Art News

Why Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art Skipped the Anti-Trump Art Strike

Adam Lerner, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, took the idea of an art strike seriously, but ultimately decided against it.
Richard Petersson
Adam Lerner, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, took the idea of an art strike seriously, but ultimately decided against it.
Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art announced Wednesday that it would not join dozens of art institutions and hundreds of artists around the country who went on strike on Inauguration Day to protest President Donald Trump.

The #J20 Art Strike has been officially endorsed by at least 753 artists and institutions, including big names like Barbara Kruger, Yvonne Rainer and Paul Chan.

The call reads:

#J20 Art Strike
An Act of Noncompliance on Inauguration Day.
No Work, No School, No Business.
Museums. Galleries. Theaters. Concert Halls. Studios. Nonprofits. Art Schools.
Close For The Day.
Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back.

This call concerns more than the art field. It is made in solidarity with the nation-wide demand that on January 20 and beyond, business should not proceed as usual in any realm. We consider Art Strike to be one tactic among others to combat the normalization of Trumpism—a toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule. Like any tactic, it is not an end in itself, but rather an intervention that will ramify into the future. It is not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.

We address ourselves to the people who make our cultural institutions run on a daily basis, including many of our own friends and colleagues. Those who work at the institutions are divided in multiple and unequal ways, and any action taken must prioritize the voices, needs and concerns of those with the most to lose. However you choose to respond to this call, Art Strike is an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody.

The disruptions of J20 are just the beginning. They will resonate with the Women's March on Washington, D.C. and other cities on January 21, and will stand as beacons of ungovernability as the darkness of the Trump era descends upon us. Let us assemble for the protracted battles that have long been underway, and those on the horizon.

The arts publication Hyperallergic is keeping a running list of institutions that shut down for the Inauguration. No Colorado museums, galleries or venues are on the list as of this writing. Unlike the MCA, most didn't bother to explain why.

While the strike didn't stop Trump from becoming the 45th president of the United States Friday morning, the effort sends a loud message: Many artists will refuse to go on with business as usual in the face of a Trump administration.

The MCA staff weighed the value of shutting down for the strike and decided that closing wasn't the right response. Lerner says maintaining a space for patrons of varying ideological stripes would better serve the museum's pluralistic and progressive vision.

Here is the MCA's statement:
Westword spoke with Lerner, who has a background in political theory and is an unabashed progressive, about why the MCA didn't participate.

Westword: How did MCA's staff come to the decision not to strike?

Adam Lerner: We received the invitation to strike, and a few people on staff forwarded versions of it to me. I decided to dedicate an all-staff meeting to discuss that question of how we respond to this. It was very meaningful to us that it came from artists, because we're very aware of the fact that everything we do begins with artists. Every exhibition we put on, every way that we connect to audiences has, at its core, the work that artists do. So, we take very seriously this call from artists. I personally wanted to understand, really, what the mood was from the staff and to get ideas.

We scheduled this special meeting, and I was really impressed — not entirely surprised — about how sophisticated our staff was about this question. Everybody recognized the values at our core in that call to strike. We all recognized that there was something that we believe in at the museum that, at its heart, is about openness, and about listening to voices that haven't been heard, and thinking about how we can make a better society, and all those issues that are very different from a lot of rhetoric that we're hearing around the election.

There was nobody on staff who felt that we should therefore be closed that day. Everybody felt that what we should do is expand on how we can use that day as an opportunity to affirm our values. Some people even said, let's use this as an opportunity to affirm all the things we have done in the past, how we have exhibited over twenty artists from Latin America over the past five years, how many artists of color we've exhibited. Other people talked about how maybe we should use the opportunity to promote our exhibition of Guadalajara artists from Jalisco. It's about the history of contemporary art in Guadalajara.

We have these deep connections to Mexico and Latin America that very much speak to our values that counter all of the talk that is happening about building the wall. We're actually more about deepening our connection to Mexico.

The conversation was really about how we use that day to affirm our values. And then we realized, okay, let's try not to use it as publicity for what we have been doing. Rather, let's take a program and actually use that program as a way of just expressing more about who we are.

We had previously scheduled for that day a Black Sheep Friday event called Public Records, where any visitor can come to the museum and, partnering with Meep Records, they could record themselves — their voice — accompanied by Denver musicians. That program was really just about voice. It's about making yourself heard. It's also about speaking or performing in common and making something in common. We thought, that is such a great analogy, such a great metaphor for the role of art in bringing people together.

The idea that people are singing in common is a very beautiful thing. There is a long history of community singing. I actually gave a lecture at the museum on this history of community singing as a democratic art form. Even in the ’60s civil-rights movement, gospel singing was part of the protest movement, because you can't dehumanize someone if they're singing a song. Somehow, their humanity comes out. That's why it's very important in the civil-rights movement, as well.

