Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Warhol Foundation threat was a missed opportunity

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After yesterday’s announcement from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts that it would withhold all potential future funding from Smithsonian museums unless the Smithsonian reversed itself and placed David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly back in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” I called Warhol president Joel Wachs. [Image: Keith Haring, Unfinished Painting, 1989.]

I asked Wachs if Warhol’s intent was to loudly, publicly object to the Smithsonian’s censorship of an artist and the Smithsonian’s failure to support its own historians? Or was Warhol taking a more nuanced position, refusing to fund exhibition proposals at Smithsonian museums given that the Smithsonian had effectively made it clear that it might substantially alter exhibitions after they opened?

Wachs was unequivocal: “Our position is that we’re not going to fund someone who’s going to censor artwork, period,” he told me via phone, his voice rich with defiance. “If they’re… going to be bullied by bigots, we’re not going to fund them.”

I asked Wachs if that meant Warhol’s move was all about principle and not at all about process. “Absolutely,” he said. “Speaking out is important, but we’re going beyond speaking out. We’re not going to fund them anymore [if they don't restore the video].”

Wachs also told me that Warhol would talk with other foundations in an effort to build a coalition of foundations that will refuse to fund Smithsonian art exhibitions until the Smithsonian re-installs the Wojnarowicz. Or not. “If they’re going to give into crap from the other side they’re going to hear from our side,” Wachs said.

But: Is Warhol’s hard-line stance constructive? Or likely effective?

Consider Warhol’s move in context: Warhol has given $375,000 to Smithsonian exhibitions in recent years. (In addition to funding “Hide/Seek,” Warhol has supported Yves Klein and Anne Truitt exhibitions at the Hirshhorn.) The Smithsonian’s federal appropriation for fiscal year 2010 is $761.4 million, two thousand times Warhol’s four-year total. The Washington CityPaper reported that foundations as a whole kicked another $65 million into Smithsonian coffers last year — and that a Castle spokesperson’s response to Warhol was a shrug.

Smithsonian sources I spoke with this morning pretty much rolled their eyes at the Warhol letter, pointing at the discrepancy between the federal appropriation and Warhol’s funding. “They obviously don’t understand Washington,” one source said. Warhol has brought silly string to what will likely be a missile fight.

That’s not to suggest that arts organizations shouldn’t engage with this issue and shouldn’t protest the Smithsonian’s failure to support its historians. To recap, that’s happening: After the American Association of Museums embarrassed itself with a pathetic statement, groups such as the Association of Art 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 work. Furthermore, it’s not only progressive museums such as the New Museum for Contemporary Art that have stood with the NPG, it’s conservative institutions such as SFMOMA and the Walker Art Center and non-modern/contemporary museums such as the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art who are joining the fight. The art world has learned from 1989. It is standing up for art and for history.

( The latest: Smith College is sorta heeding MAN’s call by installing this Wojnarowicz [at right]. Also, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, who was briefly the director at the Hirshhorn, posted this to a Walker blog last night. Unfortunately, in at least one place it wrongly blames the National Portrait Gallery for removing the video when the order came from the Smithsonian over the NPG’s objections. It’s all well and good for Viso to declare a “crisis,” but when she gets a beginning-of-the-story fact wrong she looks afflicted with me-too-ism.)

And to be sure, in threatening the Smithsonian the Warhol Foundation has more firm ground on which to stand than most art museums. Warhol has consistently funded progressive exhibitions and scholarship. In recent years lots of other museums could have done similar shows — and haven’t.

But I still think the Warhol threat is a missed opportunity. Here’s how Warhol could be more constructive: The foundation should stand by its intention to stop funding Smithsonian exhibitions because of Clough’s rash actions. Then it should announce that it will use money it might have spent on Smithsonian exhibitions to instead fund acquisitions at Smithsonian art museums. This fund would be used to acquire art that addresses AIDS or that is by gay artists who are missing from Smithsonian museum collections. (David Wojnarowicz comes immediately to mind…) Instead of organizing a foundation boycott of the Smithsonian, Warhol should announce its intention to raise money from other foundations for this dedicated acquisitions fund. Furthermore, missing from much of the art world response to all this is support for the exhibition’s pioneering curators, Jonathan Katz and David Ward. The Warhol-and-friends fund could be named in their honor.

Warhol’s move was unnecessarily us-against-them, red state-vs.-blue state. It’ll play great in the art world, which values purity. In the broader fight against right-wing bigots and the Smithsonian’s inept administrators, it’s a blunder. Wachs and his board turned up the temperature too much. Here’s hoping they find a way to moderate their position.

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  1. [...] Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | ARTINFO.comby Art Fag City on December 14, 2010 · 0 commentsWarhol Foundation threat was a blunder | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | ARTINFO.com – This is a good idea: The foundation should stand by its intention to stop funding [...]

  2. If the Smithsonian is so well funded that it can roll its eyes at the Warhol Foundation pulling $375,000 then perhaps Warhol’s funds would be better suited elsewhere. Entire galleries with extremely interesting programs are run for an entire year on $30,000. It seems to me that funding 10 artists or small galleries for a YEAR is more useful than PARTIALLY funding three exhibitions at Smithsonian museums.

  3. No art institution, even the Smithsonian, should scoff or roll its eyes at protest from funding supporters, no matter how big or small. Elitism and snobbery, especially among institutions that are supposed to collaborate and support one another, is damaging to all the Arts.

    I love the constructive alternative presented re: funding acquisitions! Nice that you found a positive opportunity amid the petty finger pointing, and I hope they do something like that.

  4. Fantastic coverage, Tyler. Rather than call it a blunder, though, perhaps you could label it a missed opportunity. I give the Warhol Foundation tons of credit for putting their money where everyone else’s mouth is. The flood of RTs in the Squawk Box at right (and in the Twitterverse at large) has less of a chance of changing anything than someone threatening to pull their financial support from an institution.

