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MOCA Abruptly Fires Chief Curator Helen Molesworth—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week

01  The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, has fired chief curator Helen Molesworth for “undermining the museum.”

An email was sent Monday to the trustees of MOCA, Los Angeles, informing them that Molesworth was “stepping down” from the role, with the implication that it was her choice. But on Tuesday, the artist , a board member, told Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight that she had spoken to director Philippe Vergne on the phone, and he said he had fired her for “undermining the museum.” Knight reports that Opie responded to Vergne by saying, “I think you have made a terrible mistake.” Molesworth joined the museum in 2014, having previously been the chief curator at the ICA Boston, and has long been a champion of artists and movements that have not gotten their institutional due. A rehang of MOCA’s permanent collection in January 2016 was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “upending the story of art.” Perhaps this clashed with the aims of Vergne, and the museum’s board; a statement provided by MOCA alluded to “creative differences,” and sources told Knight that “conflict had arisen between Vergne and Molesworth over the direction of the artistic program, with Vergne assuming curatorial duties less commonly the purview of a museum director.” The firing comes in the wake of artist backing out of being honored at the museum’s annual gala because the honorees had not been diverse enough—as Grotjahn said in a statement, “our country and the world have changed in ways that were difficult to anticipate.” That news came in February, about two weeks after the artist , who is gay and Latino, stepped down from the board because of a lack of shared vision among the museum’s board members, curators, and director.

02  Architect Richard Meier will take a six-month leave of absence from his firm after five women accused him of sexual harassment.

(via the New York Times)
Several women who worked for detailed a range of allegations against the star architect, including that he exposed himself to them in his home, and that he asked one woman to undress so he could photograph her naked. Richard Meier & Partners is considered one of the most prestigious architectural studios in the world, and Meier has designed buildings such as the Getty in Los Angeles and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. But one employee who detailed allegations against Meier to the Times, Stella Lee, said she was warned to watch out for Meier by another employee of the firm. Several women reported Meier’s behavior to management, and the firm was required to hold sexual harassment training as part of a $150,000 settlement with an employee. “We did everything we could to look into the claims and set up a strong sexual harassment policy and training,” said Scott Johnson, the firm’s previous COO who dealt with two of the complaints. Several of the allegations reported by the paper centered on young women just starting out in their careers. Judi Shade Monk told the Times that Meier put his hand on her back and “started to roll my underwear around in his fingers” at an office party just a few months after the 26-year-old started working at the firm. A fifth woman, who was not an employee, said “she had to flee [Meier’s] home after he forcefully pulled her onto a bed” during an incident in the 1980s, the New York Times reported. Meier, a Pritzker Prize winner who recently established a graduate scholarship at Cornell University to support women architects, told the paper he is “troubled and embarrassed” by the accounts, adding, “While our recollections may differ, I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my behavior.” The firm will be managed by four associate partners during Meier’s absence.  

03  Guards at the National Gallery of Art say their work environment is hostile.

(via the Washington Post)
A Washington Post investigation found that security guards at the National Gallery of Art, a partially federally funded institution on the Mall in Washington, D.C., say they work in a hostile environment characterized by large wage and racial disparities between security officers, who are largely minorities, and their managers, who are mostly white. “Sexual harassment, various instances of discrimination and retaliation are among the top complaints,” according to 17 employees interviewed by the Post. A female guard who alleged harassment had to take a training course led by her accused harasser; another guard was suspended without pay for reporting a sleeping supervisor, because he was said to have gone outside the chain of command, the Post reported. The chief of the security division told the Post that he could not comment on specific allegations, but said his division “take[s] any harassment or discrimination claims extremely seriously.”

04  An anti-opioid activist group led by Nan Goldin staged a protest in the Met’s Sackler Wing over the museum’s connection with the Sackler family.

(via the New York Times)
On March 10th, protesters tossed hundreds of pill bottles reading “OxyContin” and “prescribed to you by the Sacklers” into a reflection pool located inside of the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The protest was led by photographer , who formed the anti-opioid activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, after experiencing addiction to the painkiller OxyContin from 2014 to 2017. The protest group demanded that cultural institutions––such as the Met, the Guggenheim, and Victoria and Albert Museum––refuse further donations from the Sackler family due to certain members’ investment in Purdue Pharma, the company that developed OxyContin. In addition, the group called on Purdue to fund treatment for those addicted to OxyContin, which was misbranded as less addictive than other painkillers. A Purdue spokesman told the New York Times that the company was “deeply troubled” by the opioid crisis and was taking steps to stem the crisis. Some descendants of the family have stated that they have not profited from OxyContin, with Elizabeth A. Sackler, whose name adorns the Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, calling Purdue’s role in the crisis “morally abhorrent.”

