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Salves for Trump Bumps: Getty’s Direct Salvo vs. MoMA’s Discreet Indirection

One of the two major museum stories that broke while I was doting early this month on my newborn CultureGrandson (a Silicon Valley native) involved the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to respond to the Trump travel ban (now in abeyance) by interpolating seven works in its fifth-floor permanent-collection galleries and one in its Garden Lobby, “to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States,” as it says in each of the object labels.

L to R at MoMA: Henri Rousseau (French), “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897
Zaha Hadid (British, born in Iraq), “The Peak Project, Hong Kong, China,” 1991

Photo by Robert Gerhardt

The eight works, according to MoMA, are by artists from nations whose citizens were being denied entry into the United States under President Trump‘s widely condemned Jan. 27 executive order.

Maybe so. But five of those eight artists (full list here) would likely not have triggered the ban: They became citizens of other countries—the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Canada—making MoMA’s symbolic gesture a significant but slightly off-target response, not “one of the strongest protests yet by a major cultural institution,” as it was called by the NY TimesJason Farago. Notwithstanding media interest in MoMA’s action, it has issued no press release about it (which would have made the “protest” stronger).

The most forceful and unequivocal art-museum resistance that I’ve seen has come from Getty Trust President James Cuno, who issued a statement, formalized in a press release, condemning Trump’s executive order “in the strongest possible terms.”

Cuno declared:

Curiosity, diversity, and tolerance are the core values of the humanities, values that require the free movement of people and ideas. That’s why, for years, the Getty has supported scholars, scientists  and professionals from around the world—including from the targeted nations—in pursuing  research and study here with us. It’s also why we are proud to welcome people of all faiths, colors, ethnicities, and nationalities into the Getty community.

If it continues, the travel ban will extract a high human cost in lost freedoms, livelihoods, and careers, as well as a high social cost in lost innovation and discovery. It may have a profoundly adverse effect on important work the Getty is pursuing in the Middle East, even in the midst of turmoil there, to protect and preserve the world’s cultural heritage. It will have a corrosive effect on scholarly exchange with the United States and on the stature of American cultural and educational institutions.

We believe that the order is ill-advised, unnecessary, and destructive. The Getty stands against it and adds its voice in favor of established American principles of freedom and engagement.

Write on, Jim!

In fairness, I’m guessing that MoMA’s nimble first response will not be its last. In an extended answer to my question at a press breakfast in mid-January, the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry, said this about his institution’s plans to address the current political situation:

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 [emphasis added]. We will be talking about this, I suspect, for a very long time.

Unmentioned (to the best of my knowledge) in the reports on MoMA’s symbolic act is the fact that Lowry himself is an art-historical Islamicist by training and taught a class at Columbia University on issues and ideas tackled by contemporary artists from predominantly Islamic countries. In 2006, MoMA mounted a compelling exhibition devoted to contemporary artists who “have come from the Islamic world to live in Europe and the United States.” Its telling title: Without Boundary (if only!).

Maybe it’s time for a sequel.

an ArtsJournal blog