    As @edwardwinkleman said, “fight with what you have to fight with.” You have your words; they have their $375,000. Your ongoing reporting has acted as a call to arms, and now you’re picking apart answers to that call. Hindsight is always 20/20, and your counter-recommendation sounds like a great idea, but let’s not fault the Warhol Foundation for throwing the first big(ish) rock in a hailstorm of pebbles.

  5. While I am glad the Warhol Foundation’s taking a stand, I also found the approach–issuing an ultimatum in a combative open letter–to be both unnerving and counter-productive.

    Unnerving because the threat of defunding has already been made by the polarizing GOP politicians, but largely because it validates the idea that funders get to dictate what goes into a museum exhibition. And the whole point of the NPG controversy centers on the curators and scholars being able to exercise their own expert, independent judgment, and not to be dictated to, by flame-fanning bullies, by cowering administrators, by opportunistic politicians–or by checkbook-waving foundations.

    That said, if the Warhol were serious about influencing the outcome, I’d have expected them to use their access and relationships and set up a dialogue, not a confrontation. It seems hard to have a dialogue, though, when you’re shouting on the rooftop.

  6. I’m with Winkleman on this one — funding is something that the SI clearly responds to, and it’s what the Warhol Foundation has available to work with. All the op-eds, critical blog posts, and protests, though absolutely necessary and useful in spreading awareness, will eventually be forgotten, but Warhol’s action will be be felt long into the future. The SI can scoff all they want about how Warhol’s money is a fraction of what they receive from the government, but I’m sure they’ll miss it when it’s gone. As anyone who’s worked at a museum or arts nonprofit (whether it’s a behemoth like the Smithsonian or a small regional space) knows, every single dollar matters; I’ve never heard anyone in the non-profit world complain about having too much funding because there’s no such thing.

    Further, I’d imagine that Wachs, etc. know that losing Warhol’s funding isn’t going to financially devastate the Smithsonian — I see it as more of a symbolic gesture of resistance, telling the Smithsonian (as well as any other museum or institution it funds) that they won’t be complicit in censorship of any kind and they absolutely won’t participate in funding exhibitions knowing that there’s a possibility of the show being fundamentally altered or pulled altogether after the fact.

    Frankly, I disagree that giving money to acquisitions is a more constructive use of funds. If the Smithsonian is unwilling to show work that is considered “controversial” by narrow-minded bigots now, what makes you think that they’ll ever put it on view in the future? Even if the Warhol Foundation gave them tens of millions to acquire everything Wojnarowitz/Group Material/General Idea/Gran Fury/etc. ever made, given the Smithsonian’s unwillingness to stand up to its conservative critics in this instance, it’s likely that all that important work would end up sitting in storage rather than ever being shown to the public. In my opinion, a REALLY constructive approach would be to offer the funds typically reserved for the Smithsonian to other institutions willing to actually mount progressive shows who won’t kowtow to idiocy and political pressure.

  7. I think one important piece is missing from this analysis. It’s true that $375K is nothing compared to the budget of the Smithsonian– I doubt that was the intention of the WF. $375K is a massive amount for independent professionals trying to get their show(s) into meaningful public galleries/museums. The three shows that received funding from the WF would not have been able to exhibit there without the funding.

    Rather than cutting off funding, they are cutting off traveling exhibitions from visiting or originating at the Smithsonian. Independent curators are now unable to partner with the WF and the Smithsonian to create new work. It also keeps traveling shows that would have been options for the Smithsonian from being considered for the schedule.

    Jonathan Katz keeps talking about a blacklist, this is the beginning of a new blacklist. Or maybe a picket-line, with only scab independent exhibitions showing at the Smithsonian.

  8. I think you’re missing the bigger picture here, which is that progressives are starved for loud, powerful voices speaking on their behalf. Over the last couple of decades we’ve had to watch so-called Democratic politicians bungle their way through Congress and consistently cave in to unreasonable demands from the far right. Not to mention the bad family memories from that whole Mapplethorpe fiasco. Finally now, in the wake of Obama’s last-straw cave-in to Bush-era tax cuts (and ironically, it is the right decision given the circumstances he’s painted himself into, but it just happens to cap 2 years of weak leadership and missed opportunities), we are starting to witness a sea change across the country, of progressives waking up and saying, WE ARE NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS CRAP ANYMORE. (Thank you Bernie Sanders!) The Warhol Foundation has correctly read the mood of the country by taking this action. So what if it is largely symbolic in the grander scheme of things? Would you prefer that we continue as we have been – in effect, negotiating with terrorists? The Warhol Foundation is one of the premier funders of the contemporary art world, so their statement rings loud and strong. Also, $375,000 over three years, in the piss-poor world of American arts, is a goldmine to the vast majority of arts organizations out there. Only places like the Met and the Smithsonian can sneeze at an amount like that. But for the rest of us, it means a lot.

  9. by Whitney Phaneuf

    “…Warhol’s move was all about principle and not at all about process.” I think it’s also about publicity. I applaud the Warhol Foundation for taking action, but this is bigger than Smithsonian v. the art snobs (myself included in such snobbery). It’s also bigger than gay artists being a part of major museum collections, although this is deeply important. David Wojnarowicz was singled out, and has historically been singled out, not just because he was gay, but because his art is subversive. It is threatening in its truth. This is what we must understand about our enemies. If the art world wants to fight back, it will take the risks to challenge this system.

  10. [...] The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is following the Warhol Foundation’s lead by cutting off all Smithsonian funding unless the Wojnarowicz is restored to “Hide/Seek.” I think this is a bad, short-sighted, threat/idea. [...]

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