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The Defining Art Events of 2020

Activist Mwazulu Diyabanza faced trial after attempting to remove a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai-Branly–Jacques Chirac.
Activist Mwazulu Diyabanza faced trial after attempting to remove a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai-Branly–Jacques Chirac. AP Photo/Michel Euler

10. Activists in France take repatriation debates into their own hands
As French officials have been slow to heed widespread recommendations to begin the process of repatriating African cultural objects, activists began leading the charge themselves. In June, Mwazulu Diyabanza and several others attempted to bring a 19th-century African funeral pole outside Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac. They were blocked from removing the object, but their protest—and the threat of a 10-year jail sentence for Diyabanza—generated worldwide coverage. (He was ultimately only made to pay a small fee.) Although it is still unclear what sort of timeline the movement is on, signs of progress could be seen when, in November, the French senate voted to return objects to Benin and Senegal within the next year. —Alex Greenberger

A sign urging attendees to be hygienic at the TEFAF Maastricht fair, which closed early after a Covid-19 scare.
A sign urging attendees to be hygienic at the TEFAF Maastricht fair, which closed early after a Covid-19 scare. Oliver Berg/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

9. TEFAF Maastrict shuts down early as coronavirus arrives
The drama surrounding all manner of early closures and false starts spiked considerably (at least in the context of the fair-frenzied art world) when TEFAF powered down its high-profile event already in-progress in Maastrict, the Netherlands, in March. After opening officially on Saturday, March 7, the news arrived on the Wednesday following that TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) was over and done with four days still to go. The cause was a positive Covid-19 test from one of the exhibitors—after which Nanne Dekking, the chairman of TEFAF’s board, said in a statement, “Given the recent developments in the regions around Maastricht and increasing concerns, we no longer feel it is appropriate to continue as planned.” The announcement raised a lot of alarms—especially among the thousands of globe-trotting attendees at the Armory Show in New York, which had wound down just a few days before. —Andy Battaglia

Christie's 'ONE' auction.
Christie’s “ONE” auction. Courtesy Christie's

8. Live-streamed mega-auctions reboot the art market
Following the cancelation of live sales, rounds of layoffs, and financial freefall at the top auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were forced to rapidly reconfigure their traditional marquee auctions. The result was a kind of blockbuster auction: cross-category live-streamed evening sales combining bidding from multiple cities, with remote audiences in the tens of thousands looking on. Sotheby’s was the first to test the novel format with its five-hour evening sale on June 29. Headlined by an $85 million Francis Bacon triptych, it netted a collective $363.2 million. The night was streamed on the media platform Cheddar, another company in the holdings of Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi. Christie’s followed in July with its relay-style “ONE” auction, which took place in Hong Kong, London, Paris and New York, and generated a total of $420 million. In the first half of 2020, many speculated that top of the market might be in peril, but the summer sales offered evidence that auction houses could thrive even in the worst of times. —Angelica Villa

The Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum. VWPics via AP Images

7. A high-ranking Guggenheim Museum curator departs amid controversy
At New York’s Guggenheim Museum, it was the end of an era: in October, chief curator Nancy Spector departed after 23 years at the institution. This came after the museum announced the results of a three-month investigation into allegations of racism. Many of them were made by Chaédria LaBouvier, who was among the first Black curators to helm a Guggenheim show. She alleged that, when she organized a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition for the institution, she “was subject to adverse treatment on the basis of her race,” though the museum’s investigation turned up no evidence of racism. Spector, who was criticized on Twitter by LaBouvier, did not specify the reason for her departure. The Guggenheim may have been the highest-profile U.S. institution rocked by controversy in 2020, but it wasn’t the only one. In June, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s director of 23 years, Jill Snyder, stepped down two weeks after her public apology to artist Shaun Leonardo, whose exhibition of charcoal drawings of Black and Latinx victims of police brutality she had canceled after local activists raised concerns. (Leonardo, who hadn’t been consulted, accused the institution of censorship.) In July, the board at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit fired Elysia Borowy-Reeder, its chief curator and executive director, after employees complained of a toxic work environment. That same month, longtime San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Gary Garrels resigned after making statements that museum staff considered discriminatory. —Sarah Douglas

The Whitney Museum.
The Whitney Museum. Ed Lederman

6. The Whitney cancels a mutual aid show after a social media outcry
In August, at the tail end of a summer suffused with protest on the streets, New York’s Whitney Museum revealed plans to host an exhibition of photographs, posters, prints, and more sold to support charities related to Black Lives Matter and related issues at hand during the pandemic. But controversy erupted when critics cast doubt on whether the museum had directly supported any of the artists involved when it acquired their work. See in Black, an initiative to support Black photographers on Juneteenth, accused the Whitney of buying art at discount prices; Texas Isaiah, one of the photographers who took part in that project, called the show “predatory.” Within less than a day of when the controversy began, the show was called off. —Alex Greenberger

