Museums today are on the front line of an ongoing battle over our nation’s cultural heritage.
Many are drafting more inclusive art-historical narratives and increasing the diversity of their collections, staff, and boards. Administrators are trying to accommodate an expanded group of stakeholders — including support personnel and local communities — who never before had any direct say in how the institution was run or funded. Nevertheless, owing to the racial income gap, most donors and curators are still white. Other than executive staff, the low pay scale at cultural institutions, relative to the cost of the requisite educational credentialing, puts such careers largely out of reach for those not backed by generational wealth.
Efforts at diversification were underway well before the coronavirus pandemic, but the murder of George Floyd, in May 2020, and the resulting racial justice protests focused greater attention on institutional deficiencies. Social media, coupled with the pandemic, magnified dissent by isolating individuals in personal echo-chambers, making it harder to reconcile differing opinions. Within museums, a new reliance on Zoom brought curatorial debates to larger, more factionalized audiences, externally as well as internally. Curators were often blindsided, caught up in a welter of conflicting agendas regarding exhibitions and audiences.
Among the more prominent museum controversies of the COVID-19 era was the postponement of a Philip Guston retrospective that should have opened at the National Gallery of Art in July 2021 and then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate Modern in London, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In the summer of 2020, roughly 70 current and former National Gallery employees signed an online petition accusing the museum of racial and sexual harassment.
In light of that petition and a genuine need to correct racial imbalances at the NGA, the relatively new director, Kaywin Feldman, felt it prudent to momentarily “step back” from the Guston show. There was a fear, shared by all four participating museums, that Guston’s images of hooded Klansman, though anti-racist in intent, could be “triggering” to members of the Black community. “I’m not sure . . . the public needs a white artist to explain racism to them right now,” Feldman declared. In response, hundreds of artists and arts professionals accused the museums of cowardice. “The people who run our great institutions do not want trouble,” read their online complaint. “They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience.” Tate’s curator, Mark Godfrey, was suspended for publicly calling the postponement “patronizing to viewers.” In March 2021, he chose to take “voluntary redundancy.”
It is understandable that, in the current highly polarized atmosphere, museums would try to steer clear of controversy, but they cannot evade the underlying issues. Does rebalancing the canon really have to entail tossing out all that came before? With the great progress we’ve seen in recent years, must we — while acknowledging their troubling treatment of women — completely write off artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, or Chuck Close? Should white artists be permitted to address racial trauma, or is such subject matter solely the purview of racism’s victims? In a society permeated by violence on so many levels, do cultural institutions have a duty to protect their audiences from potentially disturbing imagery?
History is multivalent and ambiguous. There is no one correct reading, nor can historical actors necessarily be neatly categorized as either heroes or villains. Past readings of history have all too often been shaped by white bias, but it serves no good purpose to replace such biased readings with equally monolithic new interpretations. The historian’s job is to give voice to the multitudes who led us from the past to the present, because our histories overlap, regardless of individual race, ethnicity, or gender identification. By expanding the discourse, history helps all of us understand who we are.
Art, too, is ambiguous. Great art reaches across generations by transcending the original circumstances of its creation. Artists of the past created within cultural contexts very different from our own, but ultimately it is the art, not the artist, that survives. The context in which art is received also changes, in accordance with viewers’ shifting perspectives. Museums will not win the culture war by taking sides, but rather by fostering a broader understanding of divergent contexts, acknowledging a diversity of valid responses, and embracing ambiguity.
The Philip Guston exhibition is scheduled to open at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on May 1. Are we ready for it?
Jane Kallir is president of the Kallir Research Institute and director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City.