’s decision to step down as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum on Friday, a coterie of influential curators, artists, and academics has signed an open letter supporting her. The letter, initiated by Vera List Center for Art and Politics Director Carin Kuoni, praises Raicovich for her socially and politically engaged programming at the Queens Museum, which, according to her comments to the New York Times last week, caused a great deal of tension between her and the institution’s board of trustees.

Laura Raicovich (photo by Michael Angelo)
Laura Raicovich (photo by Michael Angelo)

“We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich, regardless of their gender,” the letter reads in part. “This is more necessary now than at any other point since the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The letter’s 38 signatories include art historian Lucy Lippard; the artist Martha Wilson; Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Gonzalo Casals, the executive director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art; Jamillah James, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Chloë Bass of Social Practice Queens; and Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. “In times of political polarization, arts institutions must fully commit to our responsibility to act as empathetic forums,” they write.

“Our public institutions, especially contemporary art museums, have an obligation to engage with the issues of our time,” Mary Ceruti, the executive director and chief curator of SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, and one of the letter’s signatories, told Hyperallergic. “They have the potential to be both agents of change and forums for exploring difference. This potential cannot be realized passively. At this moment, communities in Queens feel vulnerable to rising threats of nationalism and xenophobia. Racial tensions are as high as they have been in decades. Laura championed artists and art and offered programs that helped to establish the museum as a space where diverse perspectives and populations are welcome and for that she should be supported and lauded.”

Raicovich has stated that her decision to close the museum for last year’s J20 Art Strike (it opened in the afternoon for a sign-making workshop) had caused tensions between her and members of the board. These were extenuated by the cancellation and abrupt reinstating of an event sponsored by the Israeli government last summer. More recently, she had proposed to the board that the museum become a sanctuary space of sorts for immigrants. “It was made very clear to me that that was not something that was of interest,” she told the Times.

“Arts organizations, such as ours, have an obligation to create platforms of freedom that allow for the open discussion of ideas,” Manon Slome, the chief curator of the art nonprofit No Longer Empty — which is currently working with Raicovich and the Queens Museum on a forthcoming Mel Chin exhibition — and one of the letters’ signatories, told Hyperallergic. “I believe it is crucially important at this time to speak out in support of Laura Raicovich because we are so blatantly living in a culture of fear where such voices of openness and courage are being undermined. Laura is a champion of the role of the socially engaged museum.”

The full letter and list of signatories is included below.

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Open Letter on the Resignation of Laura Raicovich from the Queens Museum

Laura Raicovich, as president and executive director of the Queens Museum, has galvanized the museum field: she has demonstrated how cultural institutions can responsibly and creatively embrace artistic as well as social and political matters crucial to their local constituencies while contributing to the field at large. We have been inspired by her work with art, artists, and communities relating to important cultural issues such as immigration, cultural diversity, education, and equity. The example she set will continue to inform our own work.

We are writing to affirm the leadership role of cultural institutions in advancing cultural and social as well as political public discourse. As stewards and advocates of contemporary and historical cultural expressions, we directors, curators, and staff members of cultural institutions, as well as the board members to whom we are accountable, have a particular obligation to facilitate the free and safe exchange of ideas about our contemporary world with art as the catalyst.

In times of political polarization, arts institutions must fully commit to our responsibility to act as empathetic forums in which we come to understand human history, creativity and society. Art institutions must respond to pressing issues facing our communities — this is not simply a right but an obligation, especially for those supported by public funds.

We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich, regardless of their gender. This is more necessary now than at any other point since the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.

Regine Basha
Chloë Bass, Social Practice Queens
Omar Berrada, Curator and Director, Dar al-Ma’mûn, Marrakech, Morocco
Rashida Bumbray, Open Society Foundations
Harry Burke, Artists Space
Johanna Burton
Gonzalo Casals, Executive Director, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Mary Ceruti, Executive Director and Chief Curator, SculptureCenter
Ken Chen, Executive Director, Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Galit Eilat
Anne Ellegood
Charles Esche, Director, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
Deborah Fisher, Executive Director, A Blade of Grass
Lynn Gumpert, Director, Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Kemi Ilesanmi
Jamillah James, Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Carin Kuoni, Director/Chief Curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School
Lucy Lippard
Lydia Matthews, Director, Parsons Curatorial Design Research Lab, The New School
Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, MOCA, Los Angeles
Alyssa Nitchun
Amanda Parmer, Curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics
Christiane Paul
Sheetal Prajapati, Director of Public Engagement, Pioneer Works
Laurel Ptak, Executive Director & Curator, Art in General
Silvia Rocciolo, Curator, The New School Art Collection
Jay Sanders, Artists Space
Lucía Sanromán, Director of Visual Arts, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts
Ingrid Schaffner
Paul Schmelzer, Managing Editor, Walker Art Center
Gregory Sholette, Social Practice Queens
Joshua Simon, former Director and Chief Curator, MoBY Museums of Bat Yam, Israel
Manon Slome
Marvin J. Taylor, Fales Library, New York University
Diya Vij
Joanna Warsza, Artistic Director, Public Art Munich 2018, Germany
Martha Wilson, Founding Director, Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.
Yukiko Yamagata

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