Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Center for Art Law and NCAC critical of the MFA's decision to modify Kimono Wednesdays

I've been adding interesting commentary to my original post and some follow-up posts but I felt this required a separate post.

The protesters have been accused of wanting to censor art because their actions resulted in a significant modification to the presentation of Kimono Wednesdays which denied museumgoers the opportunity to try on the replica uchikake. The protesters have said it is not their intention to ban art but to promote dialogue and education, but at times their actions – which included celebrating that the MFA had agreed to change their programming – have seemed to be at cross-purposes to their stated goals. Ultimately the MFA is responsible for their response and while some people hold the protesters primarily responsible because they feel they backed the MFA into a corner, some have been more vocal in criticizing the MFA's actions.

Last Friday, The Center for Art Law published an editorial by their Founder and Director, Irina Tarsis, an art historian and attorney, which opened with this very blunt statement: "Self-censorship by museums is a dangerous trend." She characterizes the "public outcry" against Kimono Wednesdays as, "but another instance where public outrage is misplaced as more important issues remain overlooked." Ms. Tarsis is critical of the MFA's disinclination to carry on with Kimono Wednesdays as they were originally structured and feels they should have used the controversy, "to tackle the misconceptions surrounding the idea of cultural appropriation." She goes on to detail the ways in which artists all over the the world have long been borrowing from one another:

"The decision to scrap the benign kimono project is disturbing because museums are meant to be educational forums where different manifestations of creativity and creative types inform the public about the past and safeguard it for the future. It is universally accepted that artists frequently explore and borrow ideas and iconography from different cultures and other artists. Just as Eastern Art experimented with “Western” conventions of painting landscapes to show perspective and integrated Western dress into portraiture, artifacts of Asian, African, South American art and culture, including fans, kimonos, masks, patterns, ceramics, etc. were and continue being frequently incorporated themes in Western artworks, with varying success."

On the same day, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) published a letter they sent to the MFA signed by a Japanese artist and arts activist, Kentaro Ikegami, their Arts Advocacy Program Manager. It's worth a read (see below).

Mr. Ikegami feels that the MFA missed an opportunity to, "discuss the history of cultural appropriation with its public, and to create a deeper awareness of the historico-political context in which art is created and seen." He worries that they have left themselves, "vulnerable to future demands to cancel programming." Further, "by acceding to the demands of protesters and canceling the program, the museum has privileged their voice over any others who may see it in a different way." Mr. Ikegami refers the MFA to NCAC's Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy. They produced the document in response to the 2011 controversy surrounding the censorship of The National Portrait Gallery exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture which had one piece that was seen by some as being anti-Catholic.

NCAC along with The Vera List Center for Art and Politics, "convened a group of arts professionals, consultants, and First Amendment lawyers for a closed policy session," the goal of which was, "to brainstorm on ways to become pro-active on issues of artistic and curatorial freedom and to reverse a cycle of politically motivated accusations and censorship still assaulting many art institutions." The document is endorsed by several national organizations that support museums and museum professionals including The Association of Art Museum Curators, The American Alliance of Museums, and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries.

The best practices consist of three strategies that museums can employ when faced with controversy:
  1. Public Statement Affirming Commitment to Artistic and Intellectual Freedom of Speech (“Freedom of Speech Commitment”);
  2. Preparation in Advance of Upcoming Programs and Potential Controversy, through agreement on clear curatorial procedures, feedback mechanisms, and educational plans;
  3. Procedures for Addressing the Press or Complaints from the Public after an Exhibition or Special Program Opens.
This item in the third section under, "Handling Complaints from the Community," stood out to me:
Evaluate the complaint(s): Who is complaining? What are their credentials? Is the complaint sincere criticism or an act of political opportunism by a group leveraging controversy to serve other goals?
Many critics of the protest have felt that they were using Kimono Wednesdays to further their own agenda on issues that had nothing to do with art, Impressionism, Japan, or kimonos. Various writers struggled to follow the logic of the protest (see: Hyperallergic上り口説 Nubui Kuduchi, and Ready, Set, Kimono!). Observers have been angered and saddened that a small group of protesters managed to influence the MFA to such a degree that all members of the public of any race or national origin have been denied a once in a lifetime opportunity to try on a replica of a 140-year-old theatrical kimono. If the MFA had been following NCAC's best practices, much of the turmoil could have been avoided and we would actually have the dialogue and education that the protesters have called for. I hope that going forward the MFA will adopt NCAC's best practices.

I contacted NCAC yesterday to find out if the MFA has taken them up on their offer to discuss this further but have not heard back.

Update 8/2/15: I just noticed that NCAC posted a response from the MFA a few days ago.

Update 9/8/15: I just saw that NCAC posted another follow-up at the end of July: Kimonos and Controversy: What the Boston MFA Got Wrong

Click here for a full page view of NCAC's letter.

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  1. And yet another perspective, I appreciate this posting! Thank you for all of your hard work reporting. I frequently refer people to your blog. I particularly appreciate all the links and information to allow readers to research and come up with their own conclusions. I am hopeful that we all learn from this experience and that we develop more opportunities for productive dialogue.

    1. Hi Karen! Good to hear from you! I'm glad to hear you and others have found my posts helpful. I provide all the links because I'm the sort of person who likes to read original sources where possible and since the protest brings up all sorts of complex issues I've tried to cite other sources as much as I can. I don't expect anyone to read what I've written and just accept what I think. I was really glad to see the Center for Art Law and NCAC weighing in. Reading their posts brought me back to the First Amendment class I took in college!