“I am convinced we can’t do this show without having an African American curator as part of the project,” Feldman said of the touring exhibition being presented by the NGA, Tate Modern, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “It’s not about the artist, it’s about us.”
But Feldman also says the exhibition will probably happen sooner than 2024. Originally set to open in June, the museums announced then that the tour would be postponed to next year because of the pandemic, with the Tate planning to open it in February before it came to Washington in June 2021. When it became clear in recent weeks that ongoing travel restrictions would make it difficult to get the hundreds of works to London in time, Feldman said the museums rushed to agree on a target of four years out, when covid-19 probably would not be a factor and scheduling four stops would be easier.
“That date was pulled out of the air in haste,” Feldman said. She is hopeful that the show will open in D.C. in 2022 or 2023.
Except for the date, Feldman said she stands behind the call to postpone the exhibit. “I still feel very strongly we made the right decision,” she said.
In a joint statement released last week, the four museum directors — Feldman, Frances Morris of the Tate Modern, Matthew Teitelbaum of the Boston museum and Gary Tinterow in Houston — delayed the show “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” The statement noted the racial protests gripping the country and said the museums needed time to reframe the exhibit.
The postponement sparked widespread outrage. Hundreds of artists signed a petition demanding reinstatement of the exhibition as planned; more broadly, critics called the decision cowardly and charged the museums with shirking their responsibilities to interpret the art. Many insisted the exhibition couldn’t be more timely.
Feldman disagrees, saying the KKK images in Guston’s work are in a special category of racial violence. “I would argue the Klan is a symbol of racial terrorism. The Klan struck fear in people of color, Jews, LGBT people . . . but no group has suffered from the violence of the Klan as much as African Americans,” she said.
And given the racial unrest that has overtaken the country, Feldman believes the volatile moment makes the exhibition more difficult. “The context of today matters,” she said. “Asserting that the audience should understand our point of view while not acknowledging their point of view is disrespectful.”
Each museum came to the decision to postpone individually and for different reasons, Feldman said. Morris, the Tate Modern’s director, told a British newspaper the postponement was “mainly in response to a potential outcry faced by U.S. institutions.” On Wednesday, she elaborated on the decision, saying that the museums recently “had begun working towards a radical rethinking of the exhibition’s interpretation. This is a collaboration between four very different institutions, and we want to work together to ensure that Guston’s powerful work can be understood and appreciated in all its complexity and nuance in each city the exhibition travels to,” she said in a statement.
Tinterow, director of the Houston museum, had nothing further to add about the reasons for the postponement, saying through a spokeswoman that the museums are working closely to reschedule the tour. Teitelbaum, from Boston, declined to comment.
Members of the gallery’s staff, including some guards, voiced their objections to the show’s images, Feldman said. Others, who asked to remain anonymous to speak about internal matters, described the decision as a major miscalculation and said Feldman should have foreseen the reaction from the art community.
The National Gallery is not ready to take on the challenges of presenting these works, she added. The museum’s staff is racially divided by department: Eighty-three percent of its security staff are people of color, compared with 2 percent of its curatorial staff. The gallery has no Black curators.
Since 1999, the museum has presented 96 large monographic exhibitions on the scale of Guston, and 93 have featured White artists. The only Black artists have been Gordon Parks, Martin Puryear and Romare Bearden.
Feldman considered these facts, and the ongoing stress of her staff, many of whom are working remotely and caring for family members, young and old. The postponement provides time for Mikka Gee Conway, the chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer who joined the gallery just last month, to get acclimated and for the museum to hire a new curator of African American and African diasporic art.
There are several new exhibitions that will improve the racial balance of its exhibitions. By the end of this year, the museum hopes to unveil a new installation of the Shaw Memorial, the Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument that commemorates Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Civil War’s 54th Regiment of African American soldiers. Next year, it plans an exhibition of protest art by African American artists in its permanent collection and a small show on Black photographer James Van Der Zee. In 2022, it will host “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a major exhibit with more than 140 works that examine the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th century.
Feldman also rejected any notion that she’s pandering to public demand by again rethinking the exhibition date. She insists that the art world in general could use more listeners. “We live in such a polarized time,” she said. “You’re either scholarly or listening to the public. I firmly assert you can be both. Everything we do will be rooted in scholarship, but we can’t disown the public’s point of view.”