Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket painting is no longer on view at the Whitney Biennial exhibition, which ended on June 11, but the artist remains persona non grata in the eyes of many artists and activists who insist she exploited black suffering in her work.
A handful of them have called for the Institute of Contemporary art in Boston to cancel a new solo exhibition of Schutz’s work, accusing the museum of cultural insensitivity and giving Schutz an undeserved platform.
Schutz’s Open Casket painting of Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was famously lynched to death by bigots in 1955, incited (unheeded) calls by artists and activists for the painting’s removal from the Whitney Biennial—and for its destruction.
The painting provoked a heated and complex debate about racial appropriation and representation in contemporary art, and whether artists like Schutz have the right to draw on experiences of other identities and ethnicities in their work.
Open Casket is not featured in Schutz’s solo exhibition at the ICA Boston, which the museum first began working on two years ago. But local artists and activists insist that none of Schutz’s work should be displayed in a museum setting.
“Please pull the show,” they wrote in an open letter to the ICA Boston on July 25, the day before the exhibition opened. “This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability, as the institutions working with the artist are even now not acknowledging that this nation is not an even playing field…[Open Casket’s] absence from the exhibition does not excuse the institution from engaging with the harm caused by the work by holding Dana Schutz accountable.”
The letter comes after a July 20 meeting between some of its signatories and the exhibition’s curator, Eva Respini, along with other representatives of the ICA Boston. Several local artists had expressed their opposition to the show on the museum’s Facebook page earlier this month. The museum responded that day and proposed an in-person gathering to discuss the artists’ concerns, which—their letter states—the museum has failed to adequately address.
“At this point we are unconvinced that ICA has the will to challenge the egregiousness of continued institutional backing of this type of violent artifact,” the letter states in a reference to Schutz’s Open Casket, calling on ICA and other cultural institutions to “face the moral gravitas of reckless cultural insensibilities of artists in their charge…”
Five of the letter’s eight co-authors engaged in a three-hour discussion with Respini and others affiliated with the museum on July 20. “Given that neither the Whitney, nor the artist, nor the ICA, have adequately answered any of the concerns raised and advocated for so passionately by Black artists and critics during the Whitney Biennial, this strategy of silence minimizes the painting’s cultural significance and of cultural institutions’ responsibility to condemn racist iconography,” they write in their letter, again in reference to Schutz’s Open Casket. “Indeed, the ICA spinning such a narrative to engage damage control erases Black engagement with contemporary painting.”
The letter’s authors criticize how Respini and the museum addressed the controversy surrounding Schutz’s Open Casket painting in promotional materials for the artist’s solo exhibition at the ICA.
“Calling the work a ‘lightning rod,’ when it was an accident, should, in fact, be embarrassing for a hosting institution,” they write. “Doing so shifts the narrative to center Dana Schutz as a cultural mover when it was Black artists and critics who struggled to bring about this conversation in the first place.”
The letter also outlines a list of demands, including that the museum publicly acknowledge that Schutz perpetuated white supremacy through her Open Casket painting—“that a white femme artist tampered with the intention of a grieving Black mother to humanely show in undeniable detail the brutality endured by her 14-year-old adolescent child,” which is in keeping “with a long tradition of white supremacy obscuring and ultimately erasing narratives of the continued genocide of Black and indigenous peoples.”
Reached by The Daily Beast, one of the letter’s co-signatories said that no one was available to comment or answer questions pertaining to the letter.
A statement posted on the ICA Boston website on Tuesday by Jill Medvedow, the Ellen Matilda Poss director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, reads: “Two years ago, we invited Dana Schutz for an exhibition; she is one of the leading painters of her generation, and we wanted to share the exuberance, skill, and vibrancy of her work with Boston audiences.
“This past March when her painting Open Casket was shown at the Whitney Biennial, there were a range of responses, including many who felt that the painting embodied privilege and had caused them pain. Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and Open Casket raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation.
“Though Open Casket is not in the ICA exhibition, we welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art and social justice. Complex, challenging, sensitive, and urgent, these are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.
“We have designed our programs—panels, lectures, gallery talks, as well as exhibitions and performances—to offer a broad range of artistic voices and a creative space for experimentation, and we look forward to audiences having the opportunity to see for themselves the range of Schutz’s art and engaging in the art and issues of our time.”
Respini said that she was “dismayed” by protesters’ calls for the museum to cancel Schutz’s solo exhibition.
“I was hoping the end result of our meeting would not be a call to take down the show, which would shut down dialogue rather than encourage it,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that she felt she and some of the authors had a productive conversation when they met. “I would like to invite them to view the exhibition and for this conversation to continue in the gallery with the work. I believe the most constructive dialogue happens in these public civic spaces, where we can tackle these difficult and thorny issues.”
Excepting calls for the exhibition’s cancellation, Respini said she is “very much on the same page” with the letter’s authors. “A lot of their concerns are our concerns, which we’re addressing in our program, on our stages, and in our galleries,” she said.
Among those programs is a partnership with the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies, which will include speaking engagements in September and into next year that “directly address race, representation, and cultural appropriation and artists’ and institutions’ responsibility to those issues.”
Respini noted that these subjects are “bigger than one artist or one painting—I would say they are the biggest topics of our times.”
Respini also acknowledged that the museum felt the need to engage with these issues more acutely after the Biennial, but that doing so should not require cancelling Schutz’s new solo exhibition, which features 17 paintings and four drawings by the artist which explore imagined and hypothetical situations.
“I strongly believe that Dana is one of the leading painters of her generation,” Respini said. “In the past 10 years, which is what this show focuses on, we’ve seen her create complex, dynamic paintings about the human condition and all its anxieties and banalities. She is also upending the tradition of history painting which has been considered the most important genre in the history of Western art. She’s a contemporary artist working on the same scale as that genre, but making paintings that speak to her own and our own everyday lives.”
Asked about the letter’s demand that Schutz be present at an early conversation about the exhibition, Respini said it was “reasonable” but ultimately “up to Dana to decide whether she wants to come or not. The reason she’s not currently here is because she had a baby last week, so we will reassess all of this when she’s back on her feet.”
Schutz did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment.