Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Could SFMOMA’s engagement indicate a turning point?

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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.

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  1. Kathy says:

    I’m still hoping the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati would make a move.

    I especially thought with their upcoming show on Keith Haring as well as their history with Mapplethorpe (of which they mention with nearly every press release), they would want to take the lead in this discussion here in Ohio.

    Except for a brief statement supporting the AAMD, nothing.

    This week, living in Cincinnati has been very embarrassing. I don’t know whether to be angry or sad and don’t know how you do it.

    But thank you for doing it

  2. Don’t forget about Houston. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Glassell School of Art are jointly presenting a screening (6 p.m. Wednesday at the Glassell School) followed by a panel discussion with CAMH director Bill Arning, MFAH photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker and Station Museum of Contemporary Art director James Harithas. The Station also featured a screening of A Fire in My Belly this summer and hung Untitled (One Day This Kid Will…) as part of its queer group show Because We Are — before the anti-bullying campaigns kicked off.

  3. chuck says:

    Maybe your time is best spent writing original essays, with original concepts and original ideas as opposed to re posting fluff and trying to be some kind of security guard (wannabe cop)
    protecting what your believe is a conflict of interest.
    Your character assassinations of people who work in the arts often seem contrived in an New York Post ham-fisted headline kind of way.
    For example saying Jay Sanders is an “dealer” is just plain wrong; his position at Greene Naftali was a curator-a very good one at that.

  4. marcos says:

    I’d found Exposed to be the SF MoMa at its engaged best, what with Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Man in the Polyester Suit,” Larry Clark from both “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust,” and Warhol’s “Blow Job.”

    Yeah, the SF MoMa pretty lame in general, but “Exposed” and Henri Cartier-Bresson almost balance out “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.”

    The elites of this city, the likes of which control the SF MoMa, would think of themselves as so far cutting edge but at the end of the day, they’ll support same sex marriage and complain bitterly the moment they have to spend the first dollar helping someone else or fold like a chair the moment their conservative colleagues get miffed over a hardon hanging in a gallery.

  5. […] Museum Directors have more or less sided with the angels. Best of all, the art museums that have rushed to the NPG’s side have responded in the most meaningful way possible: They’ve installed Wojnarowicz’s […]

  6. Steven Holmes says:

    I propose that all AAM member institutions cancel and bar all future loans to The Smithsonian museums until the David Wojnarowicz piece is restored to the exhibition, or until Wojnarowicz is given a solo (survey) exhibition at one of the Smithsonian museums.

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