Last week the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego became the first significant U.S. art museum to organize a community-engaging public protest of China’s imprisonment of artist Ai Weiwei.
On Friday afternoon I talked with MCASD director Hugh Davies about his museum’s response to China’s imprisonment of Ai and about how it differed from the response of other museums that are conducting ‘business as usual’ with government-controlled Chinese art museums.
Davies has been at MCASD for over 25 years and is a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. As you’ll see below, he’s more outspoken regarding another museum and another museum director than I’ve heard a museum boss be in quite some time. [Image: Ai Weiwei on the occasion of a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
MAN: How did MCASD come to the decision to do something public in protest of Ai’s detention?
Hugh Davies: As a museum, we had first come to know Ai Weiwei’s work at Documenta in 2007, by way of the chair piece he did there. It was just a brilliant piece, and very hard to pull off. It was very effective, all those empty chairs all over Kassel.
So we’d been interested in his work and had seen pieces in group shows. So when we made a trip to China [last November] with some trustees and collectors, we made it a priority to visit his studio. As it turned out, that visit was on our first morning there. After flying the entire previous day, every single person in our group got up at 6:30am to make it to Ai’s studio, the only time he could see us. As you know, his English is very good, having spent a decade in New York and all of us were thrilled at the chance to see the new things he was working on. We arranged to acquire two of his chairs for our permanent collection. Over a period of six months we arranged for shipping and all that sort of thing.
Since the chairs arrived back in March, we’ve been following the incarceration with increasing concern. There have been no charges brought against him. [Ed.: On Friday evening, after Davies and I talked, China formally charged Ai with tax evasion, charges that were immediately criticized as trumped-up.] It was very troubling to hear of his wife’s report of his condition, but I don’t think it would take long in a Chinese prison — or any prison — to have your spirit broken. So who knows what conditions prevail in that form of detention?
MAN: I’m sure plenty of museum groups and curators have visited Ai’s studio, but now that you’ve done a 24-hour public protest, I find myself kind of surprised no other institution has done something similar. As I understand it, you drove a ton of San Diego and Los Angeles media coverage to the issue; art museum effectively used as bully pulpit.
Davies: It was instigated by Kathryn Kanjo, our chief curator, who suggested to us that we have to do something to draw attention to Ai’s plight. I was traveling and I sent an email back to staff asking, ‘Why don’t we hang a banner like the Tate?’ Various staff members replied and said that we need to brainstorm and come up with something a little stronger.
Rebecca Handelsman, who runs our communications department, and our new curator of education Cris Scorza came up with the idea of a sit-in bcause they thought it was a symbolic way of showing solidarity with the artist. We hoped it would rally our members and the art community and generate some press. Along with many others, my wife and I sat in those two wooden chairs for an hour. They’re similar to the marble chairs we acquired. We had people sitting in the dark in the museum throughout the night. On one hand it’s like meditation. On the other hand it’s like being trapped, and can you imagine being in jail for 43 days without knowing what your fate might be. [Image: Davies and Lynda Forsha at MCASD's protest.]
It drove attention to Ai the way we hoped it would: The local NBC affiliate covered it. Our local PBS station, KPBS, covered it. The local newspaper and its non-profit rival have been covering it too.
MAN: Do art museums who have relevant collecting or exhibiting foci have a responsibility to do something or to say something or to organize something when a prominent artist’s basic human rights are violated by an authoritarian regime? Or is it more complicated than that? I’m particularly struck by the contrast between how MCASD has responded to China and by what the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is doing and how its director Alex Nyerges answered questions about China and Ai last week here on MAN.
Davies: I keep thinking about what the equivalent would be. I think it would be if our country had put Andy Warhol in jail or if Banksy or Damien Hirst was put in jail. This is the best-known artist in China. So it’s a very troubling move. The art world, as you and I know, is a very small world. [Image: Ai Weiwei during a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
Or think of it this way: We’ve shaken Ai’s hand and we’ve visited him in his home. Last year we went to Ellsworth Kelly’s studio and did the same things. The idea that Ellsworth Kelly could be put in jail…?! It’s astounding how primitive China is at this stage.
So, to have a museum director comment that an exchange of exhibitions has nothing to do with Ai because it’s about art history shows a pretty thin [consideration] of the role artists play in making art history. I don’t think you can compartmentalize these things.
Knowing I was going to speak with you I was thinking of analogies. Obviously you can point to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany when artist were imprisoned without charges and this is the same thing.
In terms of how we respond I think the better example is apartheid South Africa. In response to that situation, Westerners organized cultural and sports and economic boycotts. Some people said that’s not fair to South Africans to make them be more withdrawn from the world community, but the opposite proved to be the case. Pressure at all levels brought about change. I would hope that more museums and more galleries and more collectors and more artists would join a boycott and bring pressure to bear. It can only help. The fact that the U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, is calling Ai’s detention an outrage and that an art museum director or directors aren’t willing to do that is very confusing. [Image: Ai Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2010. Collection of the MCASD.]
MAN: The VMFA has come under some examination for acting ‘business-as-usual’ with China. Meanwhile, you, a contemporary art museum and not a historical art museum, have done something. Is part of what goes into how various institutions react the difference between being an historical art museum and being a contemporary art museum?
Davies: I don’t know about that. They have a very strong contemporary program in Virginia, a highly regarded contemporary curator too. I can see it would be perhaps more in our DNA, as you say, but if you work in any kind of art museum you understand the role and the importance of artists. All art was contemporary once. If you’re preventing artists from making their work, if you’re silencing artists voices by imprisoning them without charges and trumping up charges of economic crimes or pornography or whatever the case may be, you can’t ignore those things. They are related.
This is a very small community of artists and museum directors and dealers and auction houses. When on of the most important antagonists, one of the most important creative people in the world – he was even on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world [the Ai entry was written by the then-US ambassador to China] – you have to take note and respond.
I can only speak for myself and my institution: We are aghast that this has happened and intend to protest as best we can. My prediction is that increasingly other museums will as well. I’ll be very surprised if Michael Govan and LACMA don’t do something soon, same also Annie Philbin [at the Hammer] or Jeffrey Deitch [at MOCA]. [Image: Ai Weiwei during a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
Sure, it’s hard to be in the position of a museum and to have spent three or four years arranging something with the Palace Museum and to have this happen, but to ‘ostrich’ and to ignore the context is not a responsible thing to do culturally.
It’s about the exchange of personnel as much as about the exchange of art. The idea of having an exchange of staff is… it gets to what you asked [VMFA director Alex Nyerges] about propaganda. I wouldn’t go myself.