My take on #CloughMustGo

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.

However…

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:

@ Not exactly. Those people threw a snowball of inanity. It was Clough who reacted as though it was a live grenade. #CloughMustGo
@museumnerd
Museum Nerd

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.

But…

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.

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8 thoughts on “My take on #CloughMustGo

  1. I don't think Clough should go. But I do renew my call to AAM member museums to end loans to Smithsonian branches until FIRE is restored, until DW is given retrospective at a Smithsonian museum, or until show is renamed “Hide/Seek/Hide Again”. NPG has failed in its most basic responsibility as a museum: to educate and interpret culture. No attempt was made to explain the work to the right. Starve them of content until they return to acting like a museum.

  2. Good post. I disagree with the decision but if the Smithsonian were to replace him in this climate it would be with someone much more conservative. Those who would dismiss him without looking at his full tenure are as short sighted as those who criticized the exhibit without stepping foot in NPG.
    Extract from Clough's Holiday message to Smithsonian staff
    “I could not review this year without commenting on the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” I supported the concept for this exhibition from the beginning. I believed then, and I believe now, that the exhibition helps explain the story behind these works of art and the artists who created them.

    I am being criticized for removing one item from the exhibition of 105 works, but I stand by my decision. Whether we left the video in or removed it, we would face criticism. Some critics have cried “censorship.” I do not agree. I believed the protests over a small part of the exhibition would potentially drown out the voices of the many other artists in this carefully curated show. Others have criticized the placement of the entire exhibition in a publicly funded museum.

    The Smithsonian, by its location and history, is a visible, iconic organization, and its actions create news. What has been obscured in the media buzz is the fact that NPG and the Smithsonian had the courage to mount the exhibit, making its important works available for free to all Americans and to people worldwide. I am certain that in the course of time, this view will prevail. I hope you have a chance to see the exhibition before its scheduled conclusion in February.”

  3. Thanks, John–I hadn't seen that quote from Clough; I think it expresses eloquently why he's been good for SI (this most recent episode notwithstanding).

  4. I agree with this general approach, Steven. While I (mostly) agree with Tyler Green that it was a (mostly) missed opportunity, the approach that the Warhol Foundation has taken seems to me like the right approach. Denying funding or loans, though mostly a symbolic gesture, still establishes the principle without handing conservative activists a bonus victory (by creating an opening for a significantly more conservative head of the organization, as John Gordy points out).

    The problem, though, is that Clough represents the entire Smithsonian Institution (that includes the zoo, Folkways, etc.), so I'm not sure where other organizations would draw the line here as far as support goes. The NPG, for its part, seems to not be on board with the decision to remove the work, so punishing it seems counterproductive.

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