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The Year in CultureGrrl, 2019 Edition: Museums Become Easy Targets in Difficult Times

This was the year of our national discontent and contentiousness, as manifested in the artworld by the rallying cry, “Decolonize Museums!” (a euphemism for “Demonize Museums”). The Metropolitan, Whitney and Guggenheim museums and the Museum of Modern Art were all targets of this year’s protest demonstrations.

For me, as someone who came of age in the ’60s and participated in anti-Vietnam War (but not anti-museum) protests, there was a certain sense of déjà vu in this year’s turmoil. Also triggering ambivalent memories was my coverage, for a third time, of MoMA’s Manifest-Destiny territorial conquests of W. 53rd Street—expansions designed by Cesar Pelli, Yoshio Taniguchi, and now Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Liz Diller, just inside MoMA’s 53rd Street entrance, gazing pensively at her work during its recent press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One sign of our trying times was the brief disruption of MoMA’s Oct. 18 reopening celebration for its expanded, renovated facility. MoMA trustee Laurence Fink was the object of disaffection because BlackRock, his investment management firm, is a shareholder in private, for-profit prisons. (Fink was also a member of President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, an advisory group of business leaders.)

Fink joins Warren Kanders (whose firm manufacturers tear gas) and members of the Sackler family who are presently associated with Purdue Pharma (the drug company that makes the aggressively marketed, highly addictive opioid OxyContin) on the list of major contributors to New York museums who failed moral or political litmus tests, as applied by self-appointed arbiters of museum ethics. Kanders has since stepped down from the Whitney’s board. As for the Sacklers, the Met declared in May that it would “suspend acceptance of gifts from individuals associated with this [OxyContin-related] public health crisis.”

My own view regarding these contretemps (previously expressed in this post) is that there should be no moral or political litmus test for donors, so long as they have committed no crime & they leave professional decisions to the museum’s professionals. Vetting every wealthy donor’s business activities and investment portfolio for moral and political purity would be toxic to museum finances.

Museums are the wrong targets, but it’s much easier to parade around chanting slogans in their public-friendly spaces than it is to go after the private companies that are committing the alleged offenses. That said, the knowing misrepresentation of a drug’s addictive dangers to boost business should be donor-disqualifying.

For now, let’s put these fractious disputes aside and return to MoMA’s upbeat press preview: While I struggled to navigate the expansive new terrain, veteran photographer Jill Krementz caught me looking more spry and confident than I felt—press-packet in hand, camera dangling from my wrist:

CultureGrrl on the prowl
Photo by Jill Krementz

Jill also had me pose for a portrait in front of MoMA’s “Gray Scrambled Double Square,” 1964, by Frank Stella. With her permission, that became the new signature photo for my blog (as seen at the top of my righthand column) and for my Twitter feed.

But enough of me. Once again, art-lings, let me extend to you my Best Wishes for an Art-Full New Year, along with CultureGrrl’s Top 20 Stories for 2019, in chronological order, with an emphasis on the controversies that we’ve been following:

Smithsonian Pandemonium: Skorton Leaves, Museums Shuttered

For MLK Day: Recap of My Visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture

“Woke” Museums: Metropolitan’s Diker Display Fuels a Growing Debate on “Identity Politics”

Meet the “New MoMA,” Same as the Old “New MoMA”

Fool’s Gold at Metropolitan Museum: Tom Campbell’s Golden Coffin & Golden Parachute

Breach of Trust? Rothko Gave SFMOMA Its Soon-to-Be-Auctioned Painting at the Museum’s Request

Getting It Backwards: The Shed’s Architects Came 1st. Its Artistic Director, a Distant 2nd (with video)

Sontagian Revulsion: My Notes on “Camp” at the Metropolitan Museum

Sackler/Kanders: My 1978 ARTnews Exposé on Met’s Sackler Enclave (plus: my takes on opioids, tear gas)

Bunch Crunch: How Will Smithsonian Institution’s Secretary-Elect Navigate DC’s Political Minefields?

Calder & Noguchi Air Balls: SFMOMA Lobs Some Foul Shots for the Golden State Warriors

Failed Diplomacy: Can Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian’s New Secretary, Out-Bully the Bully-in-Chief?

Farewell Transparency? Sotheby’s Plans to Go Private (plus a possible glitch)

Race to the Bottom? What a “Private” Sotheby’s Might Really Mean

“Unfinished” (again) at the Met: A Lone Loan of “Jerome” for Leonardo’s 500th Anniversary (video)

Kanders Slander: Trustees Resign Amidst Wreckage of Whitney Museum’s “Triple Chaser” Fiasco UPDATED

Mural Muddle: San Francisco School Board’s Lose-Lose Decision on Its WPA Art, plus my KPCC radio commentary on the controversy

Toxic or Tonic? The Late David Koch’s Munificent Cultural Philanthropy (with video)

$8.27 Million & Counting: Metropolitan Museum’s Disposable Irving Gift of Chinese Art

Balking at Walker: Darren, Ford Foundation’s President, Becomes National Gallery’s New Trustee

My four-post series—here, here, here and here—critiquing the renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art

Big Learning Curve for Sotheby’s New CEO in a Season of Lowered Expectations: My Q&As

Jayne Wrightsman’s “No Loans” Edict for Gifts & Bequests to the Metropolitan Museum

Monkman Mischief: How Kent’s “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” May Prank the Met

Cree Decree: Monkman Debunks U.S. Creation Myths in His Metropolitan Museum Commission (video)

On a lighter note, 2019 was the year when I had a rollicking time attending the Met’s Best Press Preview Ever (for Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll). At the end of the speeches (delivered by museum wonks and rock stars), Don Felder, the handsome guy with the scarf in my photo, below, wowed us with his unforgettable guitar solo from the end of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

L to R: Met curator Jayson Kerr Dobney, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin’s lead guitarist), Don Felder (former lead guitarist of the Eagles), Steve Miller (eponymous band and a member of the Met’s Visiting Committee for Musical Instruments), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Met director Max Hollein
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

How about booking Led Zep’s Jimmy Page (second from left, above) to perform “Stairway to Heaven,” at the base of the grand staircase in the Great Hall, for the Met’s 150th anniversary celebration next year? (Just a thought…)

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you have something left over after distributing this year’s charitable donations, please consider showing some (non-deductible) appreciation for my coverage this year by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. If you’re a past contributor, please consider re-upping.

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