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Stumped by Trump: MoMA’s Lowry Walks “Fine Line” Between “Asserting Values” & Being Partisan

I opened up a can of worms at the Museum of Modern Art’s press breakfast yesterday, when I asked the first question after the director’s and curators’ presentation about upcoming exhibitions:

Many museums are wrestling with the problem of how to or whether to deal with the current political situation. Is MoMA addressing this in any way and, if so, how?

Glenn Lowry at MoMA’s press breakfast yesterday
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Most of the remainder of the briefing was devoted to Lowry’s agonizing over how to walk the “fine line” between “asserting the values that we believe in” and “becoming partisan” (his words). Taking political sides is something that even the activist Brooklyn Museum professes to avoid: “As a museum, we’re non-partisan,” asserted Alicia Boone, Brooklyn’s associate curator of public programs, as quoted in Isaac Kaplan‘s piece for Artsy on museums’ planned responses to the Presidential Inaugural.

(We may get some sense tonight of how the Brooklyn Museum’s activist director, Anne Pasternak, navigates these political minefields, when she moderates a conversation at the museum between artist Marilyn Minter and performer Madonna, who plan to address “the current state of affairs.” This is to be streamed live on Madonna’s Facebook page at 7:30 p.m.)

Lowry’s comments yesterday were more measured than those of Adam Weinberg, the Whitney Museum’s director, who feelingly told the press last week that “we really need to express what we believe….I feel strongly about the Whitney’s role in that. It is our role not to let them own what we think of as America, but to express what we believe is America.”

This “us” vs. “them” dichotomy contrasts with Lowry’s vision of his museum as providing “an opportunity for people from every different position to find some kind of common shared ground.” Although much of the artworld leans left, it would be no surprise to find some Trump supporters among art museums’ constituents—visitors, donors, board members, support staff—and Lowry is clearly cognizant of that.

Here’s my distillation of what Lowry said, in an edited transcript:

I think every cultural institution is thinking about how to deal with what is a complicated, troubling environment. The first thing that all of us here have thought about is: How can we ensure, as a civic space, that we’re a place of gathering, of conversations, of welcome to divergent and at times contradictory, and maybe even competing, points of view?

We will absolutely address complex issues of race, gender and politics in the way in which we approach works of art and in the questions that we ask of ourselves. We don’t intend to shy away from difficult and troubling issues. We should be a forum for the discussion of those.

How do we ensure that we are open, engaging, stimulating places that can provide an opportunity for people from every different position to find some kind of common shared ground? That’s the challenge. The core of the issue for us is to underscore that art matters, that by thinking about art and learning what we can about how artists approach these questions and problems, we can learn a lot about each other.

Many of you are aware of J20, a movement by a number of artists [as well as critics, curators and others] who are trying to galvanize around the 20th [Inauguration Day] to ask institutions to close, to strike. While I admire what they’re trying to do and I certainly respect them, I think the answer is the opposite: It’s to underscore our openness, our commitment to a civic discourse. It’s about the bedrock of our democracy—that we can transfer power peacefully.

What we’re doing on Jan. 20th is what we’re doing every day of the year: We will have an expanded program of gallery talks, but I don’t see that as special. We look at the 20th as we look at the 19th and the 21st and every day beyond that: We are a place of conversations, of gathering, and we have an extraordinarily talented staff who are frequently in the galleries, talking about art.

We have committed ourselves now and certainly in the future to looking at issues of race, making sure we continue to collect works of art by artists of very different backgrounds.

This MoMA purchase, alluding to the 1960s race riots, directly confronts visitors at the top of the fourth-floor escalator:

Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #20: ‘Die,'” 1967, Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We have certainly committed to gender, issues of sexuality. This institution believes in gender equality. It is nondiscriminatory. It believes in the singular voice of artists of all backgrounds and races. And I think you’ll see more and more of that.

We’re all going to be called on to find different ways of asserting the values that we believe in and I think there’s a fine line between doing that and becoming partisan. I want the museum to be a place that is always about engagement, discourse, challenge, but not to become suddenly polarized and political. We’re not going to shy away, as we haven’t in the past, from artists who are difficult, troubling and challenging, whether it’s because of their position on race or politics or whatever questions they want to ask. We are the place where freedom of expression and ideas can be engaged.

But let’s remember what that also means: That means other people’s ideas too. That means ideas that are utterly difficult, sometimes challenging and irritating. It doesn’t just mean the ideas that we in this room likely all believe in. That’s my great anxiety: Many of us got caught flatfooted by being in our own echo chamber and not seeing what was going on elsewhere. And I think we have to learn to listen and try to figure out what that means. I am troubled, myself, by what I didn’t see and what I didn’t hear and what I didn’t understand.

How we absorb some of those lessons into our program is really to be determined. But I can assure you that there isn’t a curator or educator in this building who isn’t thinking about this and trying to come out with the right set of responses. Part of that is doing the thinking and the research to produce the programs and exhibitions that have long-term meaning and value.

We will be talking about this, I suspect, for a very long time.

For those less inclined to talk than to active resistance, here are ARTnews‘ roundup of how museums are handling Inaugural Day and Hyperallergic‘s roundup of how galleries and nonprofit spaces are responding.

My own feeling (for which I expect to take some heat) is that Lowry is right: While a museum shouldn’t take a polarizing political stance as an institution (except on issues directly related to the ability to fulfill its mission), it should encourage free expression of all kinds (including political) in the art that it shows and the educational programs that it organizes. If the institution appears to privilege a particular position by virtue what it chooses to present, so be it.

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