Issue 88, Winter 2002/2003

Simon Taylor, curator at the Guild Hall Museum of East Hampton, Long Island was fired midway through a successful exhibition, “Personal and Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1975.”

There had been conflicts between the curators and the museum director, who, in one instance, overrode curators and rejected “Interior Scroll,” a photography and text grid by Carolee Schneemann, allegedly because trustees found it offensive.

While denying the content of the exhibition played a role in Taylor’s dismissal, the director offered no other credible explanation.

Art controversies usually focus on the artist or the artwork. The pressures put on curators are rarely visible, yet curators are vulnerable to censorship: they, unlike artists, are employees who can be fired, often without explanation.

When, for instance, a piece by Israeli artist Sharon Paz, exhibited at the Jamaica Center for the Arts in Queens, was removed because of objections that it was insensitive to the victims of September 11, the curator chose not to defend his curatorial discretion: he was afraid for his job.

Recently, the Canadian Museum of Civilization terminated the contract of Dr. Aida Kaouk, curator of “The Lands Within Me: Expressions by Canadian Artists of Arab Origin.” This scheduled exhibit became controversial after September 11, and was postponed. It was only presented after overwhelming grassroots protest and and the intervention of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Did the Museum later let Dr. Kaouk go because of concern for her role in this controversy?

Though hard to ascertain, the censorship of curatorial decisions directly affects what we can see in museums, what artists will be exhibited, what topics avoided. Worst of all, it almost always remains invisible.