The Queens Museum's Director Has Resigned Over Political Differences
The departure of Laura Raicovich marks a period of conflict between arts institutions' senior staff, their trustees, and the mainstream media.
Queens Museum, 2014. Photo by David Sundberg, Esto. Courtesy of Queens Museum
On January 23, Queens Museum Executive Director Laura Raicovich announced that she would resign from her post, citing differences with the board over the institution’s more politically minded programming. Specifically, on Trump’s Inauguration Day, Raicovich invited artists, activists, and other concerned New Yorkers to the museum to make protest signs. Some board members opposed that action; others disapproved of a program she proposed in which the museum, in collaboration with other institutions, would connect immigrants to social services.
Raicovich's farewell came within days of Fox News commentator Stuart Varney demanding a different departure, that of the Guggenheim's Chief Curator Nancy Spector. On January 25, we learned that the White House had requested the loan of a Vincent van Gogh painting and that Spector had suggested instead Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-karat gold toilet, America. The work and the offer critique American leaders’ excess, a line that didn’t sit well with right-wingers. The toilet is, of course, a critique of elitism, but a spluttering Varney was oblivious.
The upshot of all this noise? Crickets. So far, there’s been little conversation about the role of the museum in a time when our institutions are being slowly but surely dismantled. It took five days before any official response was given to Raicovich’s decision, but last Wednesday, a list of 35 curators expressed support for her activist-oriented work in the following letter.
Laura Raicovich, as president and executive director of the Queens Museum, has galvanized the museum field: she has demonstrated how cultural institutions can responsibly and creatively embrace artistic as well as social and political matters crucial to their local constituencies while contributing to the field at large. We have been inspired by her work with art, artists, and communities relating to important cultural issues such as immigration, cultural diversity, education, and equity. The example she set will continue to inform our own work.
We are writing to affirm the leadership role of cultural institutions in advancing cultural and social as well as political public discourse. As stewards and advocates of contemporary and historical cultural expressions, we directors, curators, and staff members of cultural institutions, as well as the board members to whom we are accountable, have a particular obligation to facilitate the free and safe exchange of ideas about our contemporary world with art as the catalyst.
In times of political polarization, arts institutions must fully commit to our responsibility to act as empathetic forums in which we come to understand human history, creativity and society. Art institutions must respond to pressing issues facing our communities—this is not simply a right but an obligation, especially for those supported by public funds.
We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich, regardless of their gender. This is more necessary now than at any other point since the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.
The letter does a great job of articulating the role of the museums in a political environment hostile to the public it serves, and also addresses the need for a board to actively support that mission. What it does not include, though, are the names of major curators and directors who have signed on with their institutional affiliation. Where are the names of staffers from the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim, New Museum, Brooklyn Museum, or Whitney? Missing. It’s no secret that museum boards tend to include conservative patrons; the problem is that this makeup doesn’t always serve the mission of the institution in question. In the case of the Queens Museum, for example, the proposed adult education programs rejected by the board would directly support Queens residents—many of whom are immigrants. And while there’s an argument to be made that nonprofits stretch themselves too far when offering non-art programs, this one dovetailed with the Queens Museum’s existing art classes for immigrants.
On Friday, Queens Museum board member Kristian Nammack announced that Raicovich would not stand alone, and tendered his resignation, citing another specific, political, reason:
To my friends and colleagues,
I tendered my resignation yesterday as a Trustee of the Queens Museum, in opposition to their decision to host the current Israeli Delegation to the UN who in turn honored Mike Pence last November.
This action is in opposition to the human rights abuses of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and of the human rights abuses of Mike Pence and the entire Trump Administration, as warned today in the annual report by Human Rights Watch.
I stand in solidarity with our Executive Director, Laura Raicovich, who resigned on Monday.
This feels like the start of something. As an arts community we can’t afford to watch our best talent shoved under the bus for fear that we might lose a limb while digging them out. We’re in this together.