We felt, let's really double down on that program. Let's emphasize that we're doing this. We'll have people come together. We'll have musicians perform. And we'll all sing together. There are a few songs we've decided people can sing either in groups or individually. The idea is that we thought that would be a very, very important way of expressing our role in the community, as a civic space, and the role of art as a way of healing people who face divisions. I feel that when people are singing together, there is something special that happens, a connection that happens that goes beyond all the language, all the talk that divides us, so that's why we decided to emphasize that program that night.

Is there some sort of consensus from the museum staff about the Trump administration?

I didn't ask people's opinions about the current administration. The question was: What should we do on Inauguration Day? Everybody on staff wants to be very sensitive about avoiding making any very partisan kind of arguments. Everybody was so aligned on values of openness — openness to diversity, openness to other cultures, supporting people who are less powerful. All of the values that we heard are really aligned, and that's not surprising. Our staff is all urban, artistic, creative people, and you're going to find that community being largely progressive.

I also am reminded, right now, that there was one person on staff who was very adamant about not being partisan. He comes from rural Colorado. A lot of his friends have very different values than people in urban settings. I think that was something that I felt set a tone for openness, even in the conversation.
MCA Denver released a statement explaining why it would not participate in the #J20 Art Strike. - MCA DENVER
MCA Denver released a statement explaining why it would not participate in the #J20 Art Strike.
MCA Denver
We got an e-mail last night from one of the artists in our Bodacioussss exhibition, currently on view. Her name is Sessa Englund. She wanted her work to be de-installed during the strike on Friday, and we are going to respect her wishes and put a sign up for our visitors saying her work is not available for viewing; the artist wishes not to have her work viewed, and you will be able to see it another day. We haven't decided the wording yet, but for us, we really wanted to support our artists and feel like that's very easy. An obvious thing for us to do is for us to be able to respect their wishes.

Openness is different ideologically than the strike, which is about shutting down and denying access as a statement of protest. Can you talk about some of the differences?

I believe that strikes are sometimes really powerful tools. I really wanted to take that seriously. In the history of this country, the best things that have ever happened have happened through protests. That's how we have respect for the labor we have and the labor laws in the early part of the twentieth century. That's how we had a civil-rights movement. That's how we had feminism.

I believe that a strike can be a progressive tool. But I think that in a cultural environment where more and more of our public forums — mostly media forums — are becoming aligned to one side or the other, red or blue, I think it's important to try to maintain as many entities as possible that don't have to choose one side or the other. I think the museum is one place that actually, right now, is not yet one side or the other, and I feel that therefore it can serve a civic role, and I want to be able to affirm that civic role. The idea of going on strike would be a specifically partisan statement. The idea of aligning with a party actually goes against the idea of being a platform for all people to be together in a pluralist way. Our pluralist values therefore conflict with the protest statement by the artists here in #J20.

We have, in the past, taken positions when they have aligned with openness. The last time we decided to go free was when we, as a staff and board, got together when the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal. That was the last time we as a museum made a public statement. We felt like that was completely consistent with our values of openness, and we thought it was important to do that.

It seems like the strike is not specifically endorsing or condemning a party but instead condemning hateful rhetoric. Will the museum take an explicit stance against hateful rhetoric?

We are very sensitive to what's happening in the political and social environment. We have to be, as a contemporary art museum. As things emerge in our society, then we will act accordingly. If there are times that we do feel it's appropriate to take a stand against something that has happened, then we will absolutely do that. In this case, we feel that the appropriate response is to actually continue to aggressively pursue our values.

Right now, I feel like the best way to confront hateful rhetoric is to continue to support Mexican artists and Latin American artists and artists of color. That feels to us like the appropriate response to what is, right now, still at the level of rhetoric. That thing may change. But an important point is that sometimes being pluralist means that you have to accept people — even people who don't share your pluralist values. Our commitment to pluralism, our commitment to hearing as many voices, is the more important value that we have to affirm at this point.

Last night, I was at the Community Forum for Safe Creative Spaces. I was speaking to an artist, and the statement by the MCA came up. His take was that the statement was bolstering white supremacy by remaining silent and remaining neutral.

We're not remaining silent. We're not remaining neutral. By making a statement, we are putting our rock in the stream of rhetoric. The field of contemporary art — I would not describe it as neutral; I would describe it as pluralist. That's different from being neutral. The way the practice is — that's why our artists feel the way they do. There is a value of art — of its newness. The field of contemporary art has always, since the 1970s, embraced this idea of multicultural and unheard voices. I would not describe that as neutral. That is a progressive aspect of art, and therefore, we will stand by that. We will continue to stand by contemporary art's impetus toward countering the language of white supremacy.

For us, the rhetoric that most opposes our values is the rhetoric of a return to some ideal past. That feels to us so opposed to this notion that our project is to continually imagine a better future.

Why did the MCA decide to make a statement?

On some level, we want to give a hug to our artists and a hug to all the people that are protesting, to the museum, to the community of supporters, and say, hey, we're here with you, in these progressive ideas and our progressive values, and we are very sensitive to what you are feeling right now.

Making a statement seems like the most important thing we could do. Right now, that's what's happening in the world. Right now, it's still at the level of language. And so we want to contribute our voice to that.