By Aldis Browne, La Jolla
The primary directorial and curatorial responsibility of any museum is art. Period. What, then, should be the responsibility of their governing boards – to address issues of the moment, or to consider what will best support the future interests of the institution?
The legacies of enlightened exhibitions and collections will survive for centuries – donors and patrons soon become meaningless. Controversies over the actions of cultural patrons are nothing new. Originally, the New York Public Library was The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. According to A Short History of American Capitalism (2002) by Meyer Weinberg, “By the 1770s, alcoholism was growing among the Indians. Some historians, swept away by the romance of the fur trade, viewed the operation of the liquor-fed traffic with equanimity: Sensible fur men traded reasonable amounts of liquor for furs; foolish fur men depended heavily upon alcohol as a trade item.
When Kenneth W. Porter set out to write his standard biography of John Jacob Astor, a fur trader par excellence, missing from any records were all traces of large-scale purchases of whiskey by Astor’s American Fur Company. Silence told all. Brooke Astor’s support of the New York Public Library carried John Jacob Astor’s legacy into the 21st century.
But Lenox and Tilden – who were they? James Lenox was a philanthropic bibliophile. Far better known than the man, Lenox is one of the stone lions that guard the Library (the other is Astor). The sculpted lion that bears his name is better remembered today than the fact that Lenox donated 85,000 volumes, especially bibles and atlases, to help create the Library’s collection.
Remember the Tilden scandal? Of course you don’t. Nobody does. Samuel Jones Tilden, a former New York governor, ran for President. He lost. Why? The ‘Cipher Dispatches’ scandal. According to Wikipedia, “The NY Tribune claimed to have unearthed and decoded secret telegrams sent by Tilden’s agents at the height of the 1876 electoral dispute, apparently offering bribes to vote-counters in the contested states: $50,000 for Florida, $80,000 for South Carolina, and $5,000 for the single vote from Oregon.” He was later vindicated. Nobody boycotted the library in protest.
In fact, museum protests frequently backfire. In 1987 New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix in a glass of his own urine that he entitled Piss Christ. In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe forced Washington’s Corcoran Gallery to cancel a planned exhibit of his photographs. This resulted in the resignation of the museum’s director, Christina Orr-Cahall. Under the leadership of Senator Jesse Helms, the art of Serrano and Mapplethorpe was denounced by numerous congressional leaders. NEA funding for exhibitions including either artist was eliminated. Government support for the NEA, itself, was reduced. And the market for photographs by both artists was catapulted.
The career path of Corcoran Director Christina Orr-Cahall accelerated. She was appointed as CEO and director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. In 2009 she became the director and CEO of the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The Seattle museum at the base of the Space Needle was designed by Frank Gehry and endowed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Now known as the Museum of Pop Culture, it was renamed following her retirement.
Conversely, donations to the Corcoran dwindled until 2014 when the museum was forced to close. Like many museums, it was unable to deaccession art to support maintenance. Thus, Washington’s oldest independent museum was dissolved under a court order and its $2 billion collection was incorporated into the National Gallery of Art.
The Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, the developer of OxyContin, a drug that has alleviated the pain of millions. It has also been widely abused, resulting in addiction and death. On March 6th, writing for Bloomberg, Katya Kazakina and Benjamin Stupples reported: ‘Artists Protest Sackler Family Through Museums That Bear Their Name.’
“Artist Nan Goldin, who has written about her “narrow” escape from OxyContin addiction and founded a group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to address the crisis, has been one of the family’s most outspoken critics. “We are artists, activists and people dealing with addiction who employ direct action as a platform for our demands,” according to the group’s mission statement. “We target the Sackler family, who manufactured and pushed OxyContin, through the museums and universities that carry their name.
“The Sacklers have no plans to discontinue their philanthropy. For more than half a century, several generations of Sacklers have supported respected institutions that play crucial roles in health, research, education, the arts and the humanities,” a spokesman for family members said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to support the vital work of these organizations and we remain dedicated to doing so.”
Last December, protestors called for Warren Kanders to step down from the Whitney. True, his tear gas had been used against migrants at the border. It is also used to control criminals, flush out terrorists and quell rioting.
Which will history perpetuate, Purdue Pharma or the Sackler families’ donations to the Met and the Smithsonian; Kanders’ company, Safariland, or the Whitney?
Spiraling costs, closing galleries and increasing challenges are today’s reality for artists even as museum patronage is challenged. If El Chapo were to endow a museum to support contemporary Mexican art, would this benefit the arts, or should it be boycotted? Think carefully before you respond.
Photograph: Yana Paskova, The Guardian