When the Painting Is Provocative but the Museum Is Cautious

Posted July 16, 2018 3:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2018 3:18 p.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas — The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin knew it had a painting on its hands that required sensitivity: a 30-foot-wide panorama by Houston-based artist Vincent Valdez that imagined a modern-day Ku Klux Klan gathering. And a string of recent art-world controversies had emphasized the need for such curatorial caution.

A painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated body by a white artist drew protests at last year’s Whitney Biennial, and images of black people smeared with chocolate and toothpaste by another white artist angered African-Americans in St. Louis. Last September, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis dismantled a gallows-like sculpture after Native American leaders said it evoked a mass hanging of Dakota Indians in 1862.

So after acquiring Valdez’s four-panel painting in 2016, the Blanton spent two years preparing for the work’s public debut on July 17. To display the painting, the curators had a special gallery built with a sign warning that the work “may elicit strong emotions.” Such warnings are relatively rare. The National Coalition Against Censorship’s “Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy,” endorsed by several of the country’s leading museum advocacy organizations, suggests that “written warnings or disclaimers should be informational and not prejudicial.”

The museum even changed its security guards’ uniforms from a somber gray to a more cheerful blue, a planned update that was expedited because of the show.

The museum’s staff also gave previews of the painting to faculty, administrators and students, hoping this outreach would inoculate the museum against community criticism. Staff members consulted with more than 100 individuals and organizations, including the mayor’s office, the Anti-Defamation League and the Austin Justice Coalition, an advocacy organization for people of color.

But even the best-laid plans can go awry. One organization the museum did not consult until very late in the process was the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, since its founding in 1909, led anti-lynching campaigns in the United States among its many civil rights crusades.

Carlotta Stankiewicz, the Blanton’s director of marketing and communications, said a “miscommunication among our staff” was the reason for not contacting the organization sooner.

Racial violence remains a raw subject in Texas. Earlier this month the state marked the 20th anniversary of the murder of James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists in the small East Texas town of Jasper. In December civil rights groups, including the Austin NAACP, unveiled a plaque in East Austin memorializing three African-Americans who were lynched in the area in 1894.

During a conversation in his Houston studio, Valdez said he hoped his painting, titled “The City I,” would remind viewers that the Klan cannot be safely relegated to the past. “There are people in the United States of America who refuse to acknowledge that entities like the Klan exist,” he said. “And now we’re seeing the end result.”

One of the hooded figures in the painting is looking at his iPhone; a late-model Chevy pickup truck is parked in the background. Many of the Klansmen stare directly out at the viewer.

“It’s a lot easier to confront subjects like white supremacy or the Klan as evil villains,” Valdez said. “I’m more concerned about the notion that we all inhabit the same American landscape.”

Valdez grew up on San Antonio’s predominantly Mexican-American south side, where he began painting at a young age. From the beginning, he addressed social injustice in his art. A video taken by his father, a Vietnam War veteran, shows the 10-year-old boy painting a mural of bomber jets dropping napalm on black, silhouetted figures.

The Blanton’s director, Simone Wicha, first encountered Valdez’s work at a 2014 San Antonio exhibition of his series “The Strangest Fruit,” which depicts the life-size bodies of lynched Mexican-American men in contemporary dress. Valdez wanted to call attention to the thousands of Mexicans who scholars estimate were lynched in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Blanton purchased two paintings from the series, which are currently on view at the museum. Wicha viewed an unfinished version of “The City I” in Valdez’s studio in 2016, before it was displayed at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston.

Convinced of the painting’s power, Wicha helped raise $200,000 in private funds to buy it. She originally planned to unveil the painting in summer 2017, but decided to push the opening back a year after the election of President Donald Trump. She did not want to create the impression that the museum had purchased the painting as some kind of protest. “It would be as if we had acquired it for a political statement, or the artist had painted it for a political statement,” Wicha explained. The extra year also gave the museum time to engage the community. “I just felt that with a painting like this, the subject matter it’s taking on, the world we’re in, we needed to be really thoughtful in how we prepared,” Wicha said. “Would we have done this in a different political climate? I don’t know. But I can tell you that in this political climate it was the right thing to do.”

To provide that historical context, the Blanton hired six gallery “hosts,” at least one of whom will be in the gallery at all times (in addition to the security guard) to answer questions about the painting. A video screen in the gallery will play an interview with Valdez on loop. The wall text introducing the painting was written by curator Veronica Roberts, who estimated that she had revised its six paragraphs at least 400 times. The exhibition will be complemented by a series of talks and programs beginning Tuesday and continuing through October, as well as an in-depth website.

Among all these efforts, however, the Blanton did not contact Nelson Linder, the local NAACP chapter president, until July 9.

“Something like this, not to call the NAACP is fairly ridiculous,” Linder said. “Out of courtesy, they should have let us take a look at it.”

After being made aware by this reporter of Linder’s concerns last week, Wicha invited the civil rights leader to view the painting and take part in one of the programs that will accompany the exhibition. Although Linder said he appreciated the museum’s finally contacting him, he expressed reservations about the painting itself. “I would have shown the victims,” he said. “Not just pictures of the Klan, but the end result of their behavior, the black folks being lynched.”

Responding to Linder’s point, Valdez wrote that images of black victims of lynching are indeed “shameful and should never be forgotten.” For his painting, he said, he was “invoking the sinister yet very real existence of the Klan and white supremacy today, hiding in clear sight among us.”

He added: “All I wanted to do in my painting, the story I wanted to tell was: Look around you; they’re still here.” Linder said he hoped the experience would encourage the Blanton to communicate better with Austin’s African-American community. “It was a lesson learned,” he said. “You need to look outside your walls and figure out what’s going on in the community when you do these type of exhibitions.”

Edmund T. Gordon, chairman of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, was among those invited to view the painting. He expressed concern that some white supremacists might interpret the painting as a glorification of the Klan.

“There are some who will see it and take it as that,” he said. “That’s not how I see it, and that’s not how the Blanton is trying to have it be understood.”

He added: “That’s why there needs to be robust contextualization about why the Blanton is showing this thing, and what the artist is trying to get at.”