My questions for Manchester Art Gallery

All right, Manchester Art Gallery, seems like you want a discussion after all. I’ll give you a chance.

For anyone unfamiliar with my current bugbear, so far this year I’ve been mostly complaining about Manchester Art Gallery and their stupid stunt to remove a beloved by the people of Manchester, in order to – so they claim – start a conversation. I am amongst the large majority of respondents who opposed to it. I wrote at length about my issues here; I won’t go over this again, but the TLDR version is that, at best, the Gallery staff showed no interest in any views different to their own, and, at worst, this was testing the water to see how far they could go with culture policing. But that’s old news now. What riled me more was their behaviour after they made (were forced into?) the decision to restore the painting. After thanking everyone for Contributing To The Debate™, they spent a month behaving like nothing had happened, then proceeded to do a series of interviews and articles that pretty much dismissed all the opposition as online abuse. Most suspiciously, they promised release information shortly about a panel debate that would invite speakers with a range of views. Three months later, with not a peep from the gallery about this, suspicion grew they decided asking other people for their opinions was a mistake and they hoped they could drop the debate quietly without anyone noticing.

But wait. On the 17th May, Manchester Art Gallery had their debate after all. The kept their promise. Well, some of it. Releasing information about the debate three months after it was originally announcing isn’t exactly a time-frame I’d call “shortly”. As for the wide range of views – not a chance. The panel was Alistair Hudson, the director of the gallery, and Clare Gannaway, the curator who championed the removal. They wanted to include a third panellist, Ellen Mara De Wachter, who wrote a, shall I say, “interesting” takes on this stunt, rebranding what most of us consider to be cultural authoritarism as “curatorial activism“, but she had to cancel. Regardless, this is a far cry from their original commitment to invite “inviting speakers with a broad spectrum of opinions”, and it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that they believe in open debate.

However, someone from Manchester Art Gallery got back to me on Twitter, who said “There were some strong critical opinions aired during the discussion, it was frank, forthright and honest.” They also say they were reviewing a film of the event which would be posted online as soon as they could. It’s been three weeks since the debate now, and this video still isn’t online (at least, not that I could find on either their website or any of the social media accounts), but whatever, I can wait. What I think will be fair is to draw up some questions in advance to get some sort of objective measure of how open they are. Obviously neither I nor they have control over what questions they are asked, but I will be keeping an eye on these topics as they come up. I will think more of Manchester Art Gallery if they go out of their way to answer these; I will think less if they evade these topics as they come up.

Here are the questions I’m hoping were addressed during the debate:

  1. How long did they originally intend to remove the painting?
  2. What were their intentions when they said they hoped the painted would be “contextualised quite differently” when restored?
  3. Did they take the decision to restore the painting after a week, or did Manchester City Council threaten to overrule them?
  4. Do they concede that public opinion was overwhelmingly not on their side?
  5. Do they consider it appropriate to preside over a debate whilst taking sides so obviously?
  6. How much of the online criticism do they accept as valid and how much are they dismissing as ill-informed or abusive?
  7. Do they stand by their (implied) claims that the painting is harmful? (The claim I particularly have in mind is the parallels they attempted to draw between the painting and the sex party at the President’s Club that was in the news at the time.)
  8. What, if anything, do they have to say to those supporters of Me Too who complained this move devalued the campaign?
  9. Does it trouble them that the takedown was likened to the Degenerate Art exhibition of Nazi Germany?
  10. Will they ever give a platform to someone who opposes their actions?

These are all genuine questions, by the way. I am not intending this to be a list of accusations – there are reasonable answers to all of these. It’ll be easier if they can show some humility; harder if they double down with more of the same.

I shall return as and when I have a debate to watch. Until then, happy waiting.

UPDATE April 2019: Apologies for taking so long to get back to this, but I have now seen the video of the debate. And, Jesus, it’s painful to watch. The first half hour doubles down with the same arguments that have already faced overwhelming opposition. Absolutely no trace of self-awareness: the irony that they are claiming to champion public debate whilst ignoring or dismissing all criticisms of their position does not escape me. They came uncomfortably close to blaming their unpopularity on the journalists who didn’t agree with them.

To be fair, the few critics who were present in this debate were allowed to express their views freely, and were not dismissed or decried the same way the online critics were. I suppose I should also report that MAG does have a service to view paintings held in storage, so in theory, anyone who wanted to see Hylas during the removal could have done so. It just seems a little odd that this fact wasn’t mentioned at the time.

Anyway, I will stick to my original plan. None of these questions were directly answered – however, as none of these were directly asked I won’t hold that against them. However, they did cover some of these questions indirectly. And none of what they said was particularly encouraging:

  • Question 2: The oft talked-about “re-contextualision” of the Hylas painting was covered. They seem to be saying that how they contextualise paintings in the future, nudey ladies or otherwise, will depend on the outcome of these debates. (Whether that was their intention at the time of the removal is another question, but we’ll probably never know that.) In theory, a public debate is fine. But given their track record of responding to public debates that don’t go their way, that’s not encouraging.
  • Question 4: The neither conceded nor denied that public opinion was against their actions – but there was some evidence of getting the excuses ready. They talked about wanting “all voices” from Manchester heard, but that looks suspiciously like insinuating that the overwhelming public opposition wasn’t really representative of the public – and, if you want to be really cynical, was possibly ground work for claiming the debate was dominated by men, and it would have been different had women had their say. If that’s where they’re trying to go, it’s not true – the opposition was overwhelming amongst women as well as men.
  • Question 6: They didn’t do a blanket dismissal of all dissent as they’ve come close to doing in the past, but neither did they acknowledge any opposing views as valid. One particularly concerning bit, though, was Alistair Hudson describing some of the responses as a “violent reaction”. That is a serious allegation to make. If he or Clare Gannaway have been received actual threats of violence, I will condemn it unreservedly, but he’d have to be more specific on what this “violent reaction” is. But this had better not be another case of re-branding disagreement as threats and abuse.
  • Question 7: There was no repeat of the silly equivocation with the President’s Club sex party, but Clare Gannaway did talk about people coming to work and seeing and seeing the painting in the gallery when there’s sex clubs in the area. Is she really trying to claim the two things are in any way comparable? Come on.
  • Question 9: No direct answer, but it’s clear that comparison does trouble them because they went out of their way to dismiss the claims of censorship – not by addressing any of the arguments behind this claim, but by claiming those who made this argument of wanting to derail the debate. That is very poor form for a debate, accusing your opponents of making arguments in bad faith.

This will probably be the last thing I write about nymphgate, so I will close on one observation they made: that their action to take the painting down was a fascinating insight how to how people reacted. And yes, it was. But the more fascinating insight was how they reacted. Except that when I say fascinating, it was more disappointingly predictable. I’ve never had high opinions of the people in charge of fine art when it comes to valuing the opinions of the wider public, but this episode took things to the extreme – inviting people to participate, and then using every excuse under the sun when the public did not respond how they were meant to.

If it was just one gallery with this mindset, I wouldn’t mind. But I fear this mentality is the norm and not the exception amongst the people in positions of power in the fine arts – it’s just that MAG did it more blatantly than everyone else. MAG can change my mind at any time by attempting to engage with their critics instead of getting angry with them, but I hold out little hope of conciliation. Culture policing, I fear, has become standard practice in fine arts now. We must make sure it never spreads to theatre.

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