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In Open Letter, Artists and Art Professionals Decry Suspension of Director of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts

Catherine de Zegher and Igor Toporovski, founder of the Dieleghem Foundation.

COURTESY DIELEGHEM FOUNDATION

In an open letter circulated today, a group of more than 60 artists and art professionals spoke out against the suspension of Catherine de Zegher as director of the Museum of Fine Arts (the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, or the MSK) in Ghent, Belgium. De Zegher’s suspension was first announced this past March after an Art Newspaper report revealed that the museum had put on a show including what may be fake artworks attributed to Russian avant-garde artists. (In January, the show was taken off view.) The missive follows news reported yesterday by De Standaard that de Zegher has formally filed a complaint with the city of Ghent regarding her suspension.

The open letter, which is available via the Flemish publication VRT NWS, reads, in part, “The scope of allegations and measures of isolation of a director and curator internationally recognized for her artistic vision, her championing of art by women and art from diverse cultures, her broad knowledge and expertise, her ceaseless curiosity, the relevance of her museum programming and the quality of her widely influential exhibitions and many books, stupefy us.”

Among those to have signed the letter include artists Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Luis Camnitzer, Cristina Iglesias, Simryn Gill, Mona Hatoum, Giuseppe Penone, Luc Tuymans, and Cecilia Vicuña; art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh; Catherine David, deputy director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris; Bartomeu Mari, director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul; and Ann Gallagher, director of Tate Modern’s British Art collections.

The exhibition that resulted in de Zegher’s suspension, “Russian Modernism 1910–30,” first went on view in October 2017, and included 24 works said to be by artists such as El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich, and Wassily Kandinsky. All of them belonged to the Dieleghem Foundation, which was founded by Igor Toporovsky. In January of this year, the Flemish newspaper De Standaard published an open letter signed by 10 Russian avant-garde art experts that called the works on view “highly questionable.” A report by the same publication followed several days later stating that Michael Polfer, the director of Luxembourg’s National Museum of History of Art, had also been approached by the foundation to do the show, but that his museum was unsure of the works’ provenance.

At the end of January, after the Art Newspaper published its report, the MSK closed the controversial display. On March 6, following a meeting between de Zegher and Ghent city officials in which she was asked to defend her decision to put on the show, the MSK’s board of directors announced that it had chosen to suspend de Zegher, saying in a statement that it “lacks trust” in her. (According to a report published by the Belgian publication De Tijd, de Zegher responded to the suspension by saying, “I know nothing about it. That is unbelievable.”) De Zegher had been director of the museum since 2013. Cathérine Verleysen, head of the MSK’s collection and research department, was subsequently named acting director; the museum has yet to provide more details about when or if de Zegher will reassume her position.

The open letter concludes:

We are art professionals, academics and artists. We love art, museums and audiences. To promote art as joy, energy, and source of imagination and as critical reflection on the past and the present, and to interact and relate with wide audiences is, in our eyes, an essential concern for society at large.

We are appalled to see how one of the preeminent women curators of her generation internationally, a wholly professional and widely acclaimed museum director, has been made the plaything of unscrupulous media and of international speculation in the art of the Russian avantgarde, resulting in a severe media process destroying her work and reputation.

Through this letter, we affirm our full support for Catherine de Zegher as museum director and as curator. We challenge the local and national authorities concerned on the important issue of having, keeping, protecting and supporting visionary museum directors in their country, remaining independent in their judgement from the pressure media exert and the correlated hype and sensation, and above all from the growing influence of a certain art market linked with finance and power. We ask them to seriously pay attention to the role art and museums play in our cities, regions and in the society at large, the great principles they represent, and the necessity of having inspirational museum directors and curators to lead the way.

Correction 10/11/18, 3:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of acting director of the MSK. It is Cathérine Verleysen, not Joahn de Smet, the museum's chief curator. The post has been updated to reflect this.

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