The Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, or PAFA, is the nation’s oldest art school and museum but it’s facing a new dilemma: what to do with an artist’s work when the artist is accused of sexual misconduct.
The artist in question is portraitist Chuck Close. He may not be a household name to you and I, but in the art community he’s huge. He’s considered a pioneer of portrait work who rose to prominence in the 1960s who made a name for himself in the way he incorporated photography within the world of painting.
But this past December, four female models accused the artist of sexual harassment, claims the Close denied in an interview with the New York Times. Close, through a rep, declined our request comment.
Brooke Davis Anderson, PAFA’s museum director, had a tough call to make: what to do with a high-profile exhibit, on view in one of their most prominent galleries, filled with Close’s work.
“I’m very hesitant to censor artwork,” Anderson said.
She and the museum executive leadership convened their art community of students, staff, and patrons to gauge the reactions to try to fiigure out ho to handle the exhibit.
“We really asked everybody what they were feeling, thinking, how they were responding,” Anderson said. “How they felt we should respond as an institution, and collectively what this meant for us.”
The broader discussion is not all that new. You may recall that a few years back, “The Cosby Show” was pulled from syndication following allegations made by a slew of women against its star and creator Bill Cosby. It’s since made a slow re-emergence on small cable networks.
In the past year, we’ve had to ask ourselves whether we as a society are comfortable enjoying re-runs of “Louie” on FX in the wake of comedian Louis C.K.’s admitted mistreatment of women. Or what about previous seasons of “House of Cards” now that allegations regarding Kevin Spacey have come to light?
Even Pablo Picasso was known to have mistreated the opposite sex.
The obvious question becomes: can an artist’s work be separated completely form the artist and their personal decisions?[,
We asked Melissa Joseph and Candace Jensen, both students at PAFA who took part in the museum’s forum on what to do with the Close exhibit.
“That’s like the zinger question!” Jensen said, through laughter.
“Many students did want the [Chuck Close] show to come down,” Joseph added. “You just want it to go away, you know? You don’t want to have to look at it anymore.”
But, she says, over a few weeks’ time her views evolved.
“If you think about what’s going to be most productive for this movement, what’s going to actually move things forward, your initial emotional reaction isn’t always the right one.”
“Well yeah but don’t diminish emotional responses. Emotional responses are really tied up with moral responses,” Jensen said, adding that understanding the context in which art was made is key.
“Being willing to value the aesthetic decisions that were made and also be critical of the maker,” Jensen said. “So it’s not a black and white.”
PAFA is not the only institution having to navigate this gray area.
Seattle University recently removed a Chuck Close self-portrait hanging in a campus library.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC indefinitely postponed its Chuck Close exhibit that was set to open in May. A museum spokesperson declined an interview but told us in an email that “all parties involved” agreed that it was “not the appropriate time” to present the installation.
Anderson made the final call for PAFA: keep the Close exhibit, but with a caveat in the adjoining gallery right next door.
“The site of an exhibition isn’t where you respond by censorship or changing the project. I rather felt that what we could do because of our real estate here. We had an opportunity to have a dialogue with another project.”
That other project is what they’re calling a “response exhibit,” a gallery created to force a conversation that explores gender and equality in the art community.
“There are no longer town halls and town squares,” Anderson said. “So what if a museum was a site where we could say we don’t agree, and lets unpack how we don’t agree. And let’s understand how we don’t agree, and maybe that advances us a little bit.”
Anderson pointed out some of the highlights of the responsive exhibit, including a timeline regarding how and when the art world can become “an equitable space.”
“How do we get more women in leadership positions? Women artists and collections, people of color, trans people, how do we create that balance?”
For PAFA, censorship was not the answer, this time. But could we one day see Picasso’s taken off a museum wall?
“That might be a decision that some museums will make,” Anderson said. She shrugged and added, “Maybe.”