In October, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia opened an exhibition of photography by the celebrated artist Chuck Close. In December, two women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against the artist.
The National Gallery of Art indefinitely postponed a Close exhibition that it had planned for this year. PAFA, with a Close exhibition already on its walls, decided to use the show to start conversations about sexual misconduct in the art world.
As soon as its art school semester resumed in January, PAFA held an internal forum with students, faculty, staff, art historians, and invited artists. They discussed power dynamics in art schools, artist studios, and museums.
Some advocated shutting down the Close exhibition immediately, saying it should already have been closed, according to museum director Brooke Davis Anderson.
Others thought ending the show would be wrong.
“I felt strongly that if we took the show down — which would have been very unusual for a museum to do — we would be halting the conversation that had begun with this forum,” said Anderson, a new PAFA hire who was not involved in bringing the Close show to the museum.
Following those conversations, PAFA next week will mount a companion exhibition with a dozen works selected from its collection to encourage viewers to talk about how power is wielded in the art world. That exhibit will provide means for viewers to respond: writing notes on paper, making art, and sending emails to PAFA.
“It’s inviting an opportunity to talk about power, to talk about gender, to talk about how we can be part of the transformation, in the future,” said Anderson.
Close is known for painting large-scale portraits, for which he sometimes photographs the subjects nude. The traveling exhibition, “Chuck Close Photographs,” presents the artist’s photography as stand-alone artworks into which Close invested much creative energy and technical innovation.
Curator Terrie Sultan said Close used models as tools to achieve his creative vision. “He didn’t seek out particularly interesting-looking people, he just asked friends,” she said in October when the show opened. “They weren’t supposed to capture a perfect moment. He uses the world ‘dumb’ to describe it. Not meaning stupid, just not inflected. There’s no sense of, ‘Smile big!’ or ‘Exude life!’”
In the exhibition catalog, Close is quoted as saying, “Anyone who says making a nude isn’t about sex is lying. Everyone who does a nude is thinking about sex. There is flirtation, seduction, and winning of confidence.”
Close, who uses a wheelchair due a spinal injury in 1988, has been accused of treating his female models in a sexually degrading way.
The main Chuck Close exhibition will not be altered before it comes down, as scheduled, in April, she said.