Saturday 22 December 2018

Reading list. 22 December 2018

An article this week by my colleague Puawai Cairns for the Center for the Future of Museums blog - Decolonisation: we aren’t going to save you. Puawai also pointed this week to an earlier piece of writing by another of our colleagues, Sean Mallon, which is evergreen: Opinion: why we should beware of the word ‘traditional’.

 Interesting job going at the Pitt Rivers, showing how deliberate and pointed research can be one of a museum's best tools of self-reflection and correction: the Research Associate - Labelling Matters is being recruited for a project to "dissect and dismantle some of the complex contested words, stereotypes and concepts that are present not only in museums but in society at large."

The V&A's Tristram Hunt must have a very active comms rep: here he is for the end of the year in The Art Newspaper, Museums must confront the big issues. Still a million times better than the dickwad bemoaning Kaywin Feldmen's appointment as director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington this week - he doesn't warrant a link.

And some listening for over the holiday break:

Circuit's end of year round-up is a two-parter this year, featuring Mark Amery, Shannon Te Ao, Simon Gennard and Health Galbraith. Part One: personal highlights, trends, best show // Part Two: biggest surprise, best publication, best writing, best moving image work

Suse Anderson of MuseoPunks interviews Christopher Bedford, director of Baltimore's Museum of Art 

Saturday 8 December 2018

Reading list, 8 December 2018

“I fell into a trap for 10 years or more of trying to educate the non-Native about what Natives were about,” says Gerald Clarke Jr., a Cahuilla artist known for his large welded sculptures. “It’s a trap because the default setting for mainstream America is that the artist is the ambassador of the community, and that almost replaces the interest in the artist’s own creativity.”

Designing for Instagram is fully established as a real thing (to wit - Ollie Wainwright's
Snapping point: how the world’s leading architects fell under the Instagram spell). The NGV have just paired M.C. Escher (perhaps one of the most Instagram-adaptable of artists) with design firm Nendo: MC Escher gets another dimension – and a show that plunges you into his obsessions.

Ticketed for later listening: a Slate podcast interview with exhibition designers Lana Hum and Mack Cole-Edelsack of MoMA’s exhibition design and production department.

A really fascinating read: Revisiting Suck magazine’s experiment in radical feminist pornography.

Excellent fluff: What 8 Collectors Wore to a Fall Art and Design Fair.

Nathalie de Gunzburg
Age: 52
Occupation: chairwoman, Dia Beacon
You’re wearing leather.
Yes, I’m wearing a Hermès black leather dress.
It’s very strong.
Of course.
How do you dress for an event like this?
I don’t know. I like the dress, I had it in my closet. I thought, Why not?
Your shoes: Are they python?
Yes. They’re Aquazzura. All my shoes are. And they’re very comfy.
I don’t believe that. It’s like a four-inch heel.
It’s a full-time job to know how to walk in heels.

It's that time of the year: How Pantone Picked ‘Living Coral’ as the 2019 ‘Color of the Year’.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Reading list, 2 December 2018

Nathan Sentence, who is a project officer in First Nations programming at the Australian Museum, regularly puts out some of the best writing in the sector. Most recently: Diversity means Disruption.

Among the many reactions to Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr's report to President Macron on the repatriation of African artefacts from French museums:

Return of African Artifacts Sets a Tricky Precedent for Europe’s Museums, featuring Hartwig Fischer (British Museum), Hartmut Dorgerloh (Humboldt Forum) and Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III (AfricAvenir International)

Restitution Report: museum directors respond, featuring Tristram Hunt (V&A), Nicholas Thomas (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) and Dorgerloh

Legal challenges remain for restituting African artefacts from French museums

Monday 26 November 2018

Reading list, 26 November 2018

Better late than never ...

Matariki Williams (curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa, Tusk co-founder and The Pantograph Punch contributor) writes about the RA's Oceania for Frieze: Complicating the Narrative of ‘Oceania’.

Follow-up from an earlier link: the Ben Uri Gallery in London is deaccessioning a chunk of its collection to raise funds to widen its remit: the inner circle of trustees has approved this decision, the wider advisory board (stacked with big names) has come out swinging against it: Ben Uri museum advisory board resigns en masse over Sotheby’s sale of works from the collection.

Look for big moves in repatriation next year: from the BBC, 'Stolen friend': Rapa Nui seek return of moai statue; from the Art Newspaper,  'Give Africa its art back', Macron's report says.

I'm considering an overnight trip to Sydney before March especially to see Nick Cave's installation at Carriageworks - Nick Cave on his darkly exquisite new work: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’

Glenn Lowry's contract has been extended at MOMA - if he serves his full term through to 2025, that will be 30 years in charge. He got the job in 1995 when he was 40.

The Gray Market goes deeper into a recent report published in Science about how artists' careers are made or broken on the basis of a small number of key galleries & how fast they get into them. Good graphs. Still my best weekly email newsletter.

A dual interview with Phyllida Barlow and Anna Maria Maiolino in the NYT MagazineTwo Pioneering Artists Discuss Motherhood and Machismo.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Peter Peryer, 1941 - 2018

Peter Peryer in his Devonport studio, 1985. Photo by Jim Barr and Mary Barr

The artist Peter Peryer died on Sunday. I say 'artist' advisedly, because Peter was a photographer who came of age in the 1970s, when contemporary photography was scrapping its way into the art system: galleries, criticism, the market.

He was a great artist, and also one of the first artists I was able to get to know as a human being, not the subject of an art history lecture. I've been lucky enough to be able to buy a few examples of his work over the years - including a portrait photo of a set of salad servers that was an engagement gift to ourselves over a decade ago now. I was even luckier to be able to work with him when I was director at The Dowse, on the exhibition Peter Peryer: A Careful Eye, beautifully curated by Sian Van Dyk.

It's a cliche to say that artists make you look at the world in a different way, but Peter's visual sense literally infected me. When I'd been spending time with him, my eyes would attune themselves to his imagery, and walking through the world after that felt like being a roving Peter Peryer image-making machine - snap snap snap. He was a characterful and distinctive man, articulate, gorgeously presented, ever so romantic, and possessed of the most wonderfully naughty gurgling laugh. I got to spend Sunday night thinking about him and writing a memorial of sorts for him for Radio New Zealand today, which you can listen to here.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Reading list, 18 November 2018

Tara Robertson is back in Wellington as a keynote at this week's National Digital Forum, and catching up with her sent me back to her 2016 essay Digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, on the social and cultural considerations beyond the value of 'open access' when it comes to digitising archival collections, which is still bloody good.

3 Days, 150 Paintings: A Whirlwind Tintoretto Tour - why won't anyone pay me to write pieces like this? (Lots of reasons, really. Good ones, too.)

For my own future reference - historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore interviewed on her new book, These Truths.

A handy recap: Museums don’t just want gift shops to make money — they want them to shape our understanding of art.

