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St. Louis Blues: Art Museum Unfairly Slammed As a Trump Chump

Let’s be blunt: Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri understandably turned to his home state’s museum when, as chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, he set out to find an appropriate American painting to grace the Jan. 20 Presidential Inauguration Luncheon.

Who could slam SLAM (the St. Louis Art Museum) for obliging its Senator with this?

George Caleb Bingham, “The Verdict of the People,” 1854–55, St. Louis Art Museum

As it turns out, a lot of people have cast blame on the museum, most notably some 2,550 (at this writing) signatories to a Change.org petition, who want the loan withdrawn because they see it as “an implicit endorsement of the Trump presidency and his expressed values of hatred, misogyny, racism and xenophobia.”

Not so fast.

As SLAM’s communications manager Matthew Hathaway, tells it, Sen. Blunt initially contacted the museum about possible art loans to the inaugural luncheon in late June. That was more than four months before anyone could know Trump would pull off his upset. The Senator visited the museum on July 1, perusing several paintings with its registrar and its American art curator. One week later, the request came in and was formalized on Sept. 19 with a loan letter from Blunt to Brent Benjamin, SLAM’s director. The museum’s (presumably bipartisan) board unanimously approved the loan on Dec. 6.

I think the best argument that could have been made against the museum’s bringing the Bingham would have been to say, appropriately, that its art leaves the building only for scholarly and/or public purposes, not to be used as decor for a short private event. But my guess is that the objectors would have been fine with lending “Verdict” if the verdict had been for Hillary.

I had wondered whether, after the luncheon, the painting might be destined for Trump’s office at the White House, but Hathaway told me it would be “on view during the inaugural luncheon only. It will not be shown elsewhere.”

Here’s director Benjamin’s official brush-off of this dust-up:

The museum takes no position on candidates for public office, nor does it support or oppose individuals elected to such offices. It does, however, support the office of the Presidency itself. When the bipartisan Joint Congressional Commission on Inaugural Ceremonies requested the loan of a painting for the Inaugural Luncheon, it was an honor for the museum to participate in this long-standing tradition.

As it happens, the intense, varied reactions of Bingham’s 19th-century electorate in “The Verdict of the People” foretell the strong responses, pro and con, to Trump’s victory. As described in an information sheet about the Inaugural Luncheon Painting (posted on Sen. Blunt’s website):

Bingham’s electorate is one of inclusiveness [a 21st-century buzzword]. Everyone is here—the well-to-do farmers, laborers, merchants, westerners, kids, politicians, immigrants, veterans, women and African-Americans. They are elated, dejected, confounded, argumentative, jovial and intensely serious.

And this from the painting’s description on the museum’s website:

Within this densely crowded scene, Bingham conveys the diversity of the voting populace in great detail. Men gathered in the street express both triumph and disappointment at the results, while a group of women [barely seen in the upper right]—not allowed to vote in Bingham’s time—look on from a balcony above…

…just as many women (myself included) felt marginalized by last November’s election results.

an ArtsJournal blog