In our moment of cultural reckoning, news headlines draw much public attention, but what do long-lasting conversations look like in the wake of these media flashpoints?
Monica Zimmerman, Director of Museum Education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), discusses the role Education can play when responding to moral quandaries faced by museums, looking in particular at PAFA’s response to sexual misconduct allegations made against an exhibited artist.
Nisa Mackie (NM)
Late last year, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was put in a position where it needed to make some quick decisions around its Chuck Close Photographs exhibition, following allegations of sexual misconduct that were made against the artist. Can you summarize the reaction of the museum to this news?
Monica Zimmerman (MZ)
The Chuck Close exhibition had been open for two months by the time news articles about Close came out. It opened on October 6, 2017, and the first article publishing the allegations against Chuck Close was on December 19, 2017. Classes had let out already; board members were celebrating the holidays. It was a difficult time of year to make big decisions when our major stakeholders had gone home. We immediately scheduled a sit-down with students for the moment they would return from vacation to start a dialogue, because there’s this incident with Chuck Close that is triggering the conversation, but that’s by no means the only way in which conversations around gender and power are playing out right now.
The forum on January 17, 2018 included not just students but senior leadership from both the school and the museum, faculty members and staff from various departments, many of whom ended up sharing their thoughts and stories along with students. So, yes, it was a forum to make sure students were part of the conversation, but it really felt much more like a full institutional forum—which is what you want—to give even more people a chance to be part of the conversation. We opened with a framework explaining why we wanted to have this conversation, and then it was an open mic, and each individual student and staff member contributed differently. It was very powerful. Some remarks were as specific as, “This is a thing that has happened to me; here is my story.” Some were more philosophical, with both men and women sharing ways they had experienced problems of gender imbalance and other sorts of endemic power hierarchies in the art world. And some respondents questioned how these choices [exhibition/artwork selections] get made, offering vociferous takes on the specific situation like “Take that show down!” and “Leave that show up! Taking it down is censorship.” Some powerful remarks by female students included thoughts like, “I’m incredibly frustrated that, yet again, I am losing time in my own studio working on my own projects to have a conversation about how to solve the problems that men create.” So there were a really wide range of responses that reflected the complicated public responses to the larger cultural moment that we’re having. What are we as a community willing to hold people responsible for in terms of their behavior and ultimately, also how do we do that?
So ultimately you came to the decision of having a smaller exhibition interpret and respond to the issue.
We realized that as an art museum and an art school, we have an obligation to be open to the broader conversation about any number of changes that the art world needs to see. They mirror changes our entire society needs. We decided to use this moment to have conversations which seemed like they could produce real institutional change, real conversation in the art world, real conversation between generations, between teachers and their students. We decided that we were going to try and use the space that you pass through to get into exhibitions to stage that conversation, feature interpretive activities, and enact programs.
So it seems an interpretive or educative impulse led the structure of this exhibition. How was the work for this responsive exhibition selected?
We started with the idea that we wanted to use the space to ask questions. The team started to think about what questions the situation made us think about or opened up, so definitely questions of gender, but other questions as well, particularly about power. We looked for works in our permanent collection that answered those questions in different ways. We met with as many humans as possible in about a week and a half, which is roughly how long we had to select works to assemble for installation after the forum. We talked as a museum staff. We talked through artwork selections with the dean, with some faculty, with visitor experience staff. And we invited some students to think about the questions and the artworks with us, to give us their opinion on what was strong, which questions spoke to their concerns, and which objects they found unhelpful or problematic. We tried to drill down to a list of artworks and questions that we thought made for the most powerful combinations for generating forward-thinking conversation.
You were kind enough to share the wall texts that you created for this supplementary exhibition, and I found the writing to be very honest. It talks about these issues in an unencumbered way. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing the interpretive material, as well as the additional programming connected to the exhibition?
I’m so glad you found the texts honest. That was absolutely the intent, particularly because I’m an educator and not a curator. It seemed like the wrong time to hide behind any kind of jargon or obfuscate any ideas. It was a time for transparency for all audiences, especially because what we were asking people to do was question the way that the world around them had always been. I don’t think that’s a simple ask, so the least we could do was give them simple language and direction through the way we wrote the texts.
