Guggenheim or Guggen-Him?
Village Voice, March 24, 1992, p. 104

When it comes to the equitable representation of women, New York's uptown private museums have rarely gotten it right. In 1970, the Ad Hoc Coalition of Women Artists terrorized the Whitney Annual with weekly rations of tampons, eggs and whistle blowing. In 1984, the Women's Caucus for Art picketed MoMA's "International Survey of Recent Paintings and Sculpture" with placards that read "Now you see us, let MOMA know." This year's target is June's inaugural exhibition at the enlarged Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and its new Soho space at 575 Broadway.

The controversy originated with the fears of feminist artists and activists that the downtown space would open with an exhibition of four white, male artists. Their apprehension has been fueled by the museum's own lack of communication about the show, apart from the bare-bones description of "The Guggenheim Museum and the Art of This Century" as a compendium of three component shows drawn from the museum's holdings: "Masterpieces From the Guggenheim Collection" and "Dan Flavin" at the uptown space, and "The Collection in Depth" in Soho. The Guggenheim has yet to issue a press release about plans for its June opening--the typical museum would have barraged the media with the news a year prior to reopening. It did, however, manage to stage a press event on February 27 to publicize the museum's new branch in Bilbao, Spain.

The straw that broke the activists' backs was the Guggenheim's frequent suggestion that Carl Andre would be included in the show. Acquitted of murder charges in the 1985 death of his artist-wife, Ana Mendieta, the choice of Andre is, as painter Helen Marden puts it, "insensitive at best." Faced with the possibility of a quartet of male artists including Andre, the art-feminist Guerrilla Girls began a preemptive campaign.

Pseudonymous GG "Lee Krasner" reports that in mid January, GG "Eva Hesse" was told by a Guggenheim press staffer that the four-person Soho component of the reopening show would comprise Wassily Kandinsky, Constantin Brancusi, and two of the following three artists: Carl Andre, Richard Long, and Robert Ryman. (During January, Voice writer Elizabeth Hess and another art journalist, who requested anonymity, received identical responses. During the week of December 7, 1991, I was informed by a press staffer that Kandinsky, Brancusi, and a half-dozen postwar artists were under consideration for a four-person show.) Armed with this information, the Guerilla Girls produced an image-free pink postcard dated January 23 that read: "Dear Mr. Krens [Thomas Krens is the Guggenheim's director]: Welcome to downtown. We've been hearing all about your opening show: 'Four White Boys at the White Boys' Museum.' Lotsa luck!"

On February 3, the GGs distributed their postcards at the second meeting of the Women's Action Coalition, the new, local, direct-action group founded to raise women's issues. (The subject of the Guggenheim's reopening show had come up at the first WAC meeting.) A Guggenheim curator also spoke at the meeting, bearing an invitation from Krens and museum deputy director Michael Govan to meet with representatives of the group (it was declined) and suggesting that those who felt like sending the protest cards should do so. The Guerrilla Girls' initiative resulted in the receipt of what Govan described to me as a five-inch-high stack of pink postcards. More important, it apparently also made the museum very nervous about the approval of its application for the special permit from the City Planning Commission required for the full conversion of its 575 Broadway space to museum use.

The final public hearing on the museum's request for that permit will take place on March 25. John Young, a planner in the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning, described the process to me: Because 575 Broadway stands in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, the Landmarks Preservation Commission must apply to the term lessors, 575 Broadway Associates. Prior to this, the request had to be favorably considered by Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger and Manhattan's Community Board No. 2. According to Young, the City Planning Commission's approval is not merely a formality, at least since charter revision.

Messinger's office and Community Board No. 2 have responded forcefully to the possibility of an exclusively white, male show at the Soho space. Messinger's sensitivity to issues of race and gender is well known; she, in fact, spoke at the February 21 WAC demonstration at the Irish consulate protesting Ireland's attempt to prevent an abortion in the case of a 14-year old rape victim. The borough president approved the Guggenheim's special permit request last week, but not until her office's reservations had been voiced. "We have expressed our concern," Messinger press secretary Andy Breslau told me, "and we are working with the institution on a number of questions relating to the diversity of the creative community."