05  Russian legislators passed a new law that will reduce import and export restrictions on contemporary art.

Until now, art made in the last 50 years has been categorized as a luxury good subject to high import dues of 30 percent and other restrictions, which some Russians blame for stunting the growth of the country’s art market. But those tight controls, originally implemented by lawmakers to prevent a drain of culture following the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be lifted by a new law passed at the end of January. The change comes after lobbying from some of Russia’s monied art collectors, who have access to President Vladimir Putin and will benefit from the change, The Art Newspaper reported. But some hope that the liberalization of restrictions on the art market will bring benefits for the Russian public by fostering contemporary art in the country and making it easier to open and run museums. “I really hope that, from this moment, it starts to work in a normal way, like everywhere else in the world,” Anton Belov, director of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, told The Art Newspaper.

06  Museums in Argentina are only lighting works made by women in response to gender equality marches.

Last week the movement Nosotras Proponemos—or “We Propose”—organized a 700,000-strong march through the streets of Buenos Aires, demanding gender parity in all aspects of Argentinian life. One of the proposals involves improving the vast difference in how male and female artists are treated by the country’s top cultural institutions. The National Museum of Fine Arts has only had two shows devoted to female artists in the last five years, and in the last 17 years, only 30 percent of the artists chosen to show at the country’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale were women. Nosotras Proponemos detailed a lengthy list of demands to correct the imbalance, and some of Argentina’s museums responded with a performative gesture: More than 30 institutions had agreed to dim the lights of artworks made by men throughout their galleries, shining a light only on work by women for at least a portion of the day. National Museum of Fine Arts artistic director Mariana Marchesi admitted that there was much work to be done, but the museum was happy to inch its way toward Nosotras Proponemos’s goals. “Yes, the proportion of women in our collection is low—around 500 works out of 13,000—but we are committed to take up Nosotras Proponemos’s valid arguments, discuss the current imbalance and make a change, where we can,” she told a reporter for Hyperallergic.

07  Lawmakers in West Virginia passed a bill that would entirely cut the state’s Department of Education and the Arts.

The state’s House of Delegates passed the measure on Saturday, voting 60-36 to entirely eliminate the state’s arts agency and the role of Secretary for Education and the Arts. Governor Jim Justice has not said whether he will sign the bill into law, tweeting after the vote, “When HB 4006 comes to my desk I will evaluate whether it creates any unintended consequences before making a decision.” Though he may not sign the legislation, on Monday, Justice fired the state’s Secretary for Education and Arts, Gayle Manchin (whose husband is U.S. Senator Joe Manchin). Some delegates are highly concerned about the fate of West Virginia’s arts if the bill does go through. “Always, always the first thing to cut is the arts,” grieved Democrat delegate Larry Rowe. The bill follows on the heels of a strike organized by West Virginia teachers, which shut down schools for nine days until lawmakers granted a 5% raise—though they said it would be paid for with funding cuts, not new revenue.

08  The Cooper Union announced it will return to full-tuition scholarships for all students.

American industrialist Peter Cooper founded New York’s Cooper Union in the 19th century on the belief that education should be “as free as air and water.” The school upheld that vision until 2014, when former president Jamshed Bharucha introduced paid tuition for students, causing widespread uproar. But on Wednesday, after many years of financial turmoil, protest, and resignations, Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees and the school’s president, Laura Sparks, who replaced Bharucha, approved a comprehensive plan that will return the school to its free-tuition policy. The plan, which was constructed by the school’s Free Education Committee (FEC), intends to generate $250 million and gradually increase scholarships until free tuition is returned in 10 years. It also proposes the possible sale of the Stuyvesant-Fish House, a piece of real estate used to house Cooper Union’s presidents and their families. For many in the Cooper community, this return is a major milestone. “The Trustees, a majority of whom are alumni, understand that the decision to begin charging tuition in 2014 deeply fractured the community,” read the board’s announcement. “We are still in the process of healing those divisions. We cannot erase the past, but we must learn from it. The Board bears responsibility for strategic and financial oversight of the school. We know we must do better.”

09  A Spanish counter-terrorism law is