Some columnists hobbyhorse an issue, hitting it again and again and again. Me, I try to be a one-and-done kind of guy. Why? Because if I bump into Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, and decide to stretch that into a two-parter, with a third column for reader reaction, by that last day, I promise, you’ll be thinking, “What, again with Jesus?”
But the Art Institute firing its white docents en masse deserves a second visit. It both speaks of our uneasy racial moment, and has the makings of being one of those evergreen PR disasters still talked about 25 years later, the way when I pass bottles of Perrier in a supermarket I shiver and think, “benzene.”
The Perrier benzene contamination was in 1990. Maybe it’s me. But people generally have long memories for anything negative.
The good news is that disasters do eventually fade. This isn’t the Art Institute’s first public blunder, you know. Who remembers that the museum once carelessly stashed three Cezanne paintings in a janitor supply closet? From where they were stolen, the theft going undetected because Art Institute procedures were so lax. That wasn’t sunk into the distant heroic past. It was 1978.
And nobody at all remembers that students from the School of the Art Institute once gathered at the museum to hold a mock trial of an artist, whom they condemned for “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color,” among other crimes. They burned reproductions of his paintings and would have burned the artist too, in effigy, had the police not stepped in.
The artist was Henri Matisse.
All right, that was in 1913, and the School of the Art Institute was and is a separate place from the Art Institute. (The school is much older; the museum began as a gallery for student works.) But nuance doesn’t enter into these scandals. I personally think the museum acted in a defendable manner when birthing this fiasco. Every step a rational one, in the desired direction, right off the cliff.
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