Artist Hans Haacke: Museums afraid of me

Thursday, March 1, 2001
Hans Haacke, left, in ‘Speaking Freely’ taping with First Amendment Center’s Ken Paulson, center, and Maxwell Anderson of Whitney Museum.

NEW YORK — “None of the battles (between artists and private museums) have been won, but if there is not an alert public these [freedoms] will wither,” said conceptual German artist Hans Haacke last night at the First Amendment Center.

The discussion of artistic free expression was part of the “Whitney Dialogues” program series co-sponsored by the Whitney Museum and the First Amendment Center. It was taped for “Speaking Freely,” a First Amendment Center television show on MetroArts channel 13.

Haacke’s exhibit at the Whitney Biennial caused a commotion in the New York art world last year. Some characterized his work as downplaying and trivializing the Holocaust.

Co-moderator Ken Paulson, First Amendment executive director, noted Haacke’s exhibit “roused the mayor’s objections” and prompted a news-media stir even before the work was shown.

“It was quite startling and frightening,” said Haacke. “The New York Times had a story about my work on page one.” He called accusations by the mayor and the media a “feeding frenzy.”

The Whitney Museum, which had commissioned the piece, allowed the exhibit to go forward as planned.

“At the Whitney we frequently hire artists and their work sight unseen,” said the museum’s executive director, Maxwell Anderson. “I couldn’t not support an artist we’d commissioned, and we had every intention of honoring the Whitney’s promise to [its] artists.”

But not all museums have felt the same way about Haacke’s work. In the 1970s the Guggenheim museum in New York pulled a Haacke creation that purported to expose misdeeds by a prominent local businessman.

“The Guggenheim had invited me for a solo exhibition, but they saw my work and it was canceled,” said Haacke.

With corporations frequently backing private museums, an artist’s freedom of expression can be a concern to free-speech advocates, panelists said.

But this concern is becoming more political than corporate, they said — a major example being New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outbursts over artwork at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

“Today’s corporate culture has become self-mocking to be acceptable to a younger audience,” said Maxwell. Haacke agreed: “Corporations don’t tell museums what artwork to do.”

However, both agreed that curators need to appease those who fund them.

“Are museums afraid of you?” Paulson asked Haacke.

“Over the years, I think yes,” he answered. “After the Guggenheim show was canceled, a lot of museums, for understandable reasons, let [me] pass.”

Haacke’s outspoken beliefs may have cost him art exhibits but his work has survived. His show “Persuasion” ran at the Lombard-Freid Fine Arts gallery in Soho, New York. Another called “Temporarily Possessed” belongs in the semi-permanent collection at the New York Museum of Contemporary Art.

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