Enter at your own risk...

One interesting thing about the MAEP show (for me, at least, since I was interested in the intersection of museums, art, and politics) that maybe wasn't immediately obvious was that the organizers had to jump through some legal hoops that aren't required by most MAEP exhibitions. First, the design of the exhibition (with a wall blocking a direct view into the gallery) insured that unsuspecting visitors wouldn't see potentially offensive works of art just in passing the gallery. To enter the gallery, you had to navigate around the wall, and if you did, you might have noticed this sign on that wall:

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is pleased to host this exhibition celebrating Minnesota artists' political views in a broad array of forms, ranging from lawn signs and posters to effigies. Like democracy itself, the opinions presented here are challenging, robust, and sometimes provocative. All work submitted by Minnesota artists for exhibition are displayed for your reflection. Please be prepared for a thought-provoking and uncensored exhibition of works expressing particular artist's viewpoints, including some that may offend you.

(I think I got that right-- I can't quite read my scribbled notes.)

That sign was developed by the organizers of the exhibition. After complaints from a few visitors (a very few, from what I heard) who felt that by holding the exhibition, the museum was promoting a particular political position, a second sign appeared, just below the first:

The Art of Democracy is intended to provide a forum for the freedom of expression as the 2004 presidential election approaches. The exhibition was developed by the MAEP and artist-managed curatorial department of the MIA. The opinions expressed in this exhibition do not reflect the non-partisan, non-political stance of the MIA.

(again, relying upon scribbled notes, but I think it is pretty close).

I didn't read the signs before entering the gallery, and didn't notice anyone walking in who read them, either. Visitors were really interested in reading the text in many of the artworks (I saw lots of people looking at the exhibition very slowly, and very carefully, which should make museum people happy), but didn't see anyone giving those warning signs the same scrutiny. Still, they do protect the museum: when the MAEP set up this non-juried, open call for submissions, they essentially created a sort of "free space" for the artists. Museums can do political shows - like this one - but they are also very careful to make sure they state that they are not taking sides.

I am not sure how I feel about the signs. I think visitors just passed them by, and, really, I think they function simply to cover the museum's ass. If there are complaints, the museum can say, "We clearly posted signs at the entrance to the exhibition" without really having to think about whether people read them. So what do I want? Do I want the signs to not be necessary? Do I want the museum to be able to take a side and proclaim a position? Do I want it to be okay not just to exhibit conflicting opinions, but for those opinions to actively conflict? Do I want more people to be so invested in the museum that there are rafts of complaints when the MAEP does a show like this, and rafts more complaints when they don't?


They're still coming in...

Here's a (belated) report on the intake on Saturday at the MAEP intake. Even though the exhibition is nearly over (it closes on November 28). Still, the artwork was coming in, and the contributions are starting to be layered on the walls, like fliers on a bulletin board or telephone pole. There is something fun about getting to visit a gallery under construction - you get to navigate around the ladder and extension cord and visit with the people who are really making the exhibit. And even though the artists who contribute work must sign a piece of paper acknowledging that their artwork will be disposed of after the exhibition, it sounds like the MAEP is thinking about creating a time capsule, and preserving the works of art (and possibly the online dialog) for someone to paw through 100 years from now.

In 100 years, it should be another election year, and I wonder how this flurry (or snowstorm?) of responses to this year's election will look in a century. I talked to Stuart Turnquist a bit about whether he could imagine the MAEP deciding to host another exhibition like this one, and he felt that this particular election energized and enraged people in way few others have -- a sort of "perfect storm" of issues, events, advertising, and personalities that meant an unusually high percentage of Americans were invested in this election.
  • sszucs

Sorry Everybody

check this out, my friend Cynthia sent me this site


It is brilliant, gorgeous - full of pictures asking forgiveness of the world for November 2nd.... a humility our president will never understand -- as well as a desperate attempt to find beauty in something so distasteful. And humor, as the selection below demonstrates..

So what's a museum to do?

My friend Toby, a museum educator in California, sent me this "10 Commandments for Museums", penned by James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America:

Don't lie.
Don't teach issues as facts.
Watch your language.
Watch your images.
Include historiography.
Don't valorize.
Be relevant to the present.
Don't omit people relevant to the story.
Include the audience.
Address controversy.

I guess one could argue that with these comments that he's taking a political position....

But taking positions makes everything more interesting. Thanks to everyone who posted during this online flurry of questions and comments (and who I talked with & emailed earlier) -- I appreciate that you all took the time to contribute!