Lisa Martin for The GuardianAustralian cultural institutions struggle to survive as War Memorial gets half-billion dollar upgrade.

Dr. Barabási and his team spent the past three years reconstructing the exhibition histories of nearly 500,000 artists, whose work was shown in about 16,000 galleries and 7,500 museums between 1980 and 2016. He and his team also scoured sales held in 1,239 global auction houses from the same 36-year time period. 
They used this data to help trace the paths that artists took early in their careers, tracking how one who earned a spot on the roster of Gallery A subsequently got exhibited in Museum B and then Museum C, for example.
Kelly Crow's The Surprising Formula for Becoming an Art Star for the WSJ, on a recently published study that over three years researched the exhibition histories of nearly 500,000 artists, whose work was shown in about 16,000 galleries and 7,500 museums between 1980-2016, to map the network of power behind artists who become successful.

Saturday 10 November 2018

Reading list, 10 November 2018

Museums are dangerous places: How Te Papa is challenging colonialist history - or as the author, my stellar colleague Puawai Cairns put it in a tweet, "The byline I’ve seen “How Te Papa is challenging colonial history” is a bit wrong though. The Māori communities who work with us are provoking most of the best change, we just have to be brave and reMāorify how we tell stories."

And another stellar colleague, currently on secondment to MCH working on repatriation at a national level: Amber Aranui for Pantograph Punch - Toi moko in Toi Art: A Harbinger for a Conversation.

Your taste is why your work disappoints you:  a simply wonderful piece by Penguin Random House New Zealand's publishing manager Claire Murdoch, who manages to mine memories of childhood reading, writing and friendship without ever getting saccharine.

The Ben Uri Gallery in London, established to help Jewish immigrants gain access to the arts, is deaccessioning works from its permanent collection (through a combination of selling via auction and distributing to public collections) in order to expand their mission and respond to contemporary society by championing immigrant artists.

An insightful article by Charles Desmarais for the SF Chronicle on the appointment of Tom Campbell (unceremoniously ushered out of the Met directorship last year) to fill the vacancy left by his successor Max Hollein at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Love a good new-director story: Suzanne Muchnic for ArtNews on Klaus Biesenbach and LA MOCA.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Reading list, 28 October 2018

Back on the wagon ...

A great Longform podcast interview with New York Magazine's veteran art critic Jerry Saltz. Start listening to it for his enticement of more writing from younger people on their own peer group: stay for where he talks about his marriage to the stellar NYT art critic Roberta Smith. P.S. I hope Roberta has both health insurance and retirement savings.

I spent last week on the Museums & Galleries Australia week-long residential museum leadership programme. I'm still processing it - I went partly to build out my Australian networks, partly to audit the programme on behalf of Museums Aotearoa (New Zealand has no equivalent programme) and partly for my own reflection and (hopefully) growth. Without any doubt, the most valuable part was the day we had with Nicholas Serota, as he walked us through what I think of as the four 'seasons' of his extended tenure at Tate.  I'm still processing this, but one of my classmates, Paul Bowers, managed to reflect & write-up on the day: A day with Nicholas Serota.

This McKinsey Quarterly piece was cited by another instructor on the MGA programme: Accidentally agile: An interview with the Rijksmuseum’s Taco Dibbits in which the director talks about how teams were formed and dissolved around pieces of work for their massive renovation. Reading it, I couldn't help but think that small evolutions look like revolutions in hidebound old institutions, but there's a few nuggets, like having one exhibition team prep the first list of works for a collection hang, and a second team then be charged to come in, reduce it by two thirds, and argue for the inclusion of every object they're keeping.

Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History have released a Community Issue Exhibition Toolkit, based on their own work.

Why Are Antiques So Cheap? Because Everyone Lives in the Kitchen - this NYT piece by Scott Reyburn starts out kinda chintzy, but then becomes really interesting on how families' use of their houses, and accompanying furnishings trends, are changing.

Oof. From the Harvard Business ReviewWhen Boards Broaden Their Definition of Diversity, Women and People of Color Lose Out.
Whereas a mandate of diversity once inspired attention to demographic differences, including gender, race, and ethnicity, it now increasingly prioritizes differences of functional and industry experience. ... 
... Attention once oriented toward underrepresented groups (women and racial and ethnic minorities) is increasingly centered on technical attributes, such as experience and skills.
Mandatory proxy disclosures offer plain evidence of this shift. Among the largest U.S. firms last year, less than 45% attended to traditional measures of diversity (for example, gender) in their proxy disclosures. Director and recruiter interviews confirm evidence procured from company disclosures. 
One result has been a noticeable slowdown in the rate of appointment of women and other minorities to board seats. Globally, women hold only 15% of all corporate board seats, a mere increase of 2% since 2015. Among large U.S. companies (S&P 1500), women hold just 16% of seats — fewer seats than are held by directors named John, Robert, and William. Moreover, among the premier Fortune 500, women’s share of board seats actually declined by two percentage points in 2016. 
Thought provoking stuff from art consultant Lisa Schiff: Is This the Victory Lap We Were Hoping For? Why We Must Keep Women and Artists of Color From Becoming the Next Victims of Market Speculation

And finally, tangentially linked to Nick Serota (now chair of Arts Council England) - one of their recent research reports, commissioned from Golant Media Ventures and The Audience Agency, What is resilience anyway?, which has introduced me to the concept of 'bouncing back' and 'bouncing forward'.

Friday 20 July 2018

Art News New Zealand Winter 2018

On Deaccessioning

Like cicadas, elected officials seem to follow a periodical cycle: driven by some hidden biological cue, on a regular basis around the country one group of councillors or another will be found mooting selling off star artworks from the municipal gallery to fund its activities, or support infrastructure and operational costs elsewhere in council. On an equally biological level, these threats trigger an allergic reaction amongst the staff at the institution concerned, and around the country. The spectre of forced deaccessioning strikes at the heart of our sector's commitment to permanency, history, and public service.

However, deaccessioning - the considered removal of a work or object from a museum's permanent collection - shouldn't be a taboo topic. The Museums Aotearoa Code of Ethics states that it is the responsibility of every institution to have a clear policy on collection development, care, and deaccessioning, and the corresponding responsibility of the governing body to ensure funds raised from approved deaccessioning are invested back into the collection. Reasons for deaccessioning a work might include that it is irretrievably damaged, that it has no relevance to the wider collection or mission of the organisation, or that the museum should not have accessioned the item in the first place; "raising money" is not one of the criteria. These statements are replicated by museum associations around the world. They emerge from a concern that incompetent or short-sighted governance bodies will shore up shaky finances by plundering public collections - the bodies of work built up to represent and make freely available a population's cultural heritage and stories.

