with a letter to the paper arguing that ‘Tate does not self-censor’ – despite it having literally just suspended one of its own senior curators for speaking out. Concerning the postponement of the exhibition, the directors wrote: ‘This decision was made in response to the volatile climate in the US over race equality and representation. KKK imagery remains deeply offensive and painful, and “ownership” of representation has never been more contested. For the US institutions their very credibility among black and minority ethnic audiences is at stake.’ Presumably the directors feel that Tate’s credibility with such audiences is unimpeachable.
While the idea that a show featuring Klan imagery selected by four white curators should be postponed and reconsidered in the light of recent events is at least debatable, the notion that the UK’s lagship gallery should suspend one of its senior curators for contributing to the debate is alarming, showing just how much corporate managerial culture – where institutions must be protected from their ‘human resources’ – has suffused the gallery’s upper echelons. Indeed, the Art Newspaper quoted a staff member on the matter: ‘If you work at Tate, you are expected to toe the party line,’ the anonymous source said. ‘There is very little tolerance for dissent and an increasingly autocratic managerial style.’ More damaging to Tate’s operation and its reputation than Godfrey’s impassioned comments, it would seem, are actions like high-pro ile staff suspensions – hardly a way to build trust, whether with staff or the public.
Ultimately, if museum directors worry that their senior curators have not been able to put together a suitably contextualised exhibition despite the curatorial team’s clear efforts to do so, and that the ‘optics’ of a show featuring Klan imagery being curated by four white curators does not look good, then maybe they should wonder why their institutions don’t have more diverse talent at the top, including at director level.
The real tragedy of this episode is that the directors recognised that there is a burning issue to be dealt with, and that Guston’s ‘powerful message of social and racial justice’ could help with the healing process, but instead of seizing the moment and ensuring that the show went ahead with the requisite support, they chose to let the issue fester. Last word should go to Guston’s eloquent daughter, Mayer: ‘This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue,’ she wrote. ‘These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.’
Oil Portrait The BP Portrait Award, controversial because of its deep connection with the planet-eating oil giant (Arnotes AM428), is currently running at its only host this year, the Aberdeen Art Gallery, a venue it previously toured to before the gallery closed for a four-year redevelopment in 2015. Although the prize show was originally intended to be presented as usual at London’s National Portrait Gallery, the pandemic lockdown nixed that plan. Normally the show would tour to the Scottish National Gallery too, but last year the Edinburgh institution cut its
Art Monthly no. 442, December 2020 – January 2021
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