Opinion

Who Is Threatened by Women Who Curate Political Art?

Challenging art is essential for sparking difficult conversations, but two museum directors — both women — have recently stepped down after championing politically engaged programming.

Deborah Roberts, "Tug of War" (2017, left), private collection; and Deborah Roberts, "Rope a Dope" (2017, right), private collection (both images courtesy of the artist)
Deborah Roberts, “Tug of War” (2017, left), private collection; and Deborah Roberts, “Rope a Dope” (2017, right), private collection (both images courtesy of the artist)

In recent months, two museum directors have stepped down from their jobs at major US art institutions. Both resigned amid social justice crises and after championing programming with a political edge. Both are women.

After three years as the director of the Queens Museum, and after (among several incidents) proposing to the board that the museum could connect immigrants with social services, Laura Raicovich resigned, stating: “my vision and that of the board weren’t in enough alignment.” The former director of the Walker Art Center, Olga Viso, resigned shortly after a controversy over Sam Durant’s depiction of historical gallows garnered was resolved with members of the Dakota Nation.

Now let’s consider some other recent art world controversies.

In the spring of 2017, the Whitney faced a firestorm when artist Dana Schutz’s painting of the corpse of Emmett Till was included in the Whitney Biennial. And in the fall of 2017, the Whitney garnered more media attention when the authenticity of Jimmie Durham’s Native American roots was, yet again, called into question. Subsequently, the Guggenheim came under attack when it was revealed that its exhibition, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, would feature works involving animals and insects, including a video of mistreated dogs. In spite of all this, Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney Museum, and Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, are still supported by their boards — and employed.

To be clear, this is not an attack of male arts administrators — in most cases, I applaud the brave work they do. But brave female directors deserve the same praise.

In an era of divisiveness, the arts are an ideal jump-off from which to explore heated topics. But we need access to more than exhibitions sanctioned by white men. If we truly want change, a range of voices must trickle up and down the chain — from artists, to gallery visitors, to directors, to boards. In other words, this isn’t just about gender. Within galleries, museums, and theaters, viewers are encouraged to suspend what they think they know so that they can discover something new. But what happens when arts administrators are discouraged from exploring the limits of viewers’ comfort?

Installation view, <em>Rodney McMillian: Against a Civic Death</em> at The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2018 (artwork © Rodney McMillian; courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Maccarone, New York; image courtesy The Contemporary Austin; photo by Colin Doyle)
Installation view, Rodney McMillian: Against a Civic Death at The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2018 (artwork © Rodney McMillian; courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Maccarone, New York; image courtesy The Contemporary Austin; photo by Colin Doyle)

Here in Austin, Texas, under the direction of Louis Grachos, The Contemporary Austin has equipped staff to register museumgoers to vote over the course of an exhibition of work by Los-Angeles-based artist Rodney McMillian. Drawing on iconic imagery of the Ku Klux Klan and the White House, McMillian’s charged work examines the US’s social and political history. The highly anticipated exhibition has already received national attention.

However, also in Austin — one of the country’s more progressive cities — local media outlets have on occasion avoided coverage of the Art Galleries in Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (of which I am the director). Maybe because they assume they are sparing readers political controversy? Or maybe they don’t believe they are adept at amplifying underrepresented narratives — choosing instead to ignore them altogether. But in the latter case, we all lose because, firstly, conversations triggered by art shouldn’t be confined to gallery spaces; and secondly, art can spark conversations that can prompt social change.

Controversial content is as common in the art world as paint. And while this is not a Kumbaya plea for limp hand-holding between dissenting sides, it is a call to question how gender, race, and privilege play a role in the stories we hear and the art we see. Because if more people of different backgrounds participate in all facets of the arts, we might find the change we seek.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied a political reason for the departure of Lisa Freiman, the former founding director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU.) At VCU’s request, we have removed the reference to Freiman.

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