Because this controversy is more than meets the eye, I am happy to welcome to Washington Post Live, Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art. Welcome.
MS. FELDMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
MR. CAPEHART: All right. So, talk us through this decision. Right now, it seems like the public controversy is centered around censorship and shutting down of an exhibition and that there's a lot of harumphing and umbrage being taken. That's the public conversation, but it strikes me that there's a whole lot more going on here.
MS. FELDMAN: Absolutely. And thank you for having me today and for asking those questions.
I would like to start with a couple of disclaimers and one being that the four museums worked collaboratively on the show all along. Ad we all heard from our staff members individually about concerns about going forward at this particular moment. And so, the four directors came together, and we made the decision together.
But what I have to stress is that the situations for each of the four museums are all very different. We're in different cities--London, Houston, and Boston--and our museums are on different journeys in the diversity, equity, and inclusion and access world. And so, I speak only for the National Gallery, not for the other three museums.
And the other disclaimer I wanted to make is that, obviously, I am a white woman of privilege, and having the discussion about this exhibition, you know, we have to talk about race. And I want to just be clear that I in no way think that I speak for African Americans, but I've spent a lot of time listening to friends, colleagues, staff members. And I have internalized what I've heard, but I don't speak for an African American audience. And I also recognize that an African American audience is not singular, that there are as many opinions across the spectrum as there are in any audience.
So, with those sort of disclaimers, I'll also start by saying that I am the luckiest person in the world because I work at a remarkable institution with a terrific staff, and we do profoundly meaningful work. I always like to say that art has been important since people started painting in caves when we first became human, and it is just as important today. And how lucky we are that we actually get to work with artists to show artists and do work that people find so meaningful and important, as we see with this issue around Philip Guston.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So, in your second disclaimer, there was a--actually, in both of them, there was a lot there that I want to get to.
The fact that you were hearing from folks on staff about their concerns about the exhibition, who were you hearing from, and what exactly were you being told?
MS. FELDMAN: So, I was hearing from staff across the institution. So, we had a large committee of staff helping us to think about the interpretation and programming of the exhibition. We have the most terrific security guards here at the National Gallery of Art. As you can imagine, having been closed for most of the last six months, I've come in every day, and I spend my days talking to--spending a lot of time talking to our security guards. And I have to stress that they are professionals, and they are experts. They are experts in health and safety and security. They are also experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here. And 85 percent of our security guards are also African American, and so I listen to them.
I also spend a lot of time talking to colleagues across the field. I often say that my only qualification for doing diversity work here at the museum is that I'm highly curious and that I'm humble, and so my job is to listen and learn.
MR. CAPEHART: So, Kaywin, then when you are talking to the security guards, when you say 85 percent of the security guards, they are African American and that they are experts in the general public, what were they telling you about their concerns about the show?
MS. FELDMAN: Concerns about the imagery. So, maybe this is a good point, if you don't mind, for me to step back and talk a little bit about the artist and the work, just to give some context. Is that--
MR. CAPEHART: Sure.
MS. FELDMAN: Okay. Yeah.
MR. CAPEHART: Sure.
MS. FELDMAN: I want to be sure people know what we're talking about here, and I have to start off by saying that, justifiably, Philip Guston is considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. And I think he's an artist of great skill who managed to combine works that are both sometimes personal, sometimes highly political. He sometimes used figurative art. He sometimes used abstractions. His works are sometimes funny and other times highly disturbing, and it's that combination is part of what makes him such an important artist.
And Guston, who was Jewish and born in Canada, moved to the United States early with his family and became an artist, and in the '30s, he was working for the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, and started doing figurative murals and even at that time started--he was highly disturbed by the Ku Klux Klan and started exploring the imagery and then went on to eventually end up in New York and became a part of the really--the heart of the New York abstract expressionist movement and had achieved great success and was quite widely even recognized at that time for his importance and his role in the New York art world.
But it was by about the late '60s that Guston became disturbed by the world around him. He was disturbed by police violence, by politics, by war, by discrimination, and no longer felt like abstraction was the way for him to really express his outrage and his curiosity about what led humanity to an often dark position.
And so, his work sort of changed again in the late '60s, early '70s, and he started to use figurative images, symbols, and motifs very often in his work. And this is where we see him return to these hooded figures, which were, of course, an analogy or a symbol of the Klan, and he would use these images as the kind of stand-in for evil. And he even said at one time he was doing them because he wanted to understand what it felt like to be evil.
