As museum directors review 2017, most of them would hope that their institutions were noticed for the exhibitions they put on, the number of visitors who came to see those exhibits, the important objects that have entered the permanent collections, and the amount of money their museums brought in. But what will probably be remembered about this year in the art-museum world is not any particular exhibition but a question that kept coming to the fore: What should museums be permitted to do with the objects in their possession? Should they take them down if someone finds them offensive? Do specific identity groups “own” certain themes and subjects? There has been more talk about this issue—which is as much about politics as about art—than about anything else. There have been a number of high-profile disputes about what may be freely expressed in an art museum, and by whom. The response to these disputes on the part of museum directors has ranged from good to spineless.
Demonstrations and protests erupted at the Whitney Museum in New York City when a white artist’s work referencing the lynching of Emmett Till was included in this year’s Biennial—and then again when the Whitney announced a retrospective of the work of Jimmie Durham, an artist whose work references Native American imagery and who claims Cherokee heritage but cannot prove it. There were also protests at the Guggenheim Museum when it included an installation and two videos portraying animal cruelty in an exhibition of current Chinese art; at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when it installed an outdoor sculpture by a white artist decrying capital punishment; and at the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, when it installed a mural that included the image of a slant-eyed Chinese man in a coolie hat.
The Whitney refused to remove the painting of Emmett Till (“Open Casket,” by Dana Schulz) or to cancel the Jimmie Durham retrospective. (For a month or so, a number of African-American activists stood in front of “Open Casket” in order to block viewers from seeing it.) Fears that animal-rights activists would cause damage to the artwork or the museum or both caused the Guggenheim to remove the three offending pieces. Faced with the threat of a boycott, the Dr. Seuss Museum chose to paint out the offending Chinese figure, which had been part of the author’s first children’s book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937. Sam Durant’s 2012 wood-and-metal “Scaffold” was removed from the Walker’s outdoor sculpture garden after members of the Dakota Native American tribe complained that it was a painful reminder of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in 1862 in nearby Mankato. Durant’s sculpture was ritually buried by members of the tribe, with his approval. Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker Art Center, issued a statement apologizing for the museum’s insensitivity. “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” she wrote—and quite soon thereafter.