The Sursock Museum was among the art spaces that was severely impacted by two blasts in Beirut.
The Sursock Museum was among the art spaces that was severely impacted by two blasts in Beirut. Ammar Abd Rabbo/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

5. Two blasts reshape Beirut’s art scene
In August, two explosions in the port of Beirut devastated parts of the capital city, leaving more than 200 people dead and countless others injured. Beirut’s cultural sector, already threatened by Lebanon’s economic collapse and the pandemic, was dealt a heavy blow. Artists were displaced from studios, and prominent galleries and museums, including the Sursock Museum and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, sustained serious structural harm. In response, cultural organizations from around the world—including UNESCO, the Brussels-based arts nonprofit Mophradat, and the International Council of Museums—rallied to provide artist relief in the form of emergency funding. Meanwhile, the city’s immense reconstruction efforts continue. —Tessa Solomon

The pedestal where a monument to slave trader Edward Colston once stood in Bristol, England.
The pedestal where a monument to slave trader Edward Colston once stood in Bristol, England. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

4. Monuments to racist figures are felled, removed, and recontextualized
Amid worldwide demonstrations against police brutality and anti-Black racism, monuments to racist historical figures in cities from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Johannesburg, South Africa, were defaced. In some cases, these protests bore fruit—in Philadelphia, for example, officials heeded the calls and did away with a monument to a mayor who once told constituents to “vote white.” In other cases, protestors took matters into their own hands and removed monuments themselves. In Bristol, England, protesters felled a monument to Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant and slave trader, ultimately rolling it into the nearby river Avon to the cheers of onlookers. Though the statue was later fished out by local authorities, footage of its watery plunge was widely shared on social media. —Tessa Solomon

The Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Baltimore Museum of Art. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

3. The Baltimore Museum of Art pauses a controversial deaccessioning plan
Museum deaccessioning—the sale of objects from the permanent collection—has always been a hot button issue, but after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) relaxed its strictures on the practice in the spring to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, it was only a matter of time before a blow-up. Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum of Art took advantage of the relaxed standards to part with some objects, and while there was an outcry in both cases, it was nothing compared to what happened with the Baltimore Museum of Art. That museum’s attempt to sell three paintings—by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden—at Sotheby’s became a flashpoint, with former trustees, museum directors, and critics decrying the sale. The main point of contention was that major works were being sold as part of a long-term initiative to center issues of equity within the museum’s collection and staff salaries, as opposed to the financial lifeline intended by the relaxed AAMD guidelines. Even the AAMD, which had initially been on board, did a volte-face and told the museum to pause its plans, just as the works were to hit the auction block. Curators at the museum remained strongly in favor of the works, however, saying that doing so would allow the museum to achieve its vision of greater equity throughout the museum. Just hours before their sale was to begin, the works were yanked from auction. The BMA controversy may be the first pandemic-era controversy of its kind, but the AAMD standards are relaxed for a year more, so it surely won’t be the last. —Sarah Douglas

A Black Lives Matter protest in front of the National Gallery in London.
A Black Lives Matter protest in front of the National Gallery in London. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association via AP Images

2. Museums botch their Black Lives Matter statements
After the police killing of George Floyd, many museums took to social media to speak out—and just as many were taken to task for their statements. Los Angeles’s Getty Museum was among the first to get called out, with commenters decrying the institution for leaving out, in favor of more general messages, specific mention of Black Lives Matter as well as Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and other figures whose names needed to said. Soon after, Getty president Jim Cuno issued an apology stating, “We heard you.” The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the British Museum, and many more institutions weathered similar criticisms suggesting that museums are incapable of adequately dealing with systemic change. As Chris Anagnos, director of the industry group the Association of Art Museum Directors, wrote, “As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough.” —Alex Greenberger

Philip Guston, 'Riding Around', 1969. Three hooded figures smoke cigarettes in a jalopy moving through a city.
Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969. ©The Estate of Philip Guston/Genevieve Hanson/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth/Private Collection

1. A delayed Philip Guston retrospective becomes a flashpoint
Few shows grabbed as many headlines in 2020 as a planned Philip Guston retrospective that was to include among many other works paintings from the 1960s and ’70s featuring hooded figures alluding to the Ku Klux Klan. In September, the four museums organizing the show—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Tate Modern in London—pushed the exhibition from 2020 to 2024 amid concerns that the public might fail to understand the resonance of the “painful” imagery. In response, an array of A-list artists—from Nicole Eisenman to Adrian Piper—joined other luminaries in signing an open letter urging the museums to reinstate the show, while some observers applauded the decision on the grounds that the world didn’t need another Guston retrospective organized solely by white curators. After the pushback, the exhibition’s tour was re-dated to begin in 2022, but the after-effects continue to remain an open question. —Alex Greenberger

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