He also at one point noted that he was the person behind these hoods, and so, for him, he really was using them as a way to explore the hurt and pain and disappointment he saw in the world. And the way he did it was by creating these sort of almost clownish figures of these hoods and almost cartoon-like, and we see them riding around in cars. They're smoking. There's one sitting in a chair by a window with a standard domestic house lamp next to him. We also see a hooded figure painting, so, which, of course, is an analogy to a self-portrait, or the artist, and so people quite rightly argued that Guston is the artist for this moment because he did engage with really challenging times, and there couldn't be a time more challenging, I think, than what we're all going through today.
MR. CAPEHART: Right.
MS. FELDMAN: And so Guston really--he was appropriate for the moment.
And so, finally getting to the answer to your question which is the challenge for museums--and this is not a story about Guston actually--it's about museums--is that he appropriated images of Black trauma by using these Klan hood figures, and I argue that the use of imagery from genocide is different. It's not just upsetting. It goes to another level, and whether it is genocide against Native Americans, a Nazi imagery, Klan imagery, that there is a pain there that puts that art in a different category, which doesn't mean it can't be shown, but it has to be shown with tremendous care and concern and empathy for the viewer.
MR. CAPEHART: So, a few things. One, I'm glad, Kaywin, that you described some of Guston's work because we've made the decision at Washington Post not to show the images, also to your point of perpetuating some of the trauma.
Two, as I was listening to you speak, remind me: This show was put together and nailed down five years ago, right? So, a different America at that point, right?
MS. FELDMAN: Yes. So, we began it five years ago, and I think your point is an important one because not only are we in a different America than we were five years ago. Of course, we're a different America from when Guston painted those images.
MR. CAPEHART: Right.
MS. FELDMAN: We're in a different America since March 13th. You know, the time has changed, and art, of course, changes with time. It doesn't stand immobile.
MR. CAPEHART: Right. And we're a different America, especially since May 25th when--the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
I bring up all of that because, in response to this controversy, the National Gallery, you just hired your first diversity chief when you came in. You've only been the director of the museum since March of 2019, right?
MS. FELDMAN: That's correct.
MR. CAPEHART: So, you've inherited--you've inherited this, and you inherited an all-White executive team. And I guess the question I'm getting to is, is part of the problem here that there weren't any people of color, particularly anyone Black, on staff at the front end who could have been a part of the process to at least start running the traps on what could be pitfalls in a particular exhibition, this one in particular?
MS. FELDMAN: Yes, that's right. And I do want to point out that we are changing our staff, and I'm very proud that our executive team is now 30 percent people of color. So, we are moving in the right direction.
But you're right. We should have started this work much earlier, and I have received a lot of criticism through this. And I absolutely understand it, and I, quite frankly, welcome the discussion. I think it's really healthy for our field.
I think I'm being criticized actually for the wrong thing, though; and as you point out, what we did wrong was we didn't start this work soon enough. And we should have even realized five years ago that we had a different America, and where I hold myself accountable was about a year ago.
So, I had been here for a few months. I was in a planning meeting about the exhibition and looking at an installation plan, and I looked down. And I turned to the team, and I said, "Well, wait a minute. What are we going to do about the Klan pictures? How are we going to handle this?" And I was told that we would write some text explaining the artist's intention and that these images have been around for a long time, and they hang on museum walls, so people are used to them.
And I remember it vividly because I stopped on it. I just thought, no, and I should have paused the project at that moment to really think it through and make sure we got it right, and I waited too long to do that. So, I absolutely hold myself accountable for that.
MR. CAPEHART: Well, I'm going to ask a controversial question here because I've done a lot of reading about this, and a lot of the controversy has been about, oh, in addition to folks in the art world and academia and art critics who were leveling criticism against you and the other institutions for putting a stop to the show temporarily, but it also has this notion of protecting--protecting the Black community from trauma, whereas for me, in this time that we're in, my mind goes to, well, wait a minute. What about those folks who might go to the museum and see the Guston images, not read the context, but see it as a work that they find solidarity with?
How does an institution--I was going to say guard against, but how does an institution deal with folks who come through its doors and take the wrong message from the point of the exhibition but also the point of the artist?