A complex debate has been running in the United States for the past year over the decision by the trustees of Massachusetts' Berkshire Museum to sell 40 artworks in a bid to raise US$55M, to alleviate a budget deficit and invest in an expansion that would direct the museum further away from art and more emphatically into science. The legal battle went all the way to the state's Supreme Judicial Court; the sales have gone ahead through public auction at Sotheby's and private treaty. The Association of Art Museum Directors has censured the museum, and imposed sanctions that prevent other members from cooperating with the museum on loans and other activities.

Things are considerably more sunny in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where earlier this year the Philbrook Museum of Art deaccessioned a single 18th century Chinese porcelain vase, donated in the 1960s and only rarely displayed; it was sold in a special one-lot sale at Christie's for US$14.5million. Philbrook director Scott Stulen said the proceeds would be placed in a restricted fund, to be used for the acquisition of "potentially .... hundreds of other artworks".

And in Baltimore, the Baltimore Museum of Art has undertaken a strategic and highly publicised act of deaccessioning, deaccessioning seven 20th century works by white male artists, to create funds dedicated to acquiring works by women and artists of colour. More than US$7.5M was generated by the sale of works by Warhol, Kline, Rauschenberg and others that curators deemed could be spared from the collection; the first round of resulting acquisitions has just been announced, including pieces by Jack Whitten, Amy Sherald and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In a recent op-ed for Frieze, BMA director Christopher Bedford described this as a "aggressive but responsible deaccessioning process", that would "provide the war chest necessary to correct the canon looking back, and allow us to buy without compromise the most important work being made today". Bedford also noted the often jubilant press coverage of the decision to sell works by deceased white artists in order to buy new work by artists of colour; he described this as "true, but only partially by design ... a function of history and testament to the prejudice that has structured museum collecting, that of the BMA as well as most institutions".   

It is interesting to contrast reactions to these three actions. The Philbrook has been quite straightforward - a pot "languishing" in the collection has been released to enrich the wider collection: it's hard not to think "You lucky buggers, I wish I had one of those". The BMA example has raised angst from some commentators, but largely been embraced as the action of a woke 21st century museum. The Berkshire Museum meanwhile has been roundly and bitingly condemned - although one could argue that shoring up finances, keeping the doors open, and pivoting to science in order to better serve the needs of its community is actually a more necessary and meaningful goal than adding more items to a collection store.

I often reflect that we as the museum sector makes up our own rules. We might feel like they're graven in marble, but actually, they're relatively new and far from immutable. Rather than waiting in quiet fear for a group of councillors to turn their roving eyes upon our collection stores, perhaps it's time to look to American institutions and how they are taking (or losing) control of the deaccessioning narrative, in order to develop our own practice.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Reading list, 7 July 2018

An excellent and topical piece by Adam Goodall for the Pantograph Punch, The Difficult History and Precarious Future of the PACE Programme.

And more bias ahoy - Francis McWhannell for Pantograph Punch on Simon Gennard's curatorial project Sleeping Arrangements, currently on show at The Dowse.

The latest issue of reliably excellent Gray Market Weekly is reliably excellent, and looks at - amongst other things - expansionist activities by the mega-galleries, such as Hauser & Wirth's three bars/restaurants. It also points to Richard Polsky's op-ed, Why the Passing of Interview Magazine and the Rise of Gagosian Quarterly Represents a New Era for the Art World.

Two wonderful profiles - Thomas Chatterton Williams on Adrian Piper for the New York Times and Steve Rose on Theaster Gates for the Guardian

Off topic, but too good not to share - Judith Newman's He’s Going Back to His Former Wife. Sort Of., published in the New York Times Modern Love section, is a beautifully written piece on the death and complicated burial wishes of an older husband.

Saturday 30 June 2018

Reading list 30 June 2018

A deeper than expected article on artist-branded merchandise from The Guardian - Van Gogh leggings and Tracey teacups: how art merch broke out of the gift shop.

One of my nightmares: He Couldn’t Refuse a Deathbed Plea. Now He’s Got 10,000 Pieces of Art. (I genuinely feel for the friends and family who have to care for the artworks and studio left behind by a loved one - especially if they were unprepared.)

Shelley Bernstein's next move. Always pay attention to Shelley.

Such an interesting edition of The Gray Market: On the Reason Museums Might Soon Take Political Positions, a Bold New Approach to Provenance, and a Telling Quirk of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Market.

Biased much, but - Matariki Williams for The Pantograph Punch, The Singing Word: On Shannon Te Ao’s my life as a tunnel.

The reliably insightful Colleen Dilenschneider on Why the Percentage of Families Visiting Cultural Entities is Declining (US data) - not because they hate museums, but because the number of households with children is proportionally declining.

Teju Coles's latest for the New York Times, Take a Photo Here, looks at how buildings and built environment 'ask', or have been constructed, to be photographed.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Reading list, 23 June 2018

Creative New Zealand recently released New Zealanders and the Arts, their regular research into how the arts are being experienced and perceived across the country. Likewise, Arts Council England has released a data map of arts engagement across England, which will guide their investment through a new £24m programme. And in Canada, Culture Track: Canada, a similar report but one funded by an advocacy group with contributions from corporate sponsors and institutions. (One interesting finding there: it's people who don't have English or French as their first language who are most culturally engaged.)

Jason Farago breaks down *that* video: At the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay-Z Are Both Outsiders and Heirs.

Rachel Wetzler on the "that photo is just like a Renaissance painting!" meme:
A contemporary photograph simply can’t be “like a Renaissance painting” because it partakes of another kind of social relationship, conditioned by a different set of conventions for making and seeing images.
I've kinda missed reading good old-fashioned deep dive explanations of fairly straightforward digital projects, like Colin Brooks's Answering the question “what’s on today?”, about the changes made to the Whitney's 'what's on today?' feature, which also successfully flowed through to their public wifi log-in.

Is the Art World Too Big for Its Own Good? - The NYT's T Magazine gathers NYC dealers Paula Cooper, Elyse Derosia, Bridget Donahue and Sean Kelly to 'discuss art fairs, auctions and staying in business'.

This account of a new gallery in the Uffizi to house some of their Renaissance heavy-hitters cracked me up: on the one hand, the director is receiving updates on climate control around the works on his cellphone; on the other hand, there's this photo from the transfer of the paintings, which my registrar would shoot me if I posted on Insta:

Museum workers carrying the dual portraits of Agnolo Doni and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi, from the Palazzo Pitti to their new location in Room 41 of the Uffizi. Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
And this beautiful piece: Natural Causes by Annie Godfrey Larmon, on environmental change and America's heroic 20th century land art icons.

Friday 22 June 2018

Public letter: Cuts to Art History at Victoria University of Wellington

Victoria University of Wellington is currently running a change proposal for the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies. According to the proposal, academic positions in the Art History department will be reduced from 5 to 4, and the dedicated administrator role disestablished. A further review is indicated for 2019 with the possibility of further cuts; it is the only department in the proposal treated in this way. Changes (considerably more encouraging in tone) are also signaled in the change proposal for the Museums and Heritage Studies programme.

