After a month of resisting pressure to close its critically acclaimed exhibition, Imaginary Coordinates, the Spertus Museum finally buckled, citing the “risk of alienating its core constituency.” Reportedly, members of the “key audience” were offended by what they interpreted as anti-Israel points of view.
But how does a museum determine who is included in its “key audience” and, even more to the point: who is excluded? The Spertus’ mission statement declares a commitment to “serve diverse communities and foster understanding for Jews and people of all faiths.” While theoretically committed to serve all equally, the Museum has demonstrated that, in practice, it serves a select vocal segment of the public more than any others.
Statements to the contrary notwithstanding, it appears likely that it was the Museum’s fear of alienating a major sponsor (the Jewish United Fund of Greater Chicago) that propelled the unpopular act of prematurely shutting down a successful exhibition. We are all aware of economic realities and the dependence of cultural institutions on the goodwill of wealthy donors, but was there no other way to ensure the secure existence of the Museum while staying true to its mission to address diverse audiences and inspire learning and dialogue on the critical issues of our time?
In 2002, the Jewish Museum in New York presented Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art – a highly controversial exhibition, which used images related to the Holocaust in ways that some found distasteful. In spite of widespread protests in the media even before the opening, the Museum went ahead with its plans. It wasn’t easy: more than a year was spent in discussions with communities that had a stake in the show. Norman Kleeblatt, the Museum’s Curator of Fine Arts and the guiding force behind the exhibition said that, “Given the complexities of mounting such an exhibition, it might have been easier to give up on it midway. … we all wondered if it was worth the energy we had to expend. The possibility of debating fundamental issues of identity that had been off limits for nearly a decade made it worthwhile.”
Indeed, we expect a 21st Century museum to open new areas of inquiry, to challenge, to ask difficult questions, and to spark a conversation – no important issue should remain off limits to discussion. This is, admittedly, a very difficult task when it comes to mapping – literally and figuratively – the Middle East. Censorship and, even more often, self-censorship almost always accompany attempts to discuss political issues surrounding Israel, Palestine, and the politics of the region: Just as the Spertus was announcing the cancellation of Imaginary Coordinates, the University of Michigan Press declared it had terminated a distribution agreement with Pluto Press, the publisher of Joel Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism, a book supporting a “one state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which exposed the university press to intense criticism from pro-Israel groups last September. Earlier this year WQXR, a classical music station owned by the New York Times, refused to air an American Jewish Committee ad about Palestinian attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot. Public programs around Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby were kaboshed by venerable institutions like the Chicago Council on Global Affairs because the book’s thesis about the Israeli influence on US foreign policy was too controversial to be presented unaccompanied by immediate criticism. In 2006, the New York Theater Workshop indefinitely postponed My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the diaries of the 23 year-old peace activist killed by Israeli bulldozers while trying to protect a Palestinian house from destruction; that same year Brandeis University took down an exhibition of art work by teens from Palestinian refugee camps, curated by an Israeli student, who had conceived the exhibition as a way to redress what she perceived as the lack of Palestinian voices on campus. The examples go on and on.
The controversy around Imaginary Coordinates is, thus, unsurprising. Yet, for a while, it appeared as if the Museum’s compromise decision to change the labels and introduce compulsory guided tours soon after the opening would appease critics by providing the “context” they demanded. But the pressure continued and now all those who planned to see Imaginary Coordinates later this summer will be deprived of the opportunity.
An even worse consequence is that the closing of the show casts a pall of doubt over the future of the Museum. How sad if, instead of asserting an intellectually daring role to fit its ambitious new building – as it successfully promised to do with Imaginary Coordinates – the Spertus proves to be a place dedicated to celebrating the preconceptions of some vocal – and powerful – members of its audience, to the exclusion of all others, Jews and non-Jews alike.
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