‘Please Pull the Show’: Dana Schutz Faces Renewed Protest Over Emmett Till Painting at ICA Boston
Though the painting is not in the show, activists argue that the ICA is giving institutional approval to a "violent artifact."
Local activists, artists, and community members are calling for the cancellation of a solo exhibition of work by Dana Schutz at the ICA Boston, which opens to the public July 26. In an open letter sent to the museum yesterday, the group criticized the institution for capitalizing on Schutz’s notoriety following her controversial contribution to the Whitney Biennial earlier this year.
Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), which is based on photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till, drew protests when it was shown at the Whitney Museum this spring. The work touched off intense debate over who can and should make art about historical trauma and if and how institutions can responsibly present that work.
“Please pull the show,” the community members wrote in their July 25 letter. “This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability, as the institutions working with the artist are even now not acknowledging that this nation is not an even playing field. During this violent climate, to show true accountability, we need institutions to go bold.”
The exhibition, which has been in the works for two years, presents around 20 works by Schutz created over the past decade and focuses on her move toward increasingly complex, large-scale compositions. The museum “never considered” including Open Casket, Eva Respini, the ICA Boston’s chief curator who organized the exhibition, told artnet News.
At the same time, Respini says, the Whitney controversy unfolded so publicly that the museum felt it must acknowledge it somehow. “We understand that people now read her work through this lens,” she says. The museum will address the issue in the exhibition’s wall text and through a series of public talks.
Several local artists first raised concerns about the show on the museum’s Facebook page earlier this month. The museum reached out to the artists later that day to arrange a meeting, according to Respini. She and several museum representatives had a three-hour discussion with a group of nine community members on July 20.
Following the discussion, members of the group wrote the ICA to restate their opposition to the exhibition. “At this point we are unconvinced that ICA has the will to challenge the egregiousness of continued institutional backing of this type of violent artifact,” they said. The exhibition capitalizes on Schutz’s notoriety, “not only directly benefiting her access and future opportunities, but also the institution’s.”
The open letter was signed by five people who were at that meeting: Megan Smith, Allison Disher, Stephanie Houten, Pampi, and Vonds DuBuisson. Three others are listed as “[c]ommunity members we are organizing with who were not present at July 20 meeting”: Dr. Barbara Lewis, Chrislene DeJean, and Mallory Hanora.
Respini says the museum has been discussing how best to address the controversy over the past few months. “We had a number of internal meetings and conversations with colleagues, members of our community, artists,” she says.
The wall text, which was developed in consultation with Schutz herself, states: “This year she was included in the Whitney Biennial, where one of her paintings ignited a vigorous debate around the role of art, artists, and institutions in the representation of race, a conversation that resonates with larger issues in our current political and cultural landscape.”
The goal was to “acknowledge what happened at the Whitney…while making sure our public can have a context for her broader work in general,” Respini says.
The museum also plans to address the issue in a September 14 conversation between Respini and Boston’s poet laureate Danielle Legros-Georges about “organizing a show amid artist controversy” and at a September 28 forum about representation and responsibility in creative spaces, which is co-presented by the Hutchins Center for African & African and American Research.
In their letter, the community members criticized the museum for not securing the artist’s presence at these events and for waiting until the fall to acknowledge the debate, “giving the ICA an opportunity to legitimate the exhibition by avoiding addressing the painting at the opening.”
Two community members listed as present at the July 20 meeting did not respond to a request for further comment from artnet News. Barbara Lewis, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who was not present but has been working with the group, told artnet News by phone yesterday that she is concerned about the precedent set by the show.
“Maybe this is a broad stroke reading, but I believe that the artist gained a great measure of celebrity from the controversy, and that it was that degree of celebrity that the ICA saw as attractive,” she says. “Whether the particular canvas is included or not, for me, is not the crux of the matter.”
Asked whether it made a difference that the museum had planned the exhibition well before the Whitney Biennial or the controversy around Open Casket, Lewis replied, “What is planned doesn’t always eventuate—they could have canceled it.”
Lewis hopes the critical response will encourage cultural institutions to begin community engagement earlier on in the planning process. “I would hope that we get to a point in our society where more people could get into these privileged spaces and more people could have a say about what really matters, and these structures of division don’t stand in our way,” she says. “Not wanting to be complicit doesn’t necessarily make you not complicit.”
Respini said the museum is committed to engaging in conversations about race, representation, and cultural appropriation. But those discussions, she adds, are “much larger than any one artist.… I don’t think canceling our exhibition and walking away from that dialogue is the right decision.”
Update, July 27: Stephanie Houten, one of the signatories on the letter, responded to artnet News’s request for comment, noting that the group hopes to continue its conversation with both community members and the museum: “The Whitney and the ICA are acting in very similar ways, choosing to cite freedom of expression by white artists and using that as a facilitation of conversation on racist violence in their spaces. Since we are a group of mostly white folks, we have made it a critical part of this work to contact black intellectuals, organizers, and community members so that we are held accountable for our actions. We believe that upon respectfully engaging in these multiple dialogues that we will understand what the next steps might be.”
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