While this is not technically a public consultation, there's nothing stopping you from making a submission. The Support Art History at VUW website has been set up to help this; you can email to obtain a copy of the consultation paper. Submissions are due by midday Friday June 29, and can be emailed to  Lillian Loftus, Faculty HR Manager at

Below is the text of the submission I made this week. Enrolling in Art History at Vic literally changed my life path, and I feel really strongly about this. Please consider adding your own thoughts to the submissions.

* * * * *


I provide this submission as a graduate of Victoria’s Art History Programme (Master of Arts, 2004), and in my professional capacity as Director of The Dowse Art Museum and Chair of Museums Aotearoa, New Zealand’s umbrella organisation representing 475 organisations.

I made an earlier submission on this change proposal which I have attached for context.

Specific feedback on the proposal as it affects Art History 

This submission is made from a position of strong support for the need and value of a vital, outward-looking and internationally-respected Art History programme at Victoria. With other universities cutting courses in the Humanities, VUW is positioned to exploit the strengths of its existing offer and develop new and deeply relevant programmes for New Zealand and international students – but only with the support and belief of university administration. As an employer and professional in a sector reliant upon art history graduates and professionals, many aspects of this proposal fill me with despair.

I acknowledge that falling enrolments are being at least partially attributed to a reduction in the number of secondary schools offering Art History. Having had a similar conversation with Massey University regarding visual arts intakes, I must say I am considerably more inspired by Massey’s approach of doubling down on outreach and student recruitment, compared to VUW’s slow bloodletting.

The University finds itself in a Catch-22 position. Falling enrolments are being used as an argument for reducing staff positions; at the same time, with a reduction in academic staff and the removal of the dedicated administrator, it will be difficult for the department to refresh papers, build public profile and offer the manaakitanga that has drawn generations of students into the department to date.

The proposal also indicates another review and round of changes in 2019. Such major disruption and uncertainty will not only impact staff hugely: it will undermine current and future students’ confidence in the programme and predictably negatively affect enrolments. I cannot see how this proposal achieves anything more than setting a course towards an utterly predictable failure.

Section 1.5.1 of the proposal contains one statement that puzzles me: “the current academic staffing in Art History, while mainly emphasising curatorial studies, ranges beyond the Gallery’s focus on contemporary NZ art.” This is erroneous on two counts; firstly, while some papers contain a small curatorial element and a number of the lecturers also undertake curatorial projects (a form of generating and disseminating research as valid as publishing), by no means would I describe the department as “emphasising curatorial studies”; and secondly, the Adam Art Gallery has a much wider remit than contemporary New Zealand art and in fact presents a varied programme of international, historical and modern exhibitions that are arguably more diverse than any other Wellington region institution – a major feat, given its staffing size and budget.

Specific feedback: Museum and Heritage Studies

I find the recommendations on Museums and Heritage Studies considerably more encouraging. This includes the recognition that an imbalanced EFTS ratio is appropriate for this course, but more importantly, the two areas of growth that are indicated.

Professional development at advanced levels of the sector is a topic that has already been raised with the Ministers responsible for Arts, Culture and Heritage. Speaking from my experience consulting on professional development needs within New Zealand’s museum sector, there is definitely appetite for the kinds of modular/blocked and executive development courses suggested in the proposal. These would be particularly valuable if they could be delivered in partnership with other areas of the university, including Māori Studies, Pacific Cultures and Languages, Public Law and Business.

I would also encourage in due course further exploration of the concept of a “Heritage Hub”, and put forth Te Papa, National Services Te Paerangi, Heritage New Zealand and Museums Aotearoa as potential partners or stakeholders in this conversation.

Missed opportunities 

The more closely I look at this proposal, the more strongly I am struck by the fact that it appears to be entirely motivated by cost-cutting, and how void it is of aspiration, innovation or even – “even”! – attention to academic excellence or the student experience.

The potential is there for Victoria to look for growth from the separate and combined strengths of these two departments.

Aotearoa New Zealand is crying out for academic attention to be given to Māori and Pacific traditional and contemporary art forms and practices; there is a vibrant and ever-growing international discussion about decolonisation and indigenous regeneration Victoria could play a role in supporting, even leading, with a little strategic investment.

There is no postgraduate curatorial training course in the visual arts, and early career professionals regularly head offshore for this – despite the fact the Wellington region has a greater density of potential partners in this area than any other location in the country.

I urge the Decision Panel to consult with the cultural sector before making further decisions, and open your eyes to what you may be able to grow, rather than prune away.

Saturday 9 June 2018

Reading list, 9 June 2018

Wow. That was a long break. Back into it then ...

I've done a lot of thinking about Kaywin Feldman's (the director of Minneapolis's MIA) Museum leadership in a time of crisis. It makes interesting contrast reading to Olga Viso's Decolonizing the Art Museum: The Next Wave (written in the wake of leaving Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, in the wake of Sam Durant's Scaffold). It's worth taking a look at MIA's (short) Strategic Plan to 2021 to see how Feldman's thinking is reflected in organisational priorities. An amazing focus on visitors, members, audiences and communities, ("Mia 2021 is focused on relationships between the museum and: its diverse community, individuals who are sophisticated and loyal arts enthusiasts, and curious explorers seeking wonder and inspiration") but except for a mention of expanding the collection, nary a mention of artists as one of these communities to be focused upon, supported, or better understood.

Mary Louise Schumacher reviews the current state of art writing for Nieman in Critics and Online Outlets Leading the Vanguard in Arts Writing and also produced a focus on Hyperallergic, based on its ranking by other art journalists: Hyperallergic, at Age 9, Rivals the Arts Journalism of Legacy Media.

Yesterday Seb Chan published Ten things for my museum colleagues working in digital, an expansion of ten provocations he was asked to pose at this week's Museums and Galleries Australia conference. It's not just for people working in museums though, or in digital:

... US museums are disproportionately discussed in the global press. The international centres of finance and media remain New York and London, and as a result it should be no suprise that museums that are ‘visible’ to media companies located in those cities will be more widely covered. This is obvious, however it turns out that museum professionals are very good at amplifying these already loud media voices on social media. 
It doesn’t help that our world has become a slow motion car crash and all of our attention is being sucked into a vortex of US politics, but if you are in Australia it might be helpful to remind yourself that we have a different history, different beliefs, and different issues that are more pressing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find allies with museum workers overseas, but even something as simple as comparing working conditions requires an understanding of the radically different contexts.
More on the digital front: the excellent Mitchell Whitelaw interviews the excellent George Oates on Making and Remaking Collections Online. I'm so fortunate that I got involved in the National Digital Forum when I did, and got to work with both these amazing people. The interview is part of the Remaking Collections grouping on the Open Library of Humanities, launched in late April and designed to keep growing.

