The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is America’s most conservative, play-it-safe modern-and-contemporary art museum. How careful is SFMOMA? A couple years ago when it smartly acquired Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, it put it up with a warning label. (Installed with the Jacir was a text that told viewers that the work of art was, well, a work of art, that it was made by a Palestinian-American and that the museum was kind of sorry about the whole darn thing.) SFMOMA does not often organize group shows that engage with contemporary issues – and when they sort-of do, such as with the museum’s ongoing “Exposed,” the museum leaves out the most engaged and challenging content. (Photos of heinous World War II-era assassinations: OK. Photos of Abu Ghraib: Embarrassingly absent.) No American modern-and-contemporary art museum consistently falls further to the right of its audience.
So Thursday night, when SFMOMA announced that it would be hosting screening of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly – that’s the work of art the Smithsonian removed from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery after some right-wing bigots used their own willful misunderstanding as a cudgel – it was a sign that the Smithsonian-Wojnarowicz fiasco had turned a corner.
Before SFMOMA’s decision, only America’s most engaged, even progressive contemporary art museums had lined up to show Wojnarowiczes. Little Transformer Gallery in Washington was first. The bigger boys followed: New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art installed the Wojnarowicz in its lobby and announced that visitors could see it without paying admission. In Columbus, Ohio, the Wexner Center for the Arts organized screenings. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles announced same. Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art installed – or announced that they would install ASAP – Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One day this kid…).
(There are several inside-the-details items worth noting. With the exception of the IMA, each of those museums have directors who are women. Also, a Los Angeles museum such as the Hammer should feel pretty free to do the right thing here. LA is a hotbed of progressivism. Ohio and Indiana are not.)
Soon after those institutions took the lead, SFMOMA stepped up, announcing that it would hold both a Wojnarowicz screening and public discussion on Jan. 4. Peers of SFMOMA’s director, Neal Benezra, and its trustees know how conservative that museum is. (And they know that Benezra came to SFMOMA from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.) In the coming days, expect other museums to take a cue from SFMOMA: It’s safe to show leadership on this issue, to stand with art and artists against censorship and bigotry-driven manufactured controversy.
Related: And where are New York’s major museums? The four biggest New York art museums – the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Whitney – have avoided or ignored the issue. (In fact the Whitney is curiously disengaged of late: For three weeks director Adam Weinberg has refused to so much as respond to MAN’s routine requests for an interview to discuss the hiring of a dealer to curate the next Whitney biennial.)
Update: The Contemporary Art Museum Houston has also announced a screening and a panel discussion that CAMH will hold jointly with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
Update2: The video is also up at ICA Boston. According to PPOW Gallery’s facebook page, the videos is or will be on view at the Henry, LACE, ICP, Redcat, the Berkeley Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Warhol Museum and more.