Museum Education and
Controversial Art: Living
on a Fault Line
E. Louis Lankford
University of Missouri-St. Louis
University of Missouri-St. Louis, and St. Charles Community College
No art museum is immune from the risk of controversy associated with works of art, regardless of the nature of the museum's collections or exhibitions. Controversy usually arises when individuals who are unaffiliated with a museum judge an exhibited work of art to be egregiously offensive and take action to undermine the museum's authority to determine the content of its galleries. An artwork is most commonly judged to be offensive if it violates dominant beliefs, values, tastes, and mores of society, especially those pertaining to sex or religion. It is argued that art controversies are partially by-products of audience development aimed at building a larger and more diverse visitor base and a willingness by museums to accept more risks with exhibitions of contemporary art. To illustrate their points, the authors describe circumstances of a controversy that flared when the Museum of International Folk Art exhibited Our Lady, an artwork by Alma López that triggered strong reactions from the Hispanic Catholic community of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Throughout the paper, reference is made to special challenges that museum educators, both staff and volunteer docents, face during a controversy. In the final sections, the authors provide a number of concrete proposals for how museums, and museum educators in particular, can effectively prepare for and respond to controversy.
Let us begin with a fundamental assertion: Any work of art may be controversial. Asany veteran art museum educator can verify, the reality is that however much people may agree with each other, they still collectively hold an infinite variety of opinions, values, and perceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in responses to works of art. No artwork is so mundane or so innocuous as to be exempt from stirring the fires of indignation; no artwork is so laudable as to be immune from critical scrutiny and condemnation. Most of the time people can tolerate differences of opinion concerning art, but from time to time those differences can become almost unbearable. When works of art for one reason or another perturb people in the extreme, such that lines are drawn and defensive and offensive actions are taken by opposing sides, it is a case of controversial art. Fortunately extreme cases are relatively rare, but when they do occur they can rock artistic careers, shake up entire museums, and cause the artworld to quake.