Without a doubt the most dumbfounding art-tech story I've read in the past month: ‘Arrested Development’ Actor Portia de Rossi Has Invented a New Technology That She Hopes Will Render Art Galleries Obsolete.

An interesting piece from Australia's NAVA, Towards national standards for art in the public space:

Approximately 80% of the disputes that come to NAVA concern public art: regular reports of exploitative EOIs; lengthy and contradictory contracts issued after the work has started, or sometimes, after it’s been completed; having to work with third-party fabricators who neither like nor understand art; change of project direction or timeline without warning or compensation to the artist; confused approaches to maintenance, from short-termism to lengthy lifetime agreements; and so much more. 
Without a national approach to commissioning public art, including widespread recognition and mandating of best practice, it remains a relatively ad hoc industry. Public art commissions gone pear-shaped come to NAVA too often, and with so many inconsistencies, we risk seeing artists turn their back on this important opportunity. 
And finally, a beautiful piece from Edmund de Waal for the Guardian, after judging the Wellcome book prize: Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

Saturday 5 May 2018

Reading list, 5 May 2018

The Baltimore Museum of Art has announced plans to sell seven works by white male artists from its collection, to create an endowment targeted at buying contemporary work by women and artists of colour. Compared to the shitshow that some recent American art deaccessioning has seemed to devolve into, the BMA's process looks immaculate and even includes donors of the works ticketed for sale heartily endorsing the idea.

It boggles my mind that there is such a thing as a "more notable startup" in the "digital art subscription space". Why anyone would invest in such a thing I don't know.

Tim Schneider takes on the blockbuster fallacy in his latest The Gray News column, building off reporting by Javier Pes on exhibitions plans at London's National Portrait Gallery and Colleen Dilenschneider's analysis of blockbuster exhibitions and visitation trends.
It is not easy to acknowledge one’s blind spots. What I had hoped would be an opportunity for public education and “truth to power” in the presentation of “Scaffold” was simply not possible because of the continuing historical trauma about an unreckoned-with colonial past. This was a humbling public admission for a person whose career has been devoted to providing a platform for underrepresented histories.
Olga Viso, ex-director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, reflects on what decolonising the museum might mean, in the wake of the Scaffold experience.

Saturday 28 April 2018

Reading list, 28 April 2018

Ioana Gordon-Smith for Pantograph Punch: From the Margins to the Mainstream: Pacific Sisters at Te Papa.

I'm fascinated by this model: a NYC dealer gallery, Postmasters Gallery, has launched a Patreon programme to build a kind of supporters club, to sit alongside actual buyers. Covered on (the very good) The Gray Market newsletter and on Artnet News.

Nina Simon has released the full text of her book The Art of Relevance online.

Simon Gennard's beautiful and insightful essay, accompanying his exhibition Sleeping Arrangements, now on at The Dowse. The exhibition bring together the work of four artists (Malcolm Harrison, Grant Lingard, Zac Langdon-Pole and Micheal McCabe) from three different generations, using the pivotal moment of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New Zealand at the start of the 1990s as a context for exploring their work.

I am FASCINATED by LACMA's Collectors Committee Weekend, a fundraising extravaganza in which they raise acquisition funds. I think it should be made into a reality tv show.

Shelly Bernstein writes about how the Barnes Foundation has rewritten visitor guides, visitors rules and host training to manage safe distances in their (small, stuffed-to-the-gills-with-extraordinary-objects) galleries.
It is hard to pick favorites in this exhibition which dishes out so many levels of weirdness my head starts to spin. There are serious book illustrations done for Sinclair Lewis, and a corncob chandelier for a hotel dining room. There is elegant silver work paired with painted metal machine parts wired up as eccentric flowers in clay pots. And learning details from the catalog about his life, like the tale of him attending a costume party dressed as an angel with wings, a pink flannel nightie and a halo, makes a definitive understanding of this work fruitless.
A fun and provocative review of Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables at the Whitney Museum by Dennis Kardon for Hyperallergic.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Reading list, 22 April 2018

“The Turner Prize changed all sorts of things,” she said. “Now, if I say I want something, people try and do it for me, and that’s never happened to me in the whole of my life.”
Hettie Judah on Lubaina Himid: She Won the Turner Prize. Now She’s Using Her Clout to Help Others.

This has been passed around incessantly (and deservedly) but I'm dropping it in here for future references: Junot Díaz's The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.

Read anything Kyle Chayka writes: Style Is an Algorithm.

I honestly can't tell if the profession will learn from this, or beat its collective head against its collective desk (probably both, to be fair): What Is a ‘Narrative Art Museum’? 6 Things to Expect From George Lucas’s New LA Museum.

This sounds like sheer horror to me, but I am a known kill-joy: The Post-Millennial Generation Is Here … and they're working at the Museum of Ice Cream. You might as well pair that with this recent Hyperallergic piece by Mitchell Kuga, How Corporations Harness — and Hijack — the Idea of the Museum. And seeing as we're on the topic, from the Culture™ newsletter: Must the museum be defended from branded content?
Honestly, I don’t expect my work to survive 100 years. Let it perish if it’s perishable. It’s like an emotion. Can you preserve an emotion for 100 years?
Palette cleanser: a recent interview with Sheila Hicks by Anicka Yi.

Friday 20 April 2018

Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2018

Women getting fired

"The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help", read a March 19 headline on the Huffington Post website. The article recapped three high profile layoffs of women from leadership positions in art museums: Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who resigned in January after what she described as "political differences" with the museum's board; Musée d’Art Contemporain director María Inés Rodríguez, let go on the International Women's Day because her programme was "too demanding"; and Helen Molesworth, chief curator at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), who according to the museum's press statement chose to step down "due to creative differences" - a piece of phrasing refuted by artist and MOCA board member Catherine Opie, who told Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight that the curator had in fact been fired by director Philippe Vergne for "undermining the museum".

All three departures have been covered by the international art press, but Molesworth's case has received special attention, perhaps due to the nature of the institution. Opened in 1979, MOCA is LA's only artist-founded museum, and has a strong history of progressive and groundbreaking shows. It also has a recent history of turmoil, especially during the divisive directorship of Jeffrey Deitch. A relatively small institution, the museum punches well above its weight in terms of influence.

Seeking answers for the surprise announcement, some reports focused on rumours of Molesworth driving out long-serving staff. Others speculated that Vergne's decision to curate several exhibitions of high profile white male artists' work defied Molesworth's programming efforts. But ultimately, as Julia Halperin wrote on Artnet News, "Molesworth’s personal priorities, progressive politics, and constitutional aversion to flattering donors put her on a collision course with the museum’s director and board."

Since the announcement, extracts from earlier interviews given by Molesworth have circulated widely on social media, including this from a 2016 interview with The Art Newspaper:

"Most museums still maintain a commitment to an idea of the best, or quality, or genius. And I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values. But I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favour white men. One of the things you have to say as a curator is “We are not going to present the value that already exists; we are going to do the work to create value around these woman artists and artists of colour that would just come ‘naturally’ to the white male artist.”

Molesworth's departure comes at a time when the equity of museums' exhibition programming and acquisitions is closely scrutinised. In a recent article for ArtForum on the work of Simone Leigh, Molesworth wrote:

"The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by. ... I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable."

A widely identified point of contention was Molesworth's refusal to feign interest in the collections and priorities of board members and supporters if they did not match her priorities. In another article for Artnet News,  Felix Salmon analysed auction data for artists featured in MOCA solo shows over the past 15 years. Positing that donor management is one of the chief curator's primary responsibilities, Salmon showed that the number of shows devoted to top-tier market figures had dropped precipitously during Molesworth's tenure. Molesworth, Salmon states, was "sending a very clear message to the kind of collectors who love to bask in the reflected glory of their Ruschas and Rauschenbergs and Murakamis: Your kind of artists aren’t going to get big solo shows at MOCA any more." He concludes: "Very few boards of trustees would be happy putting their support behind such a message; MOCA’s clearly weren’t."

In March I attended the Australian Public Galleries Summit in Sydney. On a panel of artists invited to describe about what galleries would look like if artists ran them, Deborah Kelly noted that secure public funding would be in place, which would eliminate the unsustainable business models of appealing to fickle billionaires for financial security. It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but it reminded me of the gratitude I feel for working in an art world that remains largely publicly funded, and where situations such as those Molesworth faced at MOCA are relatively rare. At the same time, this year the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has about 50 appointments to make to the boards of organisations it oversees. In a period of rapid social change, the need for board members to be self-aware and socially informed - one might even say "woke" - has never been stronger; for the good of our organisations, and for boards' own self-respect.

Saturday 7 April 2018

Reading list, 7 April 2018

In light of Helen Molesworth's abrupt departure from LA MOCA, apparently because of tension between her programming priorities and those of the museum, her article Art Is Medicine on Simone Leigh's work for the February issue of ArtForum makes interesting reading:
To be situated outside of the main event, to be refused entry, to be placed in a position of radical unknowing—these are deeply interesting aspects of Leigh’s work for me as a white woman. And perhaps more to the point, this is the position from which I must engage with the work, and it is demonstrably different from the place I typically occupy, marked as it is by my status as insider, learned, knowledgeable, comfortable. For centuries, all of culture’s agents—its makers, benefactors, and audiences—have been presumed to be white men, and for centuries, Leigh’s primary audience, black women, were denied a place in this hegemonic structure. This was not a victimless crime. There are ramifications. And one of them, Leigh suggests, is a profound need for intimacy and privacy, for secrecy, for going underground.
Grim: Inquiry launched into Canberra's museums, galleries after funding, staff cuts

Grimmer: V&A opens dialogue on looted Ethiopian treasures. For god's sake, just send them home.

Sure, why not: Picture Yourself at the Museum of Selfies

The writer's method: Anne Helen Petersen's How I wrote about the Nashville Bachelorettes (she is so worth following on Tiny Letter)

Saturday 31 March 2018

My first time - on Steve Carr's "Screenshots"

Seeing Steve Carr's 9-screen video work Screenshots last weekend, on loan from the Chartwell Collection for Te Papa's new colour-themed exhibition, reminded me that I have an unpublished essay in my archive about this piece that I really enjoyed writing. It's based on seeing the work for the first time five years ago, in Michael Lett's previous gallery space.


It’s a simple set-up. A three-by-three grid of video screens hung on the end wall of a darkened gallery. On each screen, a pair of man’s arms in crisp white shirtsleeves are limned against a solid coloured background. The left hand grasps a pendulous balloon by the throat; the right hand is poised at a small distance, away and below, lightly balancing a long pin. Nine glowing rectangles of saturated colour, each pairing slightly off: brown balloon against lilac background, orange on peach, teal on terracotta. Framed by white cloth and tanned skin, the balloons fill the centre of the screen, tongues of light licking their heavy curves.

For a moment, everything is immaculate: the flat colours, the clean cloth, the heavy-bottomed balloons with their still-life lighting, the glancing shine of the slender pin. For a moment, all I see is colour and shape and light.

Then the movement begins.

On screen after screen, the pin is slowly pressed into the fullest part of the balloon’s curve. The initial small depression grows slowly into a navel-like indentation until - after a long breath - there is the delayed yet inevitable puncture. A thread of paint spurts forth before the skin of the balloon peels backwards, momentarily exposing a perfect globe of paint, which then descends in thick creamy swathes or flings itself away in shiny ribbons, falling from sight until all that is left are the tender, limp remnants of the balloon, a chicken’s neck of rubber clutched in the man’s hand, slowly dripping to the video’s conclusion.

Over the work’s 22-minute duration, this cycle of tension, anticipation and release plays out over and over again, each individual loop moving independently to its eight brethren. My eyes flicker and linger over the nine views. I want to catch every moment: the serene opening view, the pin’s slow advance, the rubber skin’s initial resistance, the startle of the first breaching, the silent swoosh as the paint shucks off its casing, the dribbling deliquescence with which each vignette concludes.

Then comes the point where watching, transfixed, I shake off the trance and laugh out loud. I am ... happy. Charmed. And seduced. With its ultra-slow tempo and doubled physicality – the balloon and pin that you see, the body that is hinted at – Screenshots is unabashedly, gleefully sensual. 

Here, more than any other piece by Carr I know, the viewer can share in the physicality of the work. We dandle the balloon in our own hand, relive the kindergarten delight in heavy, wobbly forms, feel the electric shock as the pin breaks the surface, experience the sudden release of weight that throws our hands apart. 

I also find a sensuality in the simplicity and completeness of the work. There is a corporeal pleasure in an idea so deftly delivered into the world. The analogy that springs to mind is a sporting one – the physical sense of satisfaction derived from an expertly executed movement. The flawless golf swing, the instinctive catch in the slips, the explosive energy of a perfectly balanced body bursting from the blocks, the triumphant slapping down of feet in a rock-steady dismount. In the same way that all these actions involve a practised economy of effort, Screenshots seduces because it brings off a simple idea in such a way that the effort behind the act is made invisible.  

Screenshots epitomises what I admire about Carr’s video work. There is the element of childish or childlike delight; the delicious heft of a water bomb cradled in your palm, the illicit bang! of a popped balloon, the messy pleasure of paint. And then there is the counterpoint of these innocent physical pleasures: the whisper, or explicit presence, of sexual tension; the undeniable fact that here you are at first the unwitting and then the complicit witness, over and over again, to Carr’s moneyshot.

That ‘over and over again’ is important. Watched for long enough, Screenshots become an experiment, many instances with small variations, each captured by the camera’s objective eye. But what hypothesis is Carr testing? If it is not the obvious answer (a balloon, when pricked, will always burst) then what is it? If the balloon stands in for the body, whose body is it? Who is taking or creating pleasure here? Is it pleasure, or is it control? Is this about learning through test and trial, or exercising power through the same methods? Scientific interest tilts towards prurience - If I press here, what happens? And here? And here? Yes, interesting. And ... here? Indeed. Indeed. Am I watching a meditation on the place of painting in the moving image world or a sex scene – or both? 

Afterwards, I ask Carr some questions. Are those his hands? (Yes, they are. It was important he play some part in the work. Since art school, Carr has outsourced the making of his works to experts. Having his hands in the video puts the artist back in the picture.) What about the camera? (It’s the Phantom XD, shot at 1500 frames per second. Carr’s interest in using this specific camera springs from the seductive quality shooting in extreme slow motion offers. Everything shot in super slow motion looks terrific. This built-in awesomeness becomes a problem to solve. So - what to shoot? Some research reveals that the first use of this camera for scientific purposes was filming a balloon filled with water. Perfect. The decision is removed. Swap paint for water, and there’s your art gesture.) And the names of the individual screens - Bumblebee, Airlock, Gyrate, Seldom? (This one is simple. Each work is given the brand name of the shade of paint held within the balloon.) 

And yet my experience of the work remains visual and visceral. It’s bright colours calling me into a darkened room. It’s two moments of pleasure that can’t coexist: the quiescent, light-licked balloon and the flowering of the liberated paint. It’s the separation of these two moments by a held breath of delicious tension. It’s the tremble on the edge ... and the final coming undone.

Reading list, 31 March 2018

Having just come off two big loosely themed shows (the NGV Triennial and the Sydney Biennale), I'm feeling the need for a tightly curated show. I wish I could see Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300-Now) at the Met Breuer, expertly reviewed here by Roberta Smith.

The Renshaw Gallery in Washington DC (the Smithsonian's 'craft' museum) has partnered with the Burning Man festival to re-present artworks made for the festival context to a different audience.

The Modern Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro plans to deaccession a Jackson Pollock to fund maintenance, acquisitions and staffing; apparently this is the first proposed deaccessioning of this type in Brazil.

The Women Responsible for the Look of Your Next All-Day Cafe: the ever-sharp Kyle Chayka on how environments are being designed for future photography.

A retrospective on a story I've been following: ‘The vitriol was really unhealthy’: artist Sonia Boyce on the row over taking down Hylas and the Nymphs. Also, reproducing here in full a letter to the editor on this topic, by Mary Hayward:
The lessons of the Hylas affair are threefold. First, works in art galleries should not be arranged according to what the curators think they are about. The dividing line between telling visitors what they ought to think and telling them what they ought not to think (which is censorship) is narrow and easily crossed. Second, it is only in pornography that all adult women have big breasts. If the female figures in a painting have small breasts that does not mean that they are girls. At least three of Waterhouse’s nymphs have adult faces – and it’s supposed to be men who never look above the neck. Third, disrespecting someone’s work seemingly to promote your own is not a good idea. No one is going to write about Sonia Boyce again without mentioning the Manchester Art Gallery censorship row. Are they?

Wednesday 21 March 2018

On safe spaces: Public Galleries Summit, Sydney, March 2018

A 10 minute presentation given as part of a panel discussion on current trends in the museum and gallery sectors at the Public Galleries Summit.

What I was going to talk about today

My original talk today was going to be a summary of trends and influences in the visual arts and museum sector, from the perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand, as a director and as a member of the Museums Aotearoa board.

But when I sat down to write that talk, it didn’t feel very urgent. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to try to organise the thoughts I’ve been having recently about the changing cultural moment that museums – and specifically, in my case, art museums – are working in.

Please bear with me, as this territory is complex, and I am still struggling to find the language needed to turn what I am sensing into something I can clearly explain.

Four case studies

2017 and the beginning of 2018 saw a series of controversies play out in contemporary art galleries – situations where artists, activists and indigenous groups protested museums’ activities and decisions. These events have given rise to freshly invigorated discussions about censorship, cultural appropriation, and the power imbalances that pervade society and museums.

To give a brief rundown of a few of the most well-known examples:

Let’s start with Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which was to be installed in a massive revamp of the famous sculpture garden at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis.

The work was based on gallows used in seven state-sanctioned executions conducted around the world between 1859 and 2006. This included the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in 1862, in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from the museum.

The Dakota community learned of the sculpture only when promotion of its installation began. Dakota people assembled to protest at the construction site, and after a series of facilitated meetings, the museum’s director Olga Viso and the artist agreed that the sculpture and its IP would be handed over to tribal elders to dispose of as they wished.

The museum had failed to conduct any discussions with Dakota groups prior to this. The work had originally been commissioned for documenta 2012, and in an open letter of apology Durant wrote:
I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations.  
Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.

* * *

Second, Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, included in the Whitney Biennial.

This abstract painting is based on posthumous images of Emmett Till, the black American teenager who was brutally lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that his body be presented at his funeral unembalmed and undoctored; photographs from the funeral ran in two African-American publications.

Schutz’s painting had been shown in Berlin without comment before being presented at the Whitney.

The work triggered a vast array of responses, centred on who has the right to work with which stories and histories, and where the line lies between censorship and perpetuating violence.

Parker Bright, a black artist, conducted a series of peaceful protests in front of the painting, standing before it blocking other visitors’ view, wearing a t-shirt that read "Black Death Spectacle”, livestreaming his protest on Facebook.

British artist Hannah Black posted a widely-circulated open letter online that demanded the work be removed and destroyed. "It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun," she wrote.

When interviewed while still working on the painting in 2016, Schutz had said it had been made in the context of Trump’s presidential campaign and a media coverage of shootings of black men by police officers. She expressed hesitancy about taking the images of Till’s face as her subject matter, saying to The New Yorker writer Calvin Tompkins “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.”

In a statement following the opening of the Biennial, Schutz said:
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother. 
Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
The painting remained on display throughout the Biennial, with alterations to the wall label that noted the protests.

I find both the Sam Durant and the Dana Schutz examples compelling and concerning because in both cases, the artists were trying to use art to think through and present issues of violence, racism and oppression. These were not casually created or presented, or made by naïve people. They were presented at two of America’s leading contemporary art museums. The art works had both been previously presented without controversy. The museums were seemingly unprepared for the response.

* * *

Another example of the use of social media to protest art museums’ activities came in December last year. Mia Merrill started an online petition asking the Met to either take down Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 painting by Polish artist Balthus depicting his 12 or 13 year-old subject in a dreamy-slash-suggestive pose, or to provide better contextulisation for the work.

Merrill noted that Balthus had a well-known tendency to form relationships with pubescent girls who he used as models and that that it could be argued that this painting romanticises the sexualisation of a child. She wrote:
Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.
The petition is thoughtfully worded and Merrill is clear that she is not asking for the work to be destroyed or even necessarily taken down – just that visitors be given more information about the background of the artist who made it.

As with Hannah Black’s open letter, Merrill’s petition occasioned reams of online coverage. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for The Guardian, wrote that if we started removing art from museums that depicts sexual violence – or simply sexual and gender power imbalances –we’d rapidly start running out of things to show. He argued:
Merrill’s petition confuses acts and images in a way that is deeply dangerous. Art and life are related, but they are not the same. A painting is not an assault. It’s just a painting – even when the content and style seem utterly offensive, you can walk away, leaving it to gather dust on the museum wall.
Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post art critic, wrote, more cogently:
... the petition goes wrong when it argues that the painting should be removed from view now because of the larger and still unfolding scandals of sexual abuse in the media, entertainment, arts and political worlds. Now is precisely not the time to start removing art from walls, books from shelves, music from the radio or films from distribution. The focus should be on the social structures that perpetuate abuse and the people, mostly men, who commit it. 
We must deal with sexual harassment and sexual abuse without losing all that was gained during the sexual liberation of the last century. And we are at a critical moment in that process. Men who would lose everything if their past abuses come to light would love to see this cultural firestorm snuffed out before they are exposed. But there are forces, particularly on the academic left, that reflexively resort to censorship as a quick and easy solution to social oppression.

The danger in the wings is a new Puritanism that would only increase the shame surrounding sexuality (a convenient weapon wielded by abusers) while undoing the painful, 20th-century process of deregulating sexuality from religion and heterosexual male power.
* * *

This year, a fresh controversy has broken out around senior American artist Chuck Close, after a number of women have alleged he harrassed them when they were modelling for him. A New York Times article by Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler collected responses from a variety of museum leaders on whether, like Balthus, Close’s work should be taken off display or displayed with a warning.

Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, is quoted as saying:
How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave? Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?
And Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, said:
By taking action in the form of canceling an exhibition or removing art from the walls, a museum is creating an understanding of an artist’s work only through the prism of reprehensible behavior. If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth — and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.
All this has got me thinking

And this is what I am thinking about these days. The fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be. And especially, I have been thinking about that line that has often been trotted out when museums face controversy over the artists that they show and collect: that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.

The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, is quoted this month in an article by Julia Halperin looking back on 2017’s controversies, saying:
It’s about a contest of ideas—and this is where ideas are displayed and contested and seen, and it’s also, to a degree, safe territory
All these works – Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, and yes – Chuck Close, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin; all these works are unsafe in some way. For several decades now we have acted as if somehow museums are a neutralising force, a separate space into which people can enter and somehow engage differently with these works and these ideas than they would elsewhere. And to some extent that is true, and that is what we have taught our audience to expect: it is true, because we have made it so.

But what these examples all show is that museums are still capable of doing violence – unknowingly, or thoughtlessly, or because we value the presentation of art and art history over the individuals, communities and cultures who may have been harmed in its making, and may continue to be harmed in its public display.

We are missionaries for contemporary art, with all that implies – and I think that this the most pressing issue for us to grapple with at this moment.

References that informed or are cited in this talk

Carey Dunne, Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles, Hyperallergic, 22 December 2015

Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading, 15 October 2016 (a round-up of pieces on the protests over Kelley Walker's 2016 survey exhibition at CAM, St Louis)

Randy Kennedy, White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests, The New York Times, 21 March 2017

Calvin Tompkins, Why Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till, The New Yorker, 10 April 2017

Olga Viso, Learning in Public: An Open Letter on Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Walker Art Centre, 26 May 2017

Sam Durant, Statement on Scaffold, 27 May 2017

Andrea K. Scott, Does an offensive sculpture deserve to be burned, The New Yorker, June 3 2017

Courtney Johnston, Long weekend reading: The Scaffold issue, 4 June 2017 (a round-up of coverage of Sam Durant's The Scaffold)

Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading: the Confederate statues edition, 18 August 2017 (a round-up of coverage of the protests around, the removal of, and counter-protests against the removal of, Confederate monuments)

Mia Merrill, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus' Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming, Care2 Petitions, Decemeber 2017

Philip Kennicott, This painting might be sexually disturbing. But that’s no reason to take it out of a museumThe Washington Post, 5 December 2017

Gina Bellafante, We Need to Talk About Balthus, The New York Times, 8 December 2017

Jonathan Jones, Arguing over art is right but trying to ban it is the work of fascistsThe Guardian, 8 December 2017

Lauren Elkin, Showing Balthus at the Met Isn’t About Voyeurism, It’s About the Right to Unsettle, Quartz, 19 December 2017

Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler, Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?The New York Times, 28 January 2018

Cody Delistraty, The Problem With Chuck Close, The New York Times, 30 January 2018

Linda Holmes, 'A.P. Bio' And The Complications Of Context, N.P.R., 1 February 2018

Courtney Johnston, In this current climate, 6 February 2018 (a round-up of coverage on Chuck Close, and also the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) from the Victorian galleries at Manchester Art Gallery by artist Sonia Boyce)

Julia Halperin, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, Artnet News, 6 March 2018

Various authors, Museums and #MeToo, Walker Art Centre, 7 March 2018

Susan Goldberg, For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It, National Geographic 

Siddhartha Mitter, After "Open Casket": What Emmett Till teaches us today,  The Village Voice, 12 March 2018

Priscilla Frank, The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help, HuffPost, 20 March 2017

And a holding place for related discussions published or read after I wrote the talk

Charlotte Higgins, ‘The vitriol was really unhealthy’: artist Sonia Boyce on the row over taking down Hylas and the Nymphs, The Guardian, 19 March 2018

Sumaya Kassim, The museum will not be decolonised, Media Diversified, 15 November 2017

Saturday 17 March 2018

Reading list, 17 March 2018

Re-upping this Julia Halperin piece, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, because is makes perfect companion reading to this set of 5 takes on Museums and #MeToo from the Walker, featuring an artist, director, critic, educator and journalist writing about museums showing the works of artists who are alleged (or actual) harassers.

I've been strongly influenced by Maciej Ceglowski's thinking, and his recent foray into fundraising for Democratic candidates in tilt-able districts is fascinating.
The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations. The discrepancy with regard to the understanding of what a copy is has often led to misunderstandings and arguments between China and Western museums. The Chinese often send copies abroad instead of originals, in the firm belief that they are not essentially different from the originals. The rejection that then comes from the Western museums is perceived by the Chinese as an insult.
Byung-Chul Han, The copy is the original, Aeon Magazine

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne is leaving the LA Times to become the city's chief design officer, sitting inside the mayor's office alongside roles like chief data officer and chief sustainability officer.

Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic, writes about commissioning writers to investigate the magazine's own biases and racism for their new issue on race.