MS. FELDMAN: That's a very good point, and I can't tell you how often in our field we talk about how to--you know, the goal is to have as many people as possible come and see what we do, whether it's an exhibition or the permanent collection, to stop, to really, really look. And I have to stress that that is the most important thing, to really look. We hope they'll also read, and we hope that we spark such curiosity that they will go home, that they'll read, they'll go on the internet, that they'll order our fabulous catalog which is selling like hot cakes and available, that there are lots of ways that people will move along a path of lifelong learning.
But, of course, what we can't do is control what the response is, and a lot of people through this discussion about Guston have said very emphatically, you must tell people what to think. If you explain the artist's intentions, it's all going to be fine. So, it's on you to explain the artist's intentions.
And, of course, that's true. We stand behind our scholarship, our research, and our belief in the artist, and we also understand that people come with their own background, ideas, expertise, experience. And I'm a great advocate for having empathy for the viewer, and I think it's also respect for our audiences, that we respect they come with their own thoughts and opinions.
And you and I were talking a moment ago about our security guards. As you can imagine, very often when people are surprised, delighted, upset, angry at art that they see, the first person they speak to is a security guard about their experience. And so, it is so important for us at the gallery to be able to work with our guards to talk about the artist's intentions, to talk about their feelings and understanding, to get their thoughts on how we might help our viewers and visitors in seeing the work, and that that listening has to be such an important part of it.
And one of the reasons that we paused at this moment, we didn't want to use COVID as an excuse, but COVID is absolutely a part of it because right now we can't even gather our space--I'm sorry--gather our staff in a single space. Our security guards used to meet every day in the auditorium, and it was a time where I could go see them all and chat with them. Right now, we can't even have that many people in a space. They're spread everywhere in the building. So, each conversation is a one-on-one.
And as you know from your work, it's really hard to have difficult, engaging conversations about things as profound and sacred as identity and race by Zoom.
MR. CAPEHART: Well, yeah.
MS. FELDMAN: You need to have those conversations in person.
MR. CAPEHART: Right, right. Those kinds of conversations need to happen in person.
So, you know what I want to do? I want to sort of pull the lens back, actually go back three years to another controversy that is very similar to this one now, but I do think that what happened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the lines are actually more clear. And it was a work called "Scaffold," and it was a work by an artist named Sam Durant.
MS. FELDMAN: Durant, yep.
MR. CAPEHART: Sam Durant. And it was supposed to be this big open-air scaffold of seven different--I think it was seven different instances of public executions throughout American history. A huge controversy blew up in Minneapolis because one of the genocides--or one of the public executions of being depicted was of a--I think it was like a genocide of 30-something Dakota Native Americans, something that is seared into the memories of the Dakota people, one. That was one. Two, the land upon which the sculpture garden and where that sculpture--that "Scaffold" was supposed to appear was Dakota land.
And so, part of the reasons why--one of the reasons why I asked that question earlier about people taking the opposite message from seeing Guston is something that the artist said in--The Los Angeles Times did a Q&A with him and talking about the controversy and the perspective that he gained from talking with folks, and he said a protest developed and then there was a backlash to the protest. There were people driving by the protests and screaming racist things at the protestors saying things like, quote, "That's our trophy. Don't you touch that," and throwing rocks at them, throwing rocks at the protestors.
Can you talk about that moment, that "Scaffold" moment at the Walker Art Center, and how that informs you now, given the controversy over Guston?
MS. FELDMAN: Yes. Thank you. I think that is a good analogy, and I was actually living in Minneapolis during that time period. And the director at the time, Olga Viso, was and remains a very close friend, and I have to say she has been a wonderful source of support and advice for me as I have progressed through this decision.
And it is a case where when Olga and the Walker team saw the work "Scaffold" originally installed at an art show, documenta, at Germany, they, along with the rest of the art world, found the work really upsetting and also very impactful, and felt that it was a really strong statement about capital punishment.
And so, like Guston, with all good intentions, they decided it was a work that belonged in the sculpture garden, and that should be something discussed and debated in Minnesota. But they will be the first ones to recognize that they waited too long to actually then talk to the community and understand what the community had to say, and what Olga and Sam both talk about is hearing the pain expressed by the community.
And, interestingly, I also had a long conversation with Adam Weinberg of the Whitney to get his advice. He used the same conversation about causing people pain, and to my earlier point, I do think that we call some art "difficult." But when something is harmful to people, it has to be considered with greater sensitivity, greater care, and more empathy, and so they talked about causing pain.
And Olga, in particular, related to me a story of hearing from the Native American elders that suicide rates are especially high among the Native American youth in our nation, and the elders said to her, "You are sending a hurtful message to our youth about your lack of respect for the value of their lives." And, of course, that was not anything that Olga or anybody at the Walker or the artist would ever have intended, but you don't learn those things unless you actually listen to people.
So, you're right. This is absolutely a lesson for us because we just need some more time to listen, and of course, this time, this moment is so fraught. People are all exhausted and under great stress, and there's so much uncertainty and ambiguity in our world right now.
So, we just want to have some time to have these conversations.
MR. CAPEHART: Well, I mean, it's one thing to listen, which is I agree folks should be listening, but the lesson I also take from what you're saying is that there needs to be a proactive move on the part of the institution and the artist, proactively, to go to the community and talk to the community about what they're doing.
That same artist, Sam Durant, told The L.A. Times. He was asked, "How has this changed your work?" and he--again, about social justice and reckoning with our nation's racial history, and he wrote, "I don't feel that I can't take up any subject that I want to. The question is, how do I do it? What information and what images do I use? Maybe there are some I don't use," and then to this point, he talks about how he's working on something related to confederate monuments and memorials. And he's already proactively going to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP.
So, I cannot believe that we are almost out of time, Kaywin, because I have two questions that I want to ask you. One, the last reporting I saw was that the exhibition was put off until 2024. Has that time table been moved up at all?
MS. FELDMAN: Yeah. We're actually--the four museums have been talking about schedules and dates, and we're hoping that we've found a solution where the exhibition might open in 2022. So, we're still confirming details, but that's the plan.
MR. CAPEHART: And then the last question--and I should have asked this. I should have asked this earlier when we were talking about the staffing at the museum, but, you know, among the critics that have been out there, there is this one group, a bunch of employees, past and present, at the National Gallery who have dubbed them--they say--well, it's this open letter. It's, dismantle the NGA, and the opening line is "We write to ask the National Gallery of Art how it can exist, continued, contented to be known by its own employees as the," quote, "'last plantation on the National Mall.'" Can I get your reaction to that moniker on the museum and what you were doing to change that?
MS. FELDMAN: Thank you. Yes. We did receive that anonymous petition over the summer, and immediately after the petition, we announced a couple of town halls. In fact, our trustee, Darren Walker, is doing a town hall with our staff next week.
We hired our first director or chief of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, who's already started. We are recruiting right now for a curator in the Contemporary Art Department with expertise in African American and African Diasporic art. I've diversified our leadership team, and we're not showing Philip Guston without spending a lot of time hearing from our staff and our security guards.
I'd like to pivot from your comment to say that, after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, museums across America issued statements of solidarity with our African American communities and a commitment to change. And now, social media is filled with questions of "Okay, museums. What have you done?"
And maybe the last thing I'll say is that one of the best articles I saw about the Guston moment is by a junior at Cornell who wrote about museums and museum culpability, and she said--she wrote, "After endless outcry and petitions for museums to take actionable change, now it's actually being attempted and resisted by the same voices that demanded it. What would immediately reinstalling this show offer? What would that imply for how we hold museums accountable for the change we have demanded?"
MR. CAPEHART: That--you're going to have to send me that column or that paper from the Cornell student because it sort of scratches at the surface of the deeper conversation that I was--that we can't get into because we've run out of time.
But I do think one of the reasons why I was so anxious and glad you accepted the invitation to talk about this is because it seems to me that the Guston controversy on the surface is one thing, but it's about something bigger and about something more. And it's more than just works on a wall in an institution. It is about the institution or those institutions and the people in it and the decisions that they are making, with all good intentions, but making them without any input from the surrounding community.
So, with that, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art, I can't thank you enough for being here today.
MS. FELDMAN: Thank you for having me. I hope that you'll have me back so you can find out and hold me accountable.
MR. CAPEHART: Absolutely. I'm going to take--I will absolutely take you up on that. Kaywin, thank you again.
MS. FELDMAN: Thank you.
MR. CAPEHART: And as always, thank you for joining us. Tomorrow tune in for the next event in Washington Post Live's Voting Matters series featuring former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and members of the band "Portugal. The Man."
As always, you can head to washingtonpostlive.com to register for upcoming events, and as always, I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. And you’ve been watching Washington Post Live.
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