The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help

When the man who curated a Carl Andre show fires a woman who curated a Kerry James Marshall show, it's not a good look.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost Photos: Getty

On Monday, the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, received an email from director Philippe Vergne with news that chief curator Helen Molesworth was “stepping down” from the prestigious position.

“No,” artist and board member Catherine Opie said to the Los Angeles Times shortly thereafter. “He fired her.”

The optics of the situation are, to put it kindly, pretty shitty. Since joining the LA-based museum in 2014, Molesworth has been an outspoken champion of transforming the art world’s historically limited notions of what constitutes creative genius.

“Most museums still maintain a commitment to an idea of the best, or quality, or genius,” she told The Art Newspaper in 2016. “And I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values. But I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favor white men.”

Her firing, like the firing of other powerful and outspoken women in the art field, sends a message: progressive programming is marketable, until it becomes a threat.

In January, “politically outspoken” Laura Raicovich left her position as the director of the Queens Museum due to what she described as “political differences” with the institution’s board. (An independent investigation into Raicovich’s departure conducted by Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP determined that Raicovich knowingly misled the museum’s board in addition to co-editing a “politically divisive” book and was subsequently asked to resign. Raicovich contests all the investigation’s findings, claiming she resigned on her own accord.)

Just a few weeks earlier, Lisa Freiman abruptly left her position as executive director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art to “return to her scholarly roots.” Gail Hackett, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU, commended Freiman for advancing “the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the arts” while bidding her farewell. And last week in Bordeaux, France, on International Women’s Day, María Inés Rodríguez, the director of the Musée d’Art Contemporain, was let go from her post because her program was “too demanding.” (In other words, stick to the status quo.) More than 50 art world luminaries signed a letter condemning the decision.

Throughout her time at MOCA, Molesworth translated bold assertions into bold exhibitions, curating visionary shows that highlighted a multiplicity of voices and ideas otherwise thrust to the margins.

“This historical story that we tell, it begins with this idea that New York stole the art world after World War II, and that there’s a certain kind of Modernist described by critic Clement Greenberg and everything proceeds apace,” the curator said in 2016. “For many, many years, we were very comfortable with that story. But then, as a result of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rocking of our geopolitical boundaries and the rise of the Internet, we come to realize that the story we used to tell doesn’t begin to encompass the fullness of the world as we know it.”

In 2016, Molesworth delivered a critically beloved, blockbuster retrospective of Kerry James Marshall, who spent 35 years painting real and imagined images of black life in America. The next year she organized the first major museum exhibition chronicling the career of Brazilian feminist artist Anna Maria Maiolino.

Molesworth also served as an art consultant on Jill Soloway’s Amazon series “I Love Dick,” a tribute to the power of female creativity. In the show, a black female curator giddily uproots a humdrum, abstract painting exhibition in favor of work by artists including Marshall, Kara Walker, Laura Aguilar, Mickalene Thomas and Zoe Buckman. The fictional scenario mirrored Molesworth’s real-life goals as a curator.

“The only way you get diversity is to actually do it,” Molesworth said. “That means that certain men don’t get shows.”

Vergne, on the other hand, has historically used his position as MOCA director to uplift the work of established white male artists. In fact, earlier this year, artist and board member Mark Grotjahn declined to be honored at the museum’s 2018 gala, overseen by Vergne, due to the lack of diversity among recent honorees. (The previous three honorees ― Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari ― were all straight white men.)

Vergne’s most alarming act might have been his decision to curate a retrospective for Carl Andre, a minimalist sculptor with a disturbing backstory.

In 1985, neighbors overheard Andre fighting with his then-wife, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, in the 34th-floor apartment they shared in Greenwich Village. Moments after a doorman said he heard a woman scream, “No, no, no, no,” Mendieta’s body hit the roof of a deli below her residence with a large thud. When police arrived at the scene, Andre had scratches on his nose and arm.

Andre was soon charged with second-degree murder. He was tried before a judge ― without a jury, at Andre’s lawyer’s request. “I wanted to avoid dealing with a jury of women that might possibly be swayed by the so-called feminist issue,” defense attorney Jack Hoffinger told The Observer in 2015. Andre was eventually acquitted of all charges and was showing work at the Guggenheim a mere seven years later.

The discord between the values Vergne and Molesworth represent is striking.

“I keep thinking about how it was Philippe Vergne who did the Carl Andre retrospective, and it was Philippe Vergne who fired Helen Molesworth,” art critic and author Tyler Green tweeted on Wednesday. (Green later added that Vergne also curated a 2008 Kara Walker retrospective at The Walker in Minneapolis, so he has not exclusively shown the work of white men.)

John Sciulli via Getty Images

Molesworth’s firing is reflective of a larger problem in the art world. In many ways, the museum space, despite its ability to serve as a sanctuary for progressive ideals and creative freedom, is still rooted in tradition, colonialism, wealth inequality and conservative ideals. The same week news of Molesworth’s departure hit LA, photographer Nan Goldin staged a protest at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking issue with the institution’s financial ties to the Big Pharma Sackler brothers, who allegedly profited off of the opioid crisis.

On both coasts, the art world is struggling to reckon with the sexism and harassment embedded in its history and institutions. Curator Jens Hoffmann was fired from the Jewish Museum after sexual harassment allegations against him surfaced, and Gavin Delahunty resigned from his position as senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art after being accused of inappropriate behavior. These are far from the only art world power players to allegedly abuse their status, as the activist collective Not Surprised explains in its manifesto.

Needless to say, museums have a long way to go before reaching any semblance of gender parity.

Perhaps Molesworth said it best, in her review of Simone Leigh’s work featured in this month’s issue of ArtForum.

“The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise,” she said. “I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.”

This article has been updated to include more information regarding Laura Raicovich’s departure from the Queens Museum in New York.

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