Honestly, after all of those weeks of simply listening, I didn’t write a word of text until the day the art went on the wall, so the texts became a summary of every conversation with every student, curator, staff member, and docent. I hope they show that we were willing to be self-critical. We’re owning that we’re part of the difficult conversation because that’s also the only way we can be part of the solution. Museums have got to be honest – we’ve got to respond to the real concerns of our audiences. On the whole, the texts have been pretty well received and students are definitely contributing their thoughts—including agreements and disagreements—to the ongoing conversation on the nearby walls (I don’t think anybody else is writing Post-it notes about what their annual tuition to art school costs).
We also developed a series of programs to accompany the project that, we hope, offered a multiplicity of ways to engage with these issues. We did a workshop for K12 educators about using art to have these conversations in classrooms, a workshop on using creative writing to process traumatic experiences, and even a program inviting students and the public to reinterpret some of our most iconic works in the permanent collection from their 2018 perspective. We have two more programs—one forum on “The Art Museum as Political Space,” with a panel of big thinkers from a variety of backgrounds, and on the closing day of the project, April 8, a Guerrilla Girls–inspired printmaking workshop in which we let students get the last say on the topic by helping museum visitors make prints that share their “protests”—whatever they might be—with the world and then use those public responses to quite literally wallpaper over the doors to the exhibition when it closes for the last time. It’s a little bit educational, a little bit theater, and a lot of catharsis after months of challenging conversation.
Can you talk about those Post-it notes you mentioned, and the timeline that is installed alongside the artworks?
We wanted to do a timeline because we wanted to have a conversation about how we move from the place of “problems that we’re now finally talking about” into the future. We didn’t want to only fill a wall with reworded definitions of what all of those problems are since that is already being brought to light by brave men and women, and by journalists.
We modeled the interactive conversation on the design thinking process—articulate the problem and then charrette your way to the solutions. The first thing we did was try to define what that future looks like by asking students to help us articulate “The Art World We Want,” which is how the whole project’s name was generated. We gave them the task of thinking about what has to change across the four pillars of the art community—the marketplace, the museum, the school, and the studio—that would create a more equitable, diverse, and accessible art world and brought in a graphic illustrator to visually map out the conversation as they talked. We wanted the students to define the art world that they’ll be professionals in and identify the changes needed between that end of the timeline and where we are now. So it’s their vision for the future that the timeline aims to move us toward.
The responses to the question of “How do we get from here to there?” are wide ranging. Many of them echo the conversations that we’re having nationally and are very hard for anyone to disagree with. “More women artists.” “More black artists.” “Pay artists better.” There are a lot of ongoing conversations about the worth of art and trying to separate value from monetization, or at least change where the valuation is. There are—and this is my favorite thing—a lot of ongoing debates, notes that are responses to other notes. We can see the audience interacting with each other in real time, over days and weeks, and that’s so thrilling. That’s the conversation we need to have—a fullness of opinions and arguments.
Some of my favorites are cheeky but incredibly thoughtful: “Fund art museums like public radio pledge drives by a public that cares” or “Howard Zinn writes A People’s Art History of America that is actually taught in undergraduate classes.” But the vast majority are about how we are taught what matters, who matters, and how to behave. They’re about university classrooms, K–12 education, and the way access to art is not equitably distributed across all classes. They’re also encouraging about personal creativity and continuing to make art in the face of barriers. Some of the notes are critical of PAFA—which is great—and some of those notes are written by students and staff offering very specific ideas for how PAFA’s particular structure could be changed, which means the whole institution is finding its voice.
By and large, it is people thinking about moments that they would like to see that would represent change—someone they’d like to see elected, how they’d like to see art schools train artists and faculty, how they’d like to see art museums decide who to collect. At the crux of it, the conversation is really about where the power to make decisions lives and questioning what adjustments need to be made to that entire structure.