ICA to close show by controversial photographer Nicholas Nixon

“The Brown Sisters, New Canaan, Connecticut,” 1975, by Nicholas Nixon, is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
“The Brown Sisters, New Canaan, Connecticut,” 1975, by Nicholas Nixon, is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The Institute of Contemporary Art is closing an exhibition by the acclaimed photographer Nicholas Nixon 10 days ahead of schedule after disclosures last week that he allegedly sexually harassed former models and students during his 40-year tenure at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

The exhibition, originally scheduled to close on April 22, was set to be taken down after the museum closed Thursday.

The decision to shut down the show marks a dramatic turnaround for the ICA, which had initially said it would keep the exhibition on view after the disclosures in a Globe report. The museum had created new gallery signage and posted an open forum to its website for staff and members of the public to discuss the matter.


The ICA has since removed the online forum and released a statement late Wednesday that quoted a letter from Nixon asking the museum to remove the exhibition immediately.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“I believe it is impossible for these photographs to be viewed on their own merits any longer,’’ Nixon wrote, according to the ICA statement. “In response, with deep regret, and only after careful thought, I believe it is more respectful to all concerned — to your mission, and to the work itself — to remove the exhibit as soon as possible.’”

ICA director Jill Medvedow declined an interview request on Thursday. Nixon declined to comment further through an attorney.

In its report last week, the Globe detailed allegations by more than a dozen of Nixon’s former students, who alleged that the photographer imbued his classroom with sexuality, showing students pictures of his penis, asking students to pose nude for him, and recounting an erotic dream he’d had about a female student. In addition, the story recounted how Nixon tried to initiate sexual contact with female models who’d agreed to pose nude for him.

Nixon abruptly retired from MassArt in early March, as the Globe was investigating the allegations.


In a message to the MassArt community announcing Nixon’s retirement, school president David Nelson said the college had begun an investigation into the professor’s alleged behavior under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

Nixon, 70, is renowned for his intimate black-and-white images of children, AIDS patients, and elderly people, but is perhaps best known for his series “The Brown Sisters” — annual portraits he’s shot of his wife and her sisters over four decades — which featured prominently in the ICA show.

Although Nixon initially defended himself in an e-mail to a former Globe reporter, he later released a statement through his attorney, saying he recognized he may have offended some students.

“I realize that I should have censored myself more,” he stated. “To those students, I offer my profound apology.”

Visitors to the ICA on Thursday were conflicted about the museum’s decision to pull the show.


“I think it’s not justified,” said Alex Rose, 75, who nevertheless called Nixon’s alleged behavior “appalling.” “If I were one of those women [who Nixon allegedly harassed], I would have the same reaction: How can you show this stuff? I can understand completely.”

Meanwhile, Diana Crane, 71, who rearranged her schedule to see the show before it closed, said she believed the ICA had made the right decision.

“I respect him for asking to take it down,” she said. “I respect the ICA for doing that.”

Crane, who has seen the Brown series multiple times, said she worried that this would be the last time she would be able to see the photographs in an exhibition.

“I consciously put all the background noise behind me and just thought about the pictures,” said Crane. “When I got to the end, all the noise came back to me because of the sadness that we’re not going to see this again.”

Since the Globe’s report, there have been differing opinions within the ICA about the Nixon exhibition. In an earlier statement to the Globe, the ICA described its decision to keep the show on view as an effort to balance “diverging opinions within the ICA community as well as a commitment to thoughtful and due process.”

That decision appears to have drawn a sharp rebuke from some people who were labeled as “ICA Staff” on the museum’s own web forum.

Nicholas Nixon seen at an exhibit of his photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010.
Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Nicholas Nixon seen at an exhibit of his photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010.

“Presented with an opportunity to make a controversial but morally guided decision, the ICA chose to protect the problematic artist and its own pockets,” wrote one person, who posted anonymously and was labeled as an “ICA Staff Member.” “This demonstrates the ICA has no intention of upholding the radical values it touts in its mission statement.”

In her initial post to the forum, Medvedow wrote that she had been grappling to prioritize “the responsibilities of our museum and [ensure] a thoughtful response, especially in our inflammatory times.”

“So, I struggle with competing truths,” she wrote, “the truth told by the individuals cited in the Globe, the divergent opinions of our staff, and the ICA’s commitment to share all that contemporary art offers . . . including its controversies, complexities, and conflicts.”

Museum workers revisited the matter at a meeting Monday, where one person in attendance, who declined to be identified for fear of professional consequences, said chief curator Eva Respini told attendees the decision to keep the show on view came from Medvedow and the board.

By Wednesday, however, Medvedow had apparently changed her mind, sending an e-mail to the ICA’s boards and staff, describing Nixon’s reaction to the gallery signage and online forum and announcing the museum’s about-face.

The Museum of Fine Arts is meanwhile exhibiting two works by Nixon in its show “(un)expected families.” An MFA spokeswoman said the museum had no plans to remove them from view.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay. Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report.