Museums shouldn’t be “a kind of respite,” declares Christina Olsen, the new director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She’s already at work on her first special exhibition–a look at early 1970s abstract art, with a focus on race and feminism. She hopes the show, scheduled for fall, will be provocative. A place like UMMA shouldn’t be “putting its head in the sand,” she says. “That’s not the making of a museum that’s going to matter long-term.”
She believes UMMA is uniquely positioned to address contemporary controversies. “A lot of the issues that matter to the whole country–social justice, gentrification, the environment, political polarization–are ground zero in Michigan,” she says. That wasn’t true at her last job, at the Williams College Museum of Art in rural Massachusetts.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington recently cancelled a scheduled show by painter Chuck Close amid allegations of sexual harassment. Olsen calls this a “complicated moment” for museums, but agrees with the decision. “I think if you have clear evidence of a person having assaulted [someone], then of all the artists to show–and there are many, many to show–is that a person whose work you want to be lauding at the moment?”
UMMA has no works by Close. It does have a number by Pablo Picasso, whose own transgressions toward women are well documented. Olsen doesn’t plan to hide those away, however.
The difference, she says, is that Close is still living. “There’s nothing we could do as a museum that would be helpful in shifting Picasso’s trajectory,” she says. “It’s past, it’s done.”