Dana Schutz’s Big Wave, 2016, from the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, which is currently on view at ICA, Boston. Photo by Matthias Kolb. © Dana Schutz

Dana Schutz’s ICA Boston Exhibition Sparks Protests

A local group of artists, activists, and community members are criticizing the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston’s decision to stage a solo show by artist Dana Schutz, whose Emmett Till–inspired work Open Casket, 2016, which was included in the Seventy-Eighth Whitney Biennial earlier this year, has created a furor in the arts community.

In a six-page open letter addressed to the institution’s chief curator Eva Respini and her team, the protesters criticized the ICA for not adequately addressing the concerns raised by critics of the Whitney Biennial and for failing to acknowledge how an exhibition dedicated to the artist may impact the African American community.

Among the signatories of the letter are Megan Smith, Allison Disher, Stephanie Houten, Pampi, and Vounds DuBuisson, who were invited by the institute’s staff to attend meetings regarding the show on July 13 and July 20. While the group thanked the institute for reaching out to the community and acknowledged that “such meetings are rare and require personal integrity and a tremendous dedication to democratic principles of representation on the part of the institution’s head staff,” ultimately, the group does not think the ICA “is making a responsible decision.”

While the curatorial team decided not to exhibit Open Casket, critics do not find the exclusion of the controversial work sufficient. “Even though the painting will not be shown, even in its absence, backing its artist without accountability nor transparency about proceeds from the exhibition, the institution will be participating in condoning the coopting of Black pain and showing the art world and beyond that people can co-opt sacred imagery rooted in oppression and face little consequence, contributing to and perpetuating centuries-old racist iconography that ultimately justifies state and socially sanctioned violence on Black people.”

In response to the backlash against the exhibition, ICA director Jill Medvedow issued a statement on the institute’s website: “Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and Open Casket raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation. Though Open Casket is not in the ICA exhibition, we welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art, and social justice. Complex, challenging, sensitive, and urgent, these are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.”

As of now, the institution has organized three programs related to the show. Talks with Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros-Georges and the artist Josephine Halvorson have been scheduled as well as a forum with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research on representation and responsibility.

Since the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s opening weekend in March, Schutz’s painting has fueled a passionate public debate about the representation of African Americans, violence against Black bodies, and cultural appropriation, among other issues. On March 21, artist Hannah Black penned a letter that urged the biennial’s team to remove the painting and then destroy it. The Whitney Museum did not take the work down. On April 9, it hosted an event, “Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute,” to open up the dialogue regarding the controversial work to the public.