Are museums abdicating their mission? New cancellation raises troubling questions.

New York’s El Museo del Barrio recently cancelled a retrospective of the work of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. This cancellation is the latest example of art institutions cancelling or modifying shows in response to public pressure. Recall the Walker Art Institute dismantling a sculpture and New York’s Guggenheim modifying three works in its historical show of Chinese art. While art institutions continue to insist that their mission is to deal with “complex and challenging” material, the practice of capitulation to protestors sends the opposite signal. Museums appear increasingly fearful of tackling controversial issues and alienating audiences in a polarized time.

Jodorowsky is well-known for creating deliberately shocking work as a filmmaker, comic book artist, writer and musician. His first film caused a public outcry at its premiere and was banned in Mexico. His film El Topo debuted in New York in 1970, becoming a cult success, but dividing critics as to whether it was a masterpiece or repulsive freak show. In the early 1970s, Jodorowsky claimed that a rape scene in El Topo was unsimulated. He later recanted, claiming that he’d only intended to be shocking. Jodorowsky’s statements on his work have been widely publicized for decades. 

In announcing the show’s cancellation, El Museo del Barrio declared that “issues raised by Jodorowsky’s practice should be examined”, but concluded that this exhibition is not the time to do so.

If not now, at a time when issues of art and abuses of power are more relevant than ever, when? 

If not through programming, then how can a museum examine anything? 

And why did the Museo reach its conclusion only after the show attracted protests, not over the course of the year it was being planned and during which Jodorowsky’s shock statements were fully known?

NCAC is concerned that museums continue to struggle with displaying difficult and controversial content.