Whatever Is Unspoken Becomes Unspeakable

Whatever is unspoken becomes unspeakable
Whatever is unspeakable becomes unthinkable
Whatever is unthinkable ceases to exist.
Harmony Hammond, artist
These words reflect the theme of the panel session I attended on Saturday, January 21, 2012 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Entitled “Sexuality and the Museum,” the roundtable discussion was organized by Jonathan Katz, curator of Brooklyn’s current featured exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. As discussed in a previous post the exhibition sparked controversy while on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC in 2010/11.
A Legacy of Silence and Invisibility
I’ve written and spoken about issues of diversity throughout my 30 plus years in museums, but have mostly framed my thinking in terms of ethnic and cultural issues.  If asked, I would always have included broader elements of diversity such as gender and sexual preference, but these were rarely at the forefront of my thinking.  The panel on Saturday brought me to a new perspective: this is an audience and a museum constituency that has been as invisible as the racial and cultural groups whose exclusion I have always decried, an audience whose usual response from the museum world has been polite (maybe sometimes not) disinterest, discomfort, or denial.
Why Follow the Story of Hide/Seek?
This exhibition is one to watch because it provides another page in the annals of “The Unexhibitable,” a theme I have been following for some years. The memories of Enola Gay, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, and other controversial shows of the 1980s and 90s hover  like a cloud on the American museum scene. How to see through a fog of potential bad press, lost funders, political pressure (both local and national), firings and resignations, to decide to exhibit sensitive and difficult issues? As Elaine Heumann Gurian said at a symposium organized by researcher Fiona Cameron in Sydney, Australia on Exhibitions as Contested Sites in 2003,
             …museums and their staffs remain mostly timid. When confronted with public debate, we find that the most threatened have retreated. Fiona Cameron is right to point out that those who feel most public, and whose funding is most controlled by politicians, are most vulnerable to the pressure put upon them by the funders. That does not surprise me. However when the same institutions are led by courageous people, they create programs, policies and exhibitions that have led the world to change.

The very existence of Hide/Seek together with the refusal of the Smithsonian to close
it down after it removed the controversial video have already led to some significant changes:

·         Hide/Seek lives on: After contacting some 40 museums about hosting the show following its run at the Portrait Gallery, Katz found no takers. He was in the process of closing down the exhibition and returning all of the loan objects when he was contacted by the Brooklyn Museum and the Tacoma Museum of Art in the state of Washington.  These two organizations, Mr. Katz stated during the afternoon discussion, literally resurrected the exhibition and put it back together again, including a complete version of the excerpted video tape that was at the center of the controversy in the nation’s capital.  The exhibition will close in Brooklyn in February and will be in Tacoma from March 17-June 10, 2012.
·         Acceptance grows: Thus far the exhibition in Brooklyn has generated nothing like the controversy seen in Washington.  This may be due as much to location as anything, but the Brooklyn has seen its share of controversy over exhibitions with what some saw as objectionable religious and sexual content , so it may also mean that the public is becoming more comfortable with museums’ presentation of sensitive material. It will be interesting to see what the public reaction is when the exhibition moves to the state of Washington.
·         AAM provides a platform: During and immediately following the controversy in DC, there was a fair amount of discussion in the museum community, including symposia organized by Seton Hall/Rutgers and by the Smithsonian , but the American Association of Museums remained silent, at least officially and in public, about the issue. Mr. Katz announced during the Brooklyn roundtable that AAM has invited him to address its annual meeting in Minneapolis/St. Paul in May of this year.
Some Difficult Questions Examined at the Roundtable
Should every exhibition expressly call attention to issues of sexual identity and preference?
As modeled in the introductions and discussions by the six panelists (three museum professionals and three artists) some specifically mentioned their gay or lesbian sexual orientation and some did not. Thus it is important to look at the relevance of such issues for a specific exhibition. One panelist, artist Deborah Kass,  stated that her art defies categorization- she addresses a host of topics including the American song book, Broadway, and pop culture in general, as well as lesbian and feminist themes, yet she is always referred to as a Jewish lesbian artist, which she believes has marginalized her work.

At the same time, I think that she as well as all of the panelists would agree with another speaker, artist Harmony Hammond, who maintains that museums’ “assumption of the ‘heteronormative’” can and should be changed in a number of ways.  More exhibitions like Hide/Seek that address sexual identity directly and openly are needed; at the same time all types of museums need to incorporate LGBT material in their collections, exhibitions, and programs. And when same-sex attraction is relevant to an exhibition story, as in an exhibition on Weimar culture or about the life of Gertrude Stein, it should  be part of the story rather than being ignored.

Norman Kleeblatt, curator at The Jewish Museum in New York agreed, stating that open and inclusive policies and attitudes about gender, sexuality, and sexual preference must be “woven into the museum fabric;” include education of the board, the administration, curators, educators, all museum staff; and inform exhibitions, programming, educational materials, and web content, always in a manner that is sensitive to the ages and needs of the audiences served.

Why Does the Marginalization of Art by and about Women Continue?
Both Kass and Hammond spoke passionately about museums’ need to take the same approach regarding art by and about women as the panel recommended for LGBT themes. As Kass said, the boards and directors of most art museums are from the 1%, white and male to boot, and museum collections reflect this. Instead of occasionally hosting what Kass called a “Women in Our Collection Who We Usually Don’t Show” exhibition, museums must make art and artifacts by and about women a usual part of collecting and exhibiting policy. Kass noted that Hide/Seek itself is very much a male-oriented exhibition.  It was interesting that both women had some wry observations about serving on museum panels; it seems this is a way of diversifying programming around exhibitions that don’t necessarily include them.  “Being the woman on a panel isn’t the same as the museum buying a man’s work,” said Kass.  Hammond added that It is only when you are in a collection that you begin to be collected (a chicken/egg situation), critiqued, and written about.  Being a guest speaker is not a substitute.

Some takeaways for museums
Art museums appear to have no qualms about discussing the sexual relationships of male artists with  their mistresses and muses.  The National Museum of African American Art and Culture, together with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello has just opened an exhibition at the National Museum of American History that discusses and acknowledges the heretofore denied sexual relationship of Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings and his complex connections with the Hemings family, some of whom were both his children and his slaves.  Just as relevant heterosexual relationships should be included in an exhibition narrative, why not same-sex relationships that are part of the subject matter?  Art museums, history museums, historic sites and houses in which such relationships are related to the collections must find ways to tell these stories in open and sensitive ways. What remains unspoken has not only become unspeakable but unexhibitable.  Hide/Seek and a few other courageous exhibitions and institutions are breaking the silence.

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