Francesco Bonami, whose curatorial credits include the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2010 Whitney Biennial, has returned for the ninth edition of his column, “Ask a Curator,” in which he addresses deaccessioning controversies, the postponement of a Philip Guston retrospective, and online viewing room fatigue. He can be found on Instagram at @thebonamist. If you have queries for him for a future column, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. —The Editors of ARTnews
Announcements about which artists will represent various countries at the forthcoming Venice Biennale are beginning to pour in, even though the art festival is now two years away. What are you most excited about at the upcoming Biennale?
At my age, I am quite jaded, but considering the horrendous situation into which Covid has plunged us all, I will be excited just to be able to be excited. The simple fact that we will have a Biennale will be fantastic, and everything makes me think it will be a great Biennale simply because the curator is Italian and Italians are very good at Venice Biennale. The other curators come and go to Venice, but for an Italian, it is a matter of life and death. It’s an event that will define your whole career and even your whole life. You’re blessed and screwed at the same time.
Last month, four museums made the controversial call to delay a Philip Guston retrospective, fearing that works featuring Ku Klux Klan imagery may be misunderstood by audiences. The debate surrounding the show has continued on, with a Tate senior curator having been suspended for his comments criticizing the museum for delaying the show. What would you have done? Do you think the decision to delay was just?
I have been very vocal about this issue. If I were in the Guston Foundation’s shoes, I would have sued the four museums for defamation. The majority of the public is not made up of scholars, and they will get confused by the cancelation, thinking that Guston was promoting racism and, worse, the KKK. The director of the National Gallery of Art’s statement about how now is not the right time for a white male to talk about race and racism is preposterous. We are talking about work made in the ’70s by an artist who has been dead for 40 years. And regarding the curator punished by the Tate, we are talking about the “dictatorship of fear,” where we see an outstanding institution sliding into censorship. The museum world should feel ashamed by this behavior.
Various U.S. museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, have begun deaccessioning major artworks amid pandemic-related strife. If you were in charge of a museum right now, would you sell art at auction? If so, what would you sell first? What are your thoughts on the BMA deaccessioning controversy?
It clearly depends on what the museum’s collection is and what it has. I don’t see anything wrong in selling work with a high market value that an institution considers redundant. The funds raised with sales, if they cannot go directly toward new acquisitions, should at least go to an endowment for programming, and not toward paying electric bills. I for sure think that, before a museum decides to sell its collection assets, it should first reduce other often exaggerated costs and maybe cancel a useless expansion, for example, if they are planning one, because it’s a contradiction to sell part of your collection while you are planning to expand. This isn’t the case of BMA, but it is for many other institutions. Covid has made it evident that the era of Guggenheim Bilbao Syndrome is finished. Museums do not need more and more space, but better and better programming.
We have now seen half a year’s worth of online viewing rooms in place of art fairs and gallery shows, and there’s no sign that they’re disappearing anytime soon. Are you feeling fatigued yet by all the online viewing rooms, or are you a fan? What are your impressions of them so far?
I am fatigued by anything online, from the viewing rooms to Zoom meetings. The viewing rooms, in particular, I believe are a delusional effort to deny that the market is in very bad shape. It’s a denial that art needs to be seen in person, and not only that, it’s also a denial that the art world was a socially based community, whether you like it or not. You take away the physicality of the art world, the superficiality of it, the fun of being in the same place—be it a gallery, a fair, a city—and you take away 90 percent of the art world’s spirit and soul. But in this forced distancing, I found a bright spot—I spoke more again with a few of my artist friends. These were conversations that would have been erased amid the frenzy of the real art world, the traveling, the openings. We rediscovered a more human and somber atmosphere that had grounded our relationships. I know, it sounds very melancholic and romantic.
T: The New York Times Style Magazine recently collected a list of the 25 best protest-themed artworks. What, to you, makes a good protest artwork? What would you have added to the list that wasn’t already there?
A good protest artwork is one that is not preaching. It puts you on the edge and out of balance, or it simply lets you reflect, to escape banality. People dismiss banality, hence the meaning of the protest. I would have added any works by Sam Durant; Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms”; David Hammons’s Praying to Safety (1997), featuring Buddha statues praying before a safety pin hanging on a string running across the two sculptures; and, yes, Guston’s The Studio (1969), because that painting was a protest against the invisibility of evil. I’d also add Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil, and maybe one of the ads Oliviero Toscani did for United Colors of Benetton in the early 90’s—they were amazing. I think nobody has done something like that since then.