When museums lose their way
Yesterday Glasstire reported the remarkable news that the Menil Collection had decided to remove The Art Guys Marry a Plant from its permanent collection. (The background story is long and complicated, but there’s background here, here and here.) Today, Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson posted a rant in which she defended the piece and distorted the criticism it has received — she’s the wife of one of The Art Guys, after all — but rightly attacked the Menil’s “institutional cowardice.” Here’s where she hits the nail right on the head:
The Menil Collection has caved. And now they are trying to quietly make this whole situation go away.
From 2009, the time of the original wedding ceremony, to the moment the Menil announced in mid-2011 that they would be accessioning the piece in a dedication ceremony, until last month — all through 3+ years of off-and-on, sometimes frenzied media attention — the director of the Menil Collection, Josef Helfenstein, never once communicated with the artists, either via email, or phone, or letter, or in person. He never asked them what they thought about the artwork, and certainly never lent reassurance that that the Menil would stand by them, as it stands by all the artists in its collection who were “provocateurs” during their time (more on that issue later). In addition, he made no public statement regarding the artwork whatsoever, one way or another. The director was mute.
All true, and also consistent with how the Menil dealt with the critics of its acquisition, not just the artists. All the Menil has wanted to do since coming under fire for the accession is “quietly make this whole situation go away” — first by trying to silently ride out the controversy, and then, when it became clear that wouldn’t happen, to move the tree.
Notice I said move the tree, not remove it from its collection. So what happened?
Finally, in December 2012, the Art Guys were asked to meet with Helfenstein for a meeting in which he announced his decision to move the tree, either behind a building somewhere on the Menil campus, or preferably, off the premises entirely. The Art Guys were asked what they wanted. They said they wanted the tree to stay where it was. Their request was refused, and they were told that the tree would have to go. Given that decision, they asked to have it returned to them rather than be ignominiously hidden behind a building somewhere in Montrose.
So the museum, which owns thousands more artworks than it can put on display at any given time, apparently gave the artists the choice of whether to allow it to put this artwork in storage or to give it back to them. Is it standard Menil policy to let artists or collectors decide whether an artwork they have given the museum can ever be taken off view? Was the artwork given to the museum on the condition that it never be put into storage (in this case outdoor storage, given the nature of the piece)?
The real evidence of “institutional failure of breathtaking cowardice,” to use Knudson’s phrase, lies not in whether the tree stayed or went — no one’s going to approve of every piece a museum owns — as in the museum’s unwillingness to foster an open discussion of an artwork in its collection. The Menil acted embarrassed about the accession from the start, never truly backing up the piece, and Knudson aptly sums up the reasons why:
- They’re tired of the controversy around the artwork;
- They need to raise money for their drawing center and want this distraction to go away;
- They don’t believe in the artwork and are sorry they ever accepted it into their collection.
Given that silence was the Menil’s insistent posture, moving the tree and its accompanying plaque are better than leaving them, but if you believe museums should encourage and facilitate debate about controversial artworks they have collected, then it’s hard to argue with Knudson’s conclusion that the “Menil Collection has clearly lost its way.” Of course, that was already clear back in 2011, when the Menil quietly acquired The Art Guys Marry a Plant.