On May 22nd, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opened its most ambitious exhibition to date, Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose. We understood that for many in our community, the type of artwork presented would be something that they had not experienced before. We prepared for these challenges with robust educational programming and initiatives. What we did not expect was an angry public renunciation of an artwork by two individuals who sit on the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities’ Commission.
This situation arose when MOCA’s development director made a presentation to the Commission at one of their scheduled Thursday evening meetings. She distributed invitations to the exhibition opening to the commissioners. The image on the front of the invitation was Mark Ryden’s painting of Rosie’s Tea Party. After the meeting, one of the commissioners approached Barnhill with his objections. Other commissioners entered the argument. One was an enthusiastic proponent of MOCA, the artwork, and our right to exhibit according to our own good judgement. The other, not so much.
The next day, the two objecting commissioners requested a meeting for the following Monday with several of MOCA’s staff members. They wanted to know more about our process and philosophy for choosing work. The two commissioners were not calling the meeting on behalf of the commission, but as concerned citizens. At that moment, MOCA was deeply embroiled the exhibition installation process. We had neither the time nor the resources for a short-notice meeting and offered to meet shortly after the opening to address their concerns.
This answer was not satisfactory for the two commissioners. What ensued were attempts by the gentlemen to gain the attention of the press. This began with a visit from a local television reporter. From there word spread to many different news outlets (WAVY, Surreal Art Exhibit at MOCA Sparks Controversy). One of the commissioners also contacted the Catholic League who began an email campaign to encourage MOCA to remove the work. The timing for this commotion was certainly inopportune and added a layer of stress to the staff as we prepared for the opening.
However, we had good advice from several supporters of MOCA, including the National Coalition Against Censorship. They monitor the media for situations such as these and reached out to us with some sound advice and a statement regarding the legality of government entities having influence over works selected by museums.
After much discussion among the staff, we agreed that the correct course of action was a measured one. Staff did not engage in debate in public or over social media. Our Board of Trustee’s chair, Meredith Rutter, wrote a letter to the editor in the local paper spelling out the positive impact MOCA has on our community. This seems to be the right decision. Many members of our community and beyond came to our defense and our right to exhibit the work we chose.
Other members of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities’ Commission contacted MOCA privately. They wanted us to understand that the two members of the Commission were not acting on their behalf. They communicated their support to us through private contact. They, like MOCA, chose to not publically engage the debate in the belief that doing so would only add fuel to fire. For both institutions, this seems to have been the right decision. The opening was successful and took place without incident. The next Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities’ Commission meeting took place on June 2nd. There was no press in attendance. During the meeting the Executive Committee made a statement in full support of the museum. Several prominent arts supporters in our community did the same.
In the end, the publicity only increased MOCA’s profile to an even larger, international community. We had coverage in many new media outlets. Dignified silence served the museum well and we would choose the same path again if the situation ever arose. However, this situation has revealed flaws in the selection of commissioners for the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities’ Commission. While the majority of the current members are overwhelmingly supportive of the arts, some are more clearly interested in pushing personal agendas. We believe that the time is now to start a dialogue about how and which candidates should be appointed to the Commission. Public art is too important for the health of a thriving community to act as a forum for personal belief systems and ideologies.