Money & Politics: Museum Funding

We know politicians will do just about anything for money, but maybe museum people will, too. A curator told me that, like it or not, the current conservative climate effects funding. She won't even go to the NEA for money for anything but a "safe" exhibition: a historical perspective on a non-controversial artist. (Ironically, local funders - who would seem to have closer ties to communities than a national government funder - are much less concerned with the content of exhibitions.)

While one art museum person I talked to said thay there was more freedom of content with individual or foundation support, one science museum person said that there are issues with funders wanting to get involved with content of exhibitions or influence how their industries are portrayed in exhibits. An exhibit on a new technology, for example, might be enthusiastic about the potential of the invention without addressing the related environmental or social issues. Good for the industry, but maybe not so good for people?

Do you see money influencing what museums do, what they exhibit, what points of view they represent? How?

Taking sides - officially, or unofficially

Officially, museums can't get involved in politics. To keep their non-profit status, they can't lobby or take a stand for a political candidate. But, as one west-coast museum director I spoke with explained, that doesn't mean they can't do political shows. They could, for example, do a call for artists inviting responses to the war in Iraq, even knowing that 99% of the artists are not going to side with Bush. The artists are free to do their work and make their statement, and the museum can exhibit the work as part of the artist's body of work. So that's why the MAEP could do the Art of Democracy show - the institution opened the call to all Minnesota artists (even though not a lot of Bush fans submitted work).

So, really, museums do take sides, in a way. Would it be more fun, or be more interesting, or foster better conversation, if they really did represent more sides of an issue? Should the organizers of the art of democracy show have organized a get-out-the-art drive, and gone into conservative communities to make sure a conservative point of view was adequately represented in the gallery?

But then would the science museum have to talk about creationism as an alternative to evolution?

Do museums and politics mix?

My theme for my time with the Triablog is museums & politics. I started thinking about this because of a (heated) discussion that happened at the Science Museum where I work. The debate centered on how the Science Museum talks about evolution. To the scientists, talking about evolution is a given, the basis of everything they do (for the biologists, at least). But, as someone pointed out, evolution is NOT a given for everyone in the museum's audience - and some in the audience reject it completely. And some of these people want the science museum to be a place where debate about evolution takes place. But the science museum doesn't want to have to host an evolution vs. creation debate, and doesn't feel it needs to. The creationists disagree: they want to take on the scientists in public debate, and feel the museum IS an appropriate place for that debate.

As non-profits, museums are (legally) prohibited from aligning with or promoting any political party. But does this mean they should stay out of politics alltogether?

So, here are my main questions:

- Do you think politics and political issues play a role in what museums do?

- If you work at a museum, when you plan a program or exhibition, can you take a political position?

- Do you think the museum can or should take a position on political issues?

- How do the issues of audience & museums & politics mix when a museum hosts a controversal exhibition or program?

Online Conversation Tonight

John Edwards Getting Ready
Harry Shearer, Untitled (John Edwards), 2004, Conner Contemporary Art

John Edwards is getting ready - and so should you. We're hosting a live dialog tonight on the Triablog about museums & politics. Join the conversation tonight (Thursday, November 18) between 7pm-8pm Minnesota time.

(This is one of my current favorite examples of political art -from Harry Shearer's exhibition in Washington. Read more here: http://www.artnet.com/magazine/Frontpage.asp?H=1).


A skeptical museum?

To continue my theme of politics in museums, I've been following the reviews of the new National Museum of the American Indian, which (very) recently opened in Washington, DC. Most of the reviews I've read have been pretty negative, and most of the negative reaction seems to come from a feeling that the museum isn't really doing its job as a museum. One reviewer in particular lamented that the museum didn't display amazing objects in a context that made it clear what was so great about this particular thing and criticized the museum for refusing to impose any "recognizable standard of scholarship, or even value, on the items in its galleries." (Timothy Noah, writing in Slate http://www.slate.com/id/2107140). Another writer, however, praises the museum for its approach to interpretation. This writer praises the museum because the labels "...identify only the date, provenance and, if known, the name of the artist for items on display, treating them as works of art rather than anthropological specimens." And when the exhibit does include didactic labels, the label attributed to an author (rather than just the anonymous "voice" of the institution.

There's a nice summary of the exhibit and the criticism here:


So what do you think? Is it the job of the museum to tell us about the stuff? or in telling us about the stuff, do they interpret the stuff in a way that's inappropriate? Is it realistic to expect museum visitors, armed with info about who wrote labels, to make judgements about what kind of viewpoint the labels reflect, and use that to construct their own interpretation?