Activists are calling on the Institute of Contemporary Art to cancel an exhibit by the artist Dana Schutz, whose painting “Open Casket” stirred controversy at this year’s Whitney Biennial for its depiction of Emmett Till’s corpse.
The ICA show, which opened to the public Wednesday, does not feature “Open Casket.”
Nevertheless, in a letter published before the show’s opening, activists said it was “clear the institution stands to gain by virtue of [the painting’s] absence.”
“Please pull the show. This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability,” the activists wrote.
At the biennial exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art this spring, some artists and activistsprotested the depiction of Till, an African-American teenager who was beaten and lynched in 1955. They charged that Schutz, who is white, was part of “the long tradition of white people sharing and circulating images of anti-black violence” and that her painting perpetuated “the same kind of violence that was enacted” on Till.
The Boston-area protesters appear to share similar concerns about the ICA show, despite the painting’s absence.
“Even though the painting will not be shown, even in its absence, backing its artist without accountability nor transparency about proceeds from the exhibition, the institution will be participating in condoning the coopting of Black pain,” wrote the protesters, who identify themselves as “a group of local artists, activists, and community members.” “[W]e 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.”
In advance of the show’s opening, the museum reached out to the activists and ICA chief curator Eva Respini held a three-hour meeting withmembers ofthe group to hear their concerns.
“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,” ICA director Jill Medvedow said in statement. “[T]hese are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.”
Schutz, an acclaimed and highly successful American painter known for evocative works that combine abstract and figurative elements in tight, disorienting spaces, has covered a range of subjects during her 20-year career. Her work, which critics have praised as both “lyrical and monumental,” is occasionally drawn from current events, such as “Men’s Retreat,” a painting created during the height of the Iraq war that shows blindfolded men in business suits playing conga drums in nature, or her 2015 work “Fight in an Elevator,” based on video footage of Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z in an elevator.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Schutz said the painting “Open Casket” — which is based on a photo of Till’s corpse lying in a casket that his mother left open to show the brutality of his murder by racist whites — had been inspired by a recent series of highly publicized shooting deaths of black men.
“It’s a real event, and it’s violence. But it has to be tender, and also about how it’s been for his mother,” Schutz told the magazine. “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”
Respini, who began working on the show with Schutz before the Whitney controversy erupted, said “Open Casket,” with its clearly identifiable subject, “sits a little outside” much of Schutz’s work.
“Her subject matter writ large is the human condition,” said Respini on Wednesday, noting that many pictures in the Boston show depict struggle or conflict. “These are paintings of our time, and our time is a divisive one.”
The question of cultural appropriation has proved a fraught one for museums in recent years, as white artists have increasingly drawn fire from communities of color for their portrayals of racially charged subjects. Jeffrey Uslip resigned last year as chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis after mounting an exhibition of works by the artist Kelley Walker that showed images of black civil rights activists covered in chocolate. Earlier this year, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis removed a gallows-like sculpture by artist Sam Durant after members of the Dakota Nation objected to its cavalier reference to the mass execution of 38 Native Americans in 1862. “I just wanted to apologize for the trauma, the suffering that my work has caused in the community,” Durant reportedly said at the time.
Similarly, the Museum of Fine Arts recast a 2015 event series called “Kimono Wednesdays,” featuring Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise,” after protesters accused the museum of promoting racial stereotypes.
In an effort to engage the public with issues raised by the exhibit, the ICA is holding a series of public events around the show, including a conversation this September between Respini and Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges and a gallery talk next month with curatorial associate Jessica Hong.
But the signatories are demanding more, promising that they “will continue to organize around this regardless of the decisions the ICA makes.”
The museum said it is taking the activists’ concerns seriously.
“Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and ‘Open Casket’ raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation,” said Medvedow. “We have designed our programs — panels, lectures, gallery talks, as well as exhibitions and performances — to offer a broad range of artistic voices and a creative space for experimentation, and we look forward to audiences having the opportunity to see for themselves the range of Schutz’s art and engaging in the art and issues of our time.”
Respini, who said the museum had no intention of closing the show, added that the ICA had a responsibility to its public to engage with difficult questions.
“These are hard conversations to have, the debate is multifaceted,” said Respini. “For us, the responsible thing to do is not to shy away from that conversation, and canceling the show would be to shy away.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay