The opening of the late Philip Guston Show, with a note from a trauma specialist

BOSTON – In the summer of 2020, Caowen Feldman, who was in her second year as director of the museum, felt uneasy, perusing a checklist of photos and an installation plan for Philip Guston’s upcoming show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. How Guston’s hooded Ku Klux Klan caricatures – who explored racism in his politically charged mystery work – will view visitors amid the pain and pressure for racial justice that has just exploded after George Floyd murder?

There were no black trustees on the museum staff at the time. Feldman consulted staff from around the museum, including teachers and security guards, to hear their thoughts. She expressed her concerns to her counterparts at the other three museums collaborating on the Juston show, who had expressed their doubts. When she told her board that all four directors had concluded that the show should be postponed, she mentioned a comment from a black colleague that made a particularly strong impression on her: “Looking at more pictures of the Clan is like cutting another wound on my arm and pouring salt in it. I’m willing to do So, but it must be for a greater reason.”

Joston Gallery collaborating museums — the National Gallery, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston — announced in September that They will postpone the show Until 2024 to rethink it, setting off a firestorm with hundreds of outstanding artists Sign an open letter Saying that institutions are “afraid of controversy” and “lack confidence in the intelligence of their audience”.

Now scheduled to open here on Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the postponement was shortened in response to the protest. Covered character panels are included, along with more historical context; The Emotional Preparedness brochure from a trauma specialist urges visitors to “set your limits and take care of yourself”; A detour allows visitors to bypass Klan-themed businesses. The opening has reignited a fierce debate about whether the delay is a troubling sign that museums are turning away from provocative and defiant action in an era of heightened sensitivities, or a healthy sign that they recently faced the need for change after a long failure to diversify. Its staff, programming and audiences.

“I really couldn’t understand why, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, an institution would choose not to display paintings that were a direct response to racism in such a powerful way,” Danny Simmons, an artist and collector who has collected a letter of protest, said in a recent interview. “I failed to see the downside to the job offer.”

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which contributed $1 million to the exhibition, and curator of the National Gallery, which supported the postponement, said the incident exposed “how inadequately managing museums showing exhibitions is about these sensitive matters and how we have to change that.”

“In the future when museums hold shows like this, people of color should be consulted,” he said. “You don’t ask for their permission, you don’t ask for expert advice, you just sympathize with the people who will be affected.”

The directors of the museums involved in the exhibition, Philip Guston Now, argue that critics missed their delay point: ensuring that Guston’s exhibition was more responsive to the moment.

“We weren’t going to cancel or censor, and we didn’t,” said Gary Tintero, director of the Houston Museum. “But what was equally inevitable was a change in the conversation regarding his work.”

“It’s not about Guston’s admission, it’s about the museum’s hospitality,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Critics are still questioning whether a postponement of about two years is necessary, and how significant the current changes are.

Mark Godfrey, who was curator at the Tate Modern in London before condemning the postponement, said in an Instagram post and accepting the voluntary takeover.

Godfrey said Tate curators have consulted with the museum An ethnic network of blacks, Asians, and minorities She planned an antechamber before the covered panels to provide context on American history and Guston’s life and career, in which the persecution and the Klan themselves figured prominently.

Guston’s daughter, Moses Meyer, who has been highly critical of the decision to postpone the show, said she realized the dispute was not so much a reflection of her father’s artwork as of the challenges facing museums.

“This was a matter of the institutions themselves, and the perceived fragility of museums in light of all the demonstrations, petitions, and other forms of discontent from American museums,” she said in an interview.

In 2017, protesters I stood for hours at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to prevent visitors from viewing “Open Casket,” a painting of black civil rights martyr Emmett Till by white artist Dana Schutz. That year, Walker Center for the Arts in Minneapolis Removal Sam Durant’s sculpture “Scaffold”—which raised the gallows in American history, including the one used to execute members of the Dakota community in 1862—after protests from Dakota. Last year’s retrospective exhibition of Sophie Tyber Arp at the Museum of Modern Art in New York omitted works inspired by Hobby Katsina dolls”Out of respect for the Hopi and Pueblo peoples. “

Museums have also come under scrutiny for a lack of diversity in their staff, boards, and walls, and how they serve their communities. In 2019, a teacher said middle school students were on a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, They were racially abused An incident that the Museum now mentions in the timeline of the Guston Gallery. In 2020, employees at The Metropolitan Museum of ArtAnd Guggenheim and the Smithsonian Institution They criticized what they described as ingrained racism within their institutions.

Justin was famous for his hard work. He began his career in the 1930s as a mural painter inspired by Diego Rivera’s social realism. In the 1950s he became one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism before later returning to plastic art – the cartoonish bricks, shoes, limbs, and portraits that became his signature. This late stage of his career in recent decades, widely criticized at the time, represented Guston’s greatness.

No fewer than twenty works from that period feature covers, which clearly refer to the Klan. Guston, a child of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms, was subjected to Klan violence as a young man in Los Angeles. In the catalog of “Philip Guston Now”, published before the postponement, artist Glenn Ligon interpreted the hoods as Guston’s attempt to address not only racism, but also his complicity.

But during the summer of 2020 — when the pandemic had already delayed the original opening date — Feldman questioned the wisdom of opening without the necessary context or input from people of color. When I started working on the National Gallery in 2019, she said, nearly all of the show curators, leadership team, and board of directors were white, Change curator who soon retired.

“When the show crew is all white, you don’t actually understand how people view the work,” she said. “I am a white woman of privilege. Just because I have a degree in art history does not mean that my feelings matter more or less than those of our wonderful security officers.”

Prior to the postponement, curator Harry Cooper said, the National Gallery had held a “sensitive group” made up of members outside of Juston’s direct team. To rethink the exhibition after the postponement, the museum set up an advisory group with the help of outside consultants to consider the exhibition’s layout and its contextual elements.

“They’re actually doing the work to see how the staff feels,” said Otis Johnson Jr., a former National Gallery security guard who is now an officer in their union.

The Boston Museum has also expanded its team of curators and rethinks how the exhibition will be presented. Chairman Ethan Lasser said the show’s sign-up moments — viewers have to open a sliding panel to see newspaper photos depicting Nazi atrocities and an article about Guston’s defaced mural of a Klansman beating a black person — are efforts to “give agency to visitors.” From the museum’s Art of the Americas department, which has been added to the gallery’s team of curators. He admitted that such devices were “unconventional”.

Rosa Rodriguez Williams“We’ve really focused on the visitor—particularly the racially marginalized, who might be energized by what they see,” said M.D., who was recently named the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s first senior director for Belonging and Inclusion.

Some insist that the process in which the institutions were involved was important and necessary – and should be the new normal.

“There’s a shift that you’re starting to see is directly connected to the Guston show,” said the writer and critic. Antoine Sargent, director of the Gagosian Gallery. For a long time the same voices had a say in museums. Now we do business differently. “

Some prominent museum leaders insist that Guston’s controversy did not instill a new censorship. “I don’t think Guston per se caused museums to set the course,” said Glenn DeLaurie, director of the Museum of Modern Art. “It certainly didn’t get them to say, ‘We’re going to hold back on artists or controversial issues. “

But others worry that the postponement will have a chilling effect on institutions, making them wary of the very thing museums are supposed to do: present art that excites, motivates, and sometimes humiliates.

“What has to be learned is that we can’t look away,” said gallery designer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who said she recently had an experience with an institution that changed course on a show featuring one of its artists due to the sensitivity of a potential audience. “I hope it’s a cautionary tale.”

Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Coordinating Studies at Bard College, said the episode was exceptional.

“Joston’s start-ups will remain one of the biggest distractions of modern museum times,” he said. “People asked, or at least secretly thought, ‘If it could happen to Juston, who else? Who’s next?'”