Usually I refrain from talking about museums on this blog except to discuss how museum policy/tradition/approach affects (or is affected by) technology, and I generally keep my political opinions to myself, so this is sort of a new thing for me. And this is probably just an overreaction to a relatively small issue. So please forgive this digression–I’ll get back to ranting about collections management systems or whatever soon enough.
The recent firestorm surrounding Wayne Clough (secretary of the Smithsonian Institution)’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s work A Fire In My Belly from the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and the public response to that decision, has provoked me out of my comfortable treehouse. For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, I’ve collected a bunch of links related to the controversy here: http://bit.ly/fC7uD8. Of what I’ve read thus far, I would say that Tyler Green’s ongoing coverage at ARTINFO is the most balanced and researched.
I don’t think I need to point out that the Smithsonian’s decision was horribly wrongheaded (though I’ll do that briefly below), so I want to focus on one aspect of the response to this incident: the “Clough Must Go” movement that’s been emerging this week. This movement, which will have its coming-out party at a protest scheduled for this weekend in New York City, seeks to hold Wayne Clough personally responsible for the decision (which is good), and to then remove him from office as a result (which is bad).
This feels wrong to me. Here’s why.
The Smithsonian’s response to this issue was the wrong one.
So yeah, lemme get this out of the way first. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw Fire in My Belly from the show was absolutely wrong. Though this issue has undoubtedly caught the public’s consciousness, it would appear that the Smithsonian could still have kept the piece in the show with a fair minimum of public outcry. As the mysterious museumnerd put it pithily:
And the timing of this couldn’t be worse, in that it’s hard to not fit this into a much larger (and far more dispiriting) narrative in which the voices of reason and tolerance are being drowned out by a hysterical, intolerant vocal minority. Watching one of our most beloved public institutions cave to this craven minority is enough to make one resort to extreme measures for retribution. And this is exactly what’s happening with the “Dump Clough” movement.
Removing Wayne Clough over this incident sets the worst kind of precedent.
It would be one thing if this were the last straw in a long line of capitulations to political pressure on Wayne Clough’s part. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The last time I recall the Twitterverse speaking his name, it was to praise him for the Smithsonian 2.0 initiative, which he sponsored. Maybe Clough has made a whole lot of terrible moves that compromise the integrity of the Smithsonian as a whole, but if so, I’m certainly not aware of them. Even while acknowledging that the decision to remove the piece was wrong, Jonathan Katz, one of the curators of the exhibition, still praised the NPG for putting the exhibition on in the first place.
So what we’re talking about here is essentially a “one strike and you’re out” policy when it comes to the leaders of our institutions. The precedent we’d be setting says, in effect, that your past performance is meaningless if you step over the line even once in a way we don’t approve of. I just can’t hang with that. While there are certain transgressions that a museum administrator (or his/her bosses) can commit that rise to the level of an Impeachable Offense (such as, oh, maybe selling artwork to pay your electric bills), I don’t believe that this is one of them.
As many of us who work in museums know, there is a painful shortage of museum directors in this world who actually “get it” (I’ve been lucky enough to work for a few). And of those, there’s an even tinier subset who are capable of guiding an institution as multi-faceted and unwieldy as the Smithsonian. If we’re going to remove someone who, generally speaking, seems to be doing a good job (as opposed to a ‘heckuva’ job), we’d better be doing it for the right reasons. Which brings me to my last point…
Dumping Clough only furthers the agenda of those who sought to remove the piece in the first place.
While I don’t doubt that a tiny minority of the visitors (emphasis on ‘tiny’) who have visited this show were truly offended by the work in question, it’s not for those people that this artificial “debate” has been created. What this is, in the end, is a political power play to establish authority over our country’s public institutions. And make no mistake, this issue IS a cynical one for a majority of the politicians, pundits, and commentators who are using it to their advantage. If it served Eric Cantor’s or John Boehner’s political ends to argue that the content of “Hide/Seek” wasn’t offensive enough for an organization supported with taxpayer money (even though this particular show was privately funded), that would be the case they’d make.
Removing Clough plays right into those people’s hands. It sends a message that if you can’t behead our precious institutions by stirring up bullshit controversy, we’re perfectly willing to finish the job ourselves. I fear the blowback that something like this would create. If the movement to dump Clough is successful, who do you think we’ll get in his place? Someone who’s willing to face debate head on, or someone who, when appointed by the Board of Regents, is willing to state for the record that there will be no more “controversial” exhibitions on his/her watch?
So, in short, let’s hold Clough accountable for this, certainly. But let’s find the right corrective action.