Keegan: It's not MAM's mission to protest
As a summer packed with Chinese art appears on the horizon at Milwaukee Art Museum, some local artists and others have been waiting for a comment by the museum on the April 3 arrest at the Beijing airport of controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who remains in government custody more than two months later.
In recent days, Milwaukee Art Museum director Daniel Keegan posted a statement on the museum's Web site. In it, Keegan wrote that the museum's mission, "is to serve the community and present art as a vital source of inspiration and education" and that MAM, "as a cultural institution, does not support censorship, including self-censorship, of art exhibitions or artists based on unpopular or controversial subjects."
Although he does not name Ai Weiwei in the four-paragraph statement – which also does not mention the artist's arrest and detainment – Keegan told me this morning that the museum's programming surrounding the China exhibitions will discuss Ai Weiwei in no uncertain terms.
"The programming that we've got in place is going to address the Ai Weiwei question I think in a very important way," said Keegan, referring specifically to a July 7 panel discussion about the artist and the issues of politics in art, artists' rights, detention and related issues.
"I think it can be a really interesting dialogue and we'll also have opposing views represented, as I think we should. ... So with the Ai Weiwei issue, once that cropped up in April, we thought, 'wow, this is a natural, we've got to figure this out'."
But Keegan added the museum will not protest Ai Weiwei's detainment and that he doesn't believe that it is appropriate to the museum's mission to lodge a protest.
"We're a cultural institution. We don't do protests. Our mission is to educate, to bring people together around the experience of the art. So I would say very emphatically, in my position as director of the museum – and I know that my board of trustees supports me in this – we should expressly not do something like protest.
"What we should do is create programming that brings people together so that we can have the conversation. ... We also don't do politics and I think you'd acknowledge that the Ai Weiwei thing; there's a political piece to this. He's an artist who works in that whole political arena."
Keegan went on to say that he personally finds Ai Weiwei to be an interesting artist and that the Milwaukee Art Museum has attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire some works by the artist in the past.
Last week local artist Mike Brenner announced he would appear on the bridge that connects the art museum to O'Donnell Park and shave his head to mimic Ai Weiwei's distinctive hairstyle in protest of the arrest.
Museum guards reportedly attempted to eject Brenner from the bridge and called Milwaukee police. In the end, Keegan said, Brenner was moved closer to the O'Donnell end of the bridge, where he completed his protest.
"The security guards being there surprised me, but it didn't bother me," said Brenner. "It only changed where I planned to be by 24 inches."
However, Keegan said, the actions of MAM security contradicted discussions he'd had with other museum staffers.
"I can say it's a screw-up, a goof-up, on the bridge," he said. "I was traveling at the time, but we were clear, we knew about Mr. Brenner's haircut activity, which, actually, I thought was kind of cool. The confusion came on the security end of things where we had a miscommunication.
"Our key responsibility is the safety of the art and the facility, and that includes the bridge. Also, the safety of our visitors. It seemed to me that what Mr. Brenner was doing was in no way interfering with any of that, so we were perfectly fine with it, but our apologies to him for the confusion on our part."
Brenner, who is currently traveling outside the United States, said via Twitter that he had not heard directly from Keegan, but isn't surprised.
"I just changed my number," Brenner wrote, "and I flew to Munich to finish brewing school the day after I did it. Even if he tried he probably wouldn't have been able to find me."
Anyway, said Brenner, the protest isn't about Milwaukee Art Museum.
"What I did wasn't about MAM or in protest of MAM. I'm really excited to see the show, actually. I was in China two summers ago touring American businesses and factories with ties to Wisconsin. I also looked at a ton of contemporary Chinese art. I was very impressed.
"I wasn't mad at Keegan or MAM at all. MAM is run by a ton of brilliant people."
Details on the July 7 event have not yet been added to the Milwaukee Art Museum website because the complete panel has not yet been finalized, according to MAM spokesperson Kristin Settle.
The Summer of CHINA exhibition opens on June 11 and runs through Sept. 11.
"I'll definitely see it when I get back," said Brenner.
I think he would have been better off saying that the museum was already committed to the show, already in bed with the Chinese government, and it was too late for them to do an about-face due to financial reasons. They clearly had no plans to address the detention of Weiwei in place since April, as Keegan claims. If they did, it would have already been publicized. We are supposed to believe that two months was not enough time to organize a discussion? Disgustingly, this whole thing comes down to money. If you go see this exhibit, your money goes to the Chinese government, and their partner, the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Dear Mr. Keegan, I read with profound concern the articles by Mary Louise Schumacher for "JSOnline"and Bobby Tanzilo, writing for "OnMilwaukee.com." As a former college art faculty member, artist and concerned citizen of this country, I am deeply disheartened to hear your comments as to the efficacy of protests to support the release of Ai Weiwei, wrongly detained by his own government. You are quoted as issuing this statement:"We dont do protestsI would say very emphatically that we should not protest ever, he said, adding that he believes it's ineffective." I could not disagree with you more. Not only is it an individual's right to use their voice to protest, hopefully with good judgment and reason, but in the case of an artist, to do so is quite often imperative. In all of history, it has often been those artists who did choose to speak out against political oppression, often in their own countries, and often to their own detriment. Should they have believed, as you have so stated, that protest is "ineffective," then many of the world's greatest reforms might not have emerged. Had they not amassed support from the institutions and leaders of their day, their efforts might have been in vain. But others stood by them, and beside them, offered their support and often times made that crucial difference in the outcome. Your personal stance on Ai Weiwei's treatment seems to be somewhat similar to my own. Yet, your unwillingness to take a stance as Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum at a time when all people of conscience should stand in solidarity with this artist, one who has so courageously stood in defiance to a totalitarian regime, represents a terrible flaw of judgment. Rather than running interference for that regime, and allowing them a venue in which to extoll their own existence under the guise of culture, art, and history, I would hope that you may consider the remarkable position in which you find yourself located. You have an opportunity to offer a more supportive statement which might add to the momentum of what I assure you will be an effective campaign to free Ai. Indeed, the Chinese government in the past has capitulated only to international protest with the power to shame them into rescinding previous humanitarian infractions. You may consider your directorial role one that must assuage issues such as these. I would appeal to your own sense of conscience in terms of what truly is the consideration with which you must engage. Ai Weiwei, an artist of international accomplishment and humane views, languishes under inhumane treatment, for calling to the world's attention the plight of his countrymen under an authoritarian regime. It is truly that simple. I leave it to you to answer the question proposed by Leo Tolstoy, "What then must we do?" You have the moment, Mr. Keegan. In peace, Tom Ogburn
Paleeeezeeee. Brenner is a narcissistic media whore, an attention junkie akin to Kate Goslin without the kids, Paris Hilton without the sex appeal, Jersey Housewifes without the the bling and the Botox. The last civic drama he hitched himself to was the Bronze Fonz when he professed outrage and promised us he'd leave town forever in protest. Yet here we are years later still watching his silly, self-serving antics in the guise of an art cause. Poor Mr. Keegan feeling the need to respond to such a blatantly impotent publicity grab.
If part of the museum's mission is to serve the community then lodging some form of formal protest would be doin exactly that. Since Keegan fails to do what is right and what many Milwaukee residents wish for, I will make it my mission to not patronize his museum this summer.
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