The matter came to the attention of Community Board No. 2 when board member Ann Arlen heard from WACer Ginny Newsom that the Guggenheim's first Soho show was on the WAC agenda. Since mid December, the board has approved three resolutions supporting the Guggenheim's special permit request, in return receiving the museum's commitment to support the preservation of the special artist district and the renewal of the so-called Loft Law. According to board chair Keith Crandell, "We're delighted to have the Guggenheim in the community . . . and we don't want them to bungle their opening."

Following the board's discovery of the GG's findings, Crandell notes that a "long series of phone conversations ensued," which culminated in "Govan convincing us that what was rumored was not happening. . . . He assured us that there will be women in the Shoho show." When I put this to Govan, he bristled. "I only said that there would be women in the show, meaning the entire exhibition [uptown and downtown]." Crandell, in turn, was puzzled by Govan's response. "That's just semantics," he said. "Why would the board be [officially] concerned about a show outside our community?'

Whether categorized as a show or shows, museum staffers, including Govan, report that its composition remains in flux. (it was organized by six of the museum's senior curators and Kerns.) How many women will be in the "Masterpieces" section? "It wasn't done by quota," Govan responded. "We'll show all the masterpieces we have." How many in "The Collection in Depth?" "It's absolutely undecided whether we have three or four or seven or eight artists."

Given the mounting pressure, it seems extremely likely that the museum will decide to expand the downtown show beyond Kindinsky, Brancusi, Andre, and Ryman to include a woman or two. (Two possible candidates for inclusion, Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, were mentioned at the March 10 WAC meeting; the curator who spoke at WAC's February 3 meeting told me that Joseph Beuys will also be included.) Meanwhile, the Guggenheim has turned to the task of damage control. Several Guggenheim staffers informed me that a late-February memo directed the staff not to talk to the press and to route all inquiries about the reopening to the public relations office. A museum press officer described this to me as standard operating procedure.

Krens faxed me the linchpin of the museum's revisionist version of recent history, in response to a question of mine (the director was unavailable for an in-person or a phone interview): "It was never the intention of the Guggenheim to install the work of just four artists in the Soho space." Two of three curatorial staffers I've talked to--not to mention Govan's assertion of absolute indecision--strongly dispute this. In fact, the indirect impetus for the Guerrilla Girls' postcard campaign was prompted by initial curatorial staff leaks. (the Guggenheim leaks like a sieve because, as one staffer put it, "It's like the Nixon White House here and it makes you, well, want to react.") A museum press officer also asserted that Elizabeth Hess's and GG Eva Hesse's accounts of their calls to the press office were inaccurate because press personnel had no such knowledge at the time, although the press officer verified the accuracy of my December call, in which I'd been told, without asking, about a four person show.

The Guggenheim's spin control in the guise of rumor control may not be having the desired conciliatory effect. Although Govan succeeding in assuring community board members that what they'd heard was a rumor, artist May Stevens was unconvinced by what Govan said to her over the phone. "He'd heard I was part of WAC and told me that the stories about lack of women were false," the veteran activist told me. "But he also wanted to know about possible protests. . . . There was no acknowledgement of women's concerns or people of color."

Ultimately these concerns--or their lack--are what's at stake here. As was pointed out at the March 10 WAC meeting, even the inclusion of two white women in the show means playing catch-up under the glare of pressure. Continued pressure remains essential, and the current controversy will surely affect future Guggenheim decision making. (Don't discount the idea of an action yet, several WACers cautioned me.) But such tired ideas as mining the collection for "masterpieces" obviates a decade of progressive art historical inquiry about the meaning of mastery and the nature of identity politics. As WACer and co-founder of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression Joy Silverman puts it, "While the Guggenheim has been renovating, it's also been hibernating."

© 2003