Controversial Philip Guston Show Rescheduled

To Open at the MFA on May 1, 2022

By: - Nov 05, 2020

Dear Friends,

Seven weeks ago, I was part of a collective decision with museum directors from the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Tate Modern (London), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to postpone “Philip Guston Now,” an exhibition that we had been working on together for more than 4 years.

We are pleased to announce the new dates for the exhibition and the sequence of venues are:

  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 1, 2022–September 11, 2022
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 23, 2022–January 15, 2023
  • National Gallery of Art, February 26, 2023–August 27, 2023
  • Tate Modern, October 3, 2023–February 4, 2024

I want to share some thoughts about why we decided to postpone the exhibition, the context for that collective decision (as well as my personal reasons for postponing it), and to clarify some of the commitments we will make to further develop the exhibition prior to its opening.

In considering the presentation of “Philip Guston Now”—both before and after the decision to postpone—I have engaged with artists, academics, community leaders, colleagues at other institutions, and a wide range of staff and stakeholders within our MFA community. I listened to those who live in the art world and who have a profound interest in Guston’s life and work, sought the views of those proximate to the world of art but are not directly part of it, and solicited feedback from others who are deeply committed to a broader definition of the cultural and social missions of museums. I continue to learn from all of them.

My many recent conversations about this exhibition have been both important and enlightening. They helped me to understand that the context in which we will present the work has changed since we first envisioned the exhibition. These conversations surfaced numerous expressions of unease and anxiety, and in some cases, intimations of vulnerability, as those with whom I spoke confronted work that includes images of Ku Klux Klan figures, of social unrest, racial conflict, the profound challenges of social polarization—and even invocations of the Holocaust. It became very clear to me that these images were being received by others in a far different light than the way in which I understood them. For some, the images were painful. For others, there was a recognition that the Museum had to do more to create a context for deeper engagement and the potential for creating new understandings. We face a reckoning with racial and social issues, and how we choose to handle them will echo for generations.

These conversations underlined the importance of “Philip Guston Now” in this transformative moment, and the commensurate need to thoughtfully reconsider how the work could be presented. This necessitated a pause in our exhibition schedule to allow for generative conversations within the museum and within our communities. For me, making the decision to postpone this show was not, as some have claimed, the silencing of an artist; it is, on the contrary, a commitment to putting the Museum at the center of these conversations and creating a public space for in-depth discussions about great art and how we understand its reception and its effect. I wanted to take the extra time, at this unpredictable moment, to make sure that Guston’s voice not only was heard but that the intent of his message was fairly received.

What does such commitment look like? More diverse voices contributing to the preparation of historical framing materials that allow us to appreciate the context in which Guston worked and achieved his vision; more fellow artists’ voices within the exhibition to share what the work means to them; more interactive moments with visitors that allow them to express views on how the images create their effect. More video clips with contemporary voices, including historians. More opportunity to create teaching modules for students within the Museum and with school audiences. More staff input to allow us to continue our work in celebrating and representing America’s history in ways both responsive and responsible.

Our conversations express who we are. The labels we put on the wall are not just words to read; labels are expressions of the values of a place, intended to elucidate and contextualize the art that is being shown and to help us unearth its deeper meaning for its viewers.

My most recent discussions have underlined the need to move the exhibition to an earlier starting date than we first anticipated when we announced our postponement. We listened to what was being said. Museums must be a part of the conversations in our communities about the ways in which art allows us to consider difference and identity, even if those discussions are difficult or challenging.

We all feel a sense of urgency. That is why, when offered the opportunity to open the exhibition sooner than planned, we said yes. Museums must be participants in framing the issues for and with our communities. We must reflect on how narratives and images are received to create robust and sustainable programming. And we must take the time we need to get it as right as we can. Philip Guston is an artist I have deeply admired for many years, someone whose work has been iconic for me. In all of my considerations, there was never a question of having to make Philip Guston’s work “acceptable”—either before, or now. For me, his work carries much of its remarkable value within itself. His commitment to pro-democratic and anti-racist issues urged him to search for a new and revolutionary language of art that would speak illuminatingly to a specific historical moment. It was, and is, his inspiring achievement. My purpose with this exhibition from the outset—but most specifically in recent weeks—has been to bring that inherent value of the work to bear, in the most effective way possible, on our current issues and challenges. This is, after all, the role of a museum—to create the space and the impetus for these very dialogues, and to celebrate artists in doing so. My true aim and greatest challenge has been to offer Guston’s legacy the most thoughtful hospitality at the MFA with this retrospective.

Some who have opposed the decision have regretted the loss of Guston’s voice at this moment. As do I. Others have said that great art speaks for itself. Yes, but the responsibility for presenting art in a public space to convene, share, and explore is about connecting the Museum to the world around us in real time, and in real space. Museums must meet and then create their points of sustained engagement with issues of our time. And we will.

With appreciation,

Matthew Teitelbaum
Ann and Graham Gund Director