Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

MAM’s Dan Keegan wants peace for our time

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In an astonishing interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Mary Louise Schumacher on Monday, Milwaukee Art Museum director Dan Keegan suggests that art museums should not lead, should not have principles and that they should not stand with artists who have been imprisoned by authoritarian regimes. Keegan says it is “fair” to wonder whether art museums that protest China’s imprisonment of artists are “arrogant.”

The subject of Keegan and Schumacher’s conversation was China’s imprisonment of Ai Weiwei and other artists at a time when MAM is showing a major exhibition of Chinese art, an exhibition organized with the involvement of a government that imprisons artists. Even as controversy has swirled around his museum’s exhibition and the way MAM has bellied up to China, Keegan remained silent until Monday, at which point he did his best Neville Chamberlain impersonation.

I try not to aggregate other journalists’ work here on MAN so I’m not going to re-write Schumacher’s story, but I recommend that you read what Keegan has to say. I believe that art museum directors should be leaders in their communities, especially when it comes to issues that affect art, artists and our shared cultural heritage. I posit a “fair question”: Does Keegan have the ethical fortitude to be an art museum director?

Related: As a counterpoint to Keegan, read what Philip Bishop wrote in the Guardian yesterday. He thinks art museums should respond to China much more forcefully. He’s right. The way the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and, to a lesser extent, the Milwaukee Art Museum have embarrassed themselves by racing into the arms of China’s artists-silencing, dictatorial regime is an embarrassment to those institutions. However, the overwhelming majority of American art museums have done little to support and spotlight the plight of art and artists in China. (Exceptions: MCASD and the Hirshhorn, which is moving forward with plans to host an Ai Weiwei survey next summer.)

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  1. It seems that museums like the Milwaukee Art Museum would prefer to separate art from the artist. It’s much easier for them to defend their role in the imprisonment of artists like Ai Weiwei that way.

  2. Absolutely right, Tyler. Museums have long been assumed to be places where the public can go to learn about what is good and what is not in terms of visual art. We know that’s not entirely true, but the perception remains, and is one museum professionals should strive to achieve. They should also stand for what is good in terms of human rights and ethics, both in their professional practices and how they relate to the world around them.
    Free Ai Weiwei and his associates!

  3. Peter Schwarze says:

    Are you–is anybody–offering anything that the interested and concerned and angry individual can do? Is it worthwhile, even if it would personally sting to deny oneself access, boycotting places like the VMFA and MAM? And leading a concerted effort to do so? Do we write the corporate sponsors of those institutions and suggest why they shouldn’t financially support them? Do those who normally give, stop? Should–and would it be suitable–for places like MCASD to swear off loans to institutions that don’t sufficiently consider what messages their blithe policies send? I’m extremely happy that you’ve been paying such attention to this issue, and I believe that symbolic actions like those at MCASD and even the New York sit-in at the Chinese Consulate are necessary gestures of anger and protest. But when is it time to move past symbolism and critique?

  4. I’d like to see the forum model adopted by more art museums. These institutions have the ability to serve as sites for discussion and exchange of ideas. However, if they operate in this manner, various museum and art world practices will be open to examination. On this point, I found Okwui Enwezor’s recent essay “Spring Rain,” in Artforum, summer 2011: http://ht.ly/5aqK9, very illuminating. While not dismissing the dreadfulness of the Ai Wei Wei incident, Ewezor suggests that cultural institutions, curators, scholars, etc. need to scrutinize the ethics of their own practices in terms of freedom of expression and labor rights. He highlights recent censorship problems in the U.S., Italy, and France.
    I think that art museums can serve as cultural forums. However, to do justice to this important role, it will take courage, perseverance, collaboration, and the implementation of corrective actions.

  5. […] guess that Milwaukee Art Museum director Dan Keegan thinks the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is arrogant for doing […]

  6. […] institutions all too content to lend exhibitions and tacit approval to the Chinese government, from the politically deaf-mute Milwaukee Art Museum to the British Council that still plans to proceed with their show regardless of Kapoor’s […]

  7. jl@sf.us says:

    America and americans hold sacred the invisible hand of the marketplace, so only the winners count.

    One does what one must to win.

    If that means cozying up to authoritarian regimes, overlooking atrocities, lending tacit approval to unconscionable ideas and actions, so be it.

    We’re borrowing trillions from china’s authoritarian regime, often to spend on oil purchased from middle eastern, african and south american dictatorships, shiekdoms and other assorted authoritarians.

    MAM plays by the rules we love in america.

    Long live capitalism!

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