Tomorrow morning the Mississippi Museum of Art will host a press preview for an exhibition of works from the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, titled “When Modern Was Contemporary: Selections from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection.” According to an agenda released this morning, the MMA’s leadership will be on hand, along with the chair of the American Federation of the Arts, the president of the Trustmark Corporation, and a trustee of the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation, all of whom have provided funding for the show.
But one person will be conspicuously absent from the event in Jackson, Mississippi: the director of the Neuberger, Tracy Fitzpatrick, who announced last night that she will not travel to the state for the show, to protest the recent passage of a law there that allows various organizations, including private businesses, to refuse to work with people if doing so would conflict with employees’ religious beliefs. Touted by its supporters as a religious-liberties measure, the law effectively allows people to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals.
“While I hope that the presence of the works by such a diverse group of artists in ‘When Modern Was Contemporary’ will help create dialogue around these issues,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement, “in view of Mississippi’s new discriminatory law it is with great regret that I must decline the Mississippi Museum of Art’s kind invitation to celebrate with them on the occasion of the opening of the Neuberger exhibition.”
I asked Fitzpatrick in an email if there had been any discussion about pulling the show in protest, and she said that there had not been. “The Mississippi Museum of Art is a great institution and we know they are ecstatic to have 60 works from the Neuberger Museum’s collection,” Fitzpatrick said, adding, “Roy R. Neuberger, our founding patron, supported living artists irrespective of their backgrounds and beliefs.”
Asked about Fitzpatrick’s announcement, the Mississippi Museum of Art sent over a statement that read in part:
The director of the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) was looking forward to welcoming her colleague, Tracy Fitzpatrick, director of the Neuberger Museum of Art, to the opening of “When Modern Was Contemporary” at the Museum. The Museum staff and board remain excited about this landmark exhibition of modern art, which will open at the MMA on April 9, 2016…
…We are committed to the important work of developing meaningful, personal, and transformative connections through visual art that enrich and celebrate the diverse and brilliant fabric of Mississippi. And we look forward to sharing this great exhibition with our community.
The Neuberger is affiliated with Purchase College, and its president, Thomas J. Schwarz, said in a statement that he strongly supported Fitzpatrick’s decision, adding, “This law is a step back in time, out of keeping with the values of Purchase College or the museum.”
The New York Times has reported that companies with employees in the state, including Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan, and Toyota, have voiced opposition to the law.
The Association of Art Museum Directors has also come out against the Mississippi law, as well as a similar measure recently passed in North Carolina, saying, “This is not only a violation of basic rights for one group, this is a violation of human rights. The art museum community stands for diversity and the inclusion of all peoples in the civic fabric of our country and we urge the repeal and veto of these unjust laws.”
The American Federation of Arts, which has organized a tour of the Neuberger’s show, said in a statement sent to its members:
The American Federation of Arts joins the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, SUNY, and the AAMD to denounce the passing of discriminatory law HB1523 in Mississippi. It is especially during times of repression that art can offer an alternative and inspire a better future. We hope that the exhibition “When Modern Was Contemporary,” which includes artists representing a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas, will offer the citizens of Mississippi a space for true freedom of expression and an opportunity to reflect upon our society and our humanity. The AFA supports the Mississippi Museum of Art, a private institution, in continuing with the presentation of this stellar exhibition.
The Mississippi Museum of Art’s director, Betsy Bradley, also released a statement, to the AAMD, that, while declining to attack the law directly, emphasized its inclusive credentials. It read, in part:
The Museum’s mission is to engage all Mississippians in the visual arts, and it has a stated commitment to inclusivity in its exhibitions, programs, collection, audience, staff, and trustees. This spirit of inclusivity is a response to an institutional belief that art brings people together, and that we as an organization function most effectively as a “museum without walls,” creating a continuous dialogue with our community about art, creativity, and the often difficult issues explored through various media.
In 2015, the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Museum’s Board of Trustees joined other champions of diversity by signing the Human Rights Campaign’s “Equality Is Our Business” Pledge.
We are committed to continuing the important work of developing meaningful, personal, and transformative connections through visual art that enrich and celebrate the diverse and brilliant fabric of Mississippi.
“When Modern Was Contemporary” is currently scheduled to travel to the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, in New Mexico.
None of those states currently has a similar discriminatory law on the books.
Update 04/06/2016, 5:55 p.m.: The post has been updated with a statement from the Mississippi Museum of Art regarding Fitzpatrick's decision to skip the opening.
Update 04/07/2016, 9:30 a.m.: The post has been updated to clarify the AFA's role in the organizing the exhibition.