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The Guggenheim’s Potty Humor: What Art is Flowing to Trump’s White House? UPDATED

Nobody can have been shocked to learn that the White House had no interest in the Guggenheim Museum’s provocative offer to lend Maurizio Cattelan‘s golden throne, instead of the van Gogh that the museum had requested.

The Gugg’s goofy gaffe, which Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, surely knew was a non-starter when she dispatched her written offer, raises two questions:

—What exactly does the White House want to borrow from museums?

—More importantly for museum-watchers: What was Nancy Spector thinking?

Here’s the van Gogh that the White House’s art-wranglers coveted. Perhaps it was the golden hue at the center caught the President’s Midas eye:

Van Gogh, “Landscape with Snow,” 1888, Guggenheim Museum

As I confirmed with a Guggenheim spokesperson, the museum doesn’t actually own the spurned Cattelan toilet, which bears the White House-friendly title: “America.” Last October, when I took full advantage of this interactive artwork (while visiting the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin exhibition), its label said it had been loaned “Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery. It’s not hard to imagine that the humorously subversive Cattelan would readily agree to a merry prank.

As CultureGrrl readers may remember (here and here), the Obamas hit the ground running when they had the opportunity to borrow American museums’ holdings for White House display. They were particularly interested in featuring minority and female artists, with an emphasis on modern and contemporary works.

Here’s what I then wrote. (The link in the first sentence below no longer works.):

I’m impressed and a bit surprised (given Barack‘s barebones Senatorial office decor) that they have taken such a serious, intelligent approach to bringing the nation’s art to the People’s House, and they seem to be going about this in exactly the right way: They’re consulting museum curators who are disinterested in terms of the marketplace, but highly knowledgeable in terms of what art and artists are worthy of White House exposure and consistent with the First Family’s taste.

The Obamas insisted that nothing be removed from the lending museums’ gallery walls, so as not to deprive the museums’ visitors of works that they would otherwise see. The need to keep the requested van Gogh on permanent view at the Guggenheim was one of the reasons cited in the letter by Spector for denying the loan to the Trump White House.

Wondering which other museums the Trump White House may have approached for loans, I asked spokespersons for three other major art museums in Donald Trump‘s hometown whether his representatives had sent them a wish list.

Here are their replies:

Museum of Modern Art: “We haven’t had any loan requests from the White House in recent memory.”

Whitney Museum: “We didn’t receive any request for an art loan from the current administration. We lent two Hoppers to the Obama White House and they were returned at the end of his administration.”

Metropolitan Museum: “The Met receives such requests from time to time, from the White House and other public officials. In the case of the White House, we were asked earlier in the Trump Administration to lend works of art that are now on public view [at the museum]. Because we always place the public first, we declined their request.” [He prudently declined to say what had been requested.]

Washington’s premier art museum, the National Gallery, has a deep bench of van Goghs, including this one, not currently on view, that came to it from illustrious donors:

Van Gogh, “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 1889, National Gallery, from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

The National Gallery‘s spokesperson told me this:

“The White House has been to visit several times but has not requested anything yet, so nothing [from the National Gallery] is on view in White House that was requested by this administration.”

According to a comprehensive Artnet report on White House art by Menachem Wecker, all of the 17 loans from Smithsonian museums to the White House were arranged under previous Presidents.

I have received no reply as yet to the queries that I sent twice to the White House’s new (as of October) curator, Lydia Tederick, regarding her art plans. (I received her contact information from the National Gallery.) If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

I also sent a list of questions to the Guggenheim’s spokesperson regarding this kerfuffle, and (like everyone else who sought comment) I received this non-reply: “We have no further comment or information to provide.”

The artworld twitterati have embraced Spector for her cheekiness in offering to “help facilitate” (the words of her letter to the White House) the loan of a loo in lieu of van Gogh.

Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s artistic director and chief curator

I couldn’t resist a cheeky tweet of my own, but I represent only myself, not a nonprofit institution that may still wish to seek federal grants (assuming that the NEA, NEH and IMLS can manage to stay funded).

Here’s my tasteless Twitter quip:

Predictably, some Trump supporters hectored Spector. A prominent detractor was Fox News business anchor Stuart Varney, who called for the uncircumspect Spector’s head, in a video segment that I had planned to link to, but which has been “removed by the user.”

Here’s an excerpt from Varney’s comments, as quoted by Benjamin Sutton in Hyperallergic while the video (which I then viewed) was still online:

It [the offer of the “America” loan] is in fact a direct insult to the President and the First Lady. It was a deliberate insult. Ms. Spector is one of the elites, and she detests this president….It’s not just a slap in the face for the Trumps; it is a slap in the face for the Presidency [emphasis added] and to the country.

If Ms. Spector truly believes in “our beloved country,” as she puts it, she should apologize and resign.

Now it appears that Fox News may have issued its own form of apology, by deleting Varney’s “slap in the face” to the Guggenheim’s curator.

We can only wonder where members of the Guggenheim’s board stand (or sit) on the Spector/Cattelan potty plot. My own take is that although it was funny, this cheap shot could prove to be expensive, in terms of the Guggenheim’s future federal support and the future largess (or lack thereof) from patrons who may not share Spector’s sense of humor or her politics.

At least Spector’s beliefs were expressed more subtly than this astonishing recent tweet from the director of another major NYC institution—the Brooklyn Museum. This did-she-really-say-that outburst was Anne Pasternak‘s response to a tweet from the office of Senator Orrin Hatch:

“You turd”?!? Where’s a potty when we really need one? I’m guessing that Anne’s indiscreet tweet may also have been “removed by the user” by the time you read this…all of which argues for a return to civility (especially at bastions of civilization, such as museums), even in these politically fractious times.

UPDATE: I was right: The tweet was promptly taken down, but part of its text remains, above, although clicking on the January 20, 2018 link now takes you to “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!”

Here’s a screenshot of the full exchange, when it did exist:

Speaking of a “return to civility” (or lack thereof), we’ll get another brush with the Obamas’ taste in art with the unveiling of their official portraits next week at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, with the former President and First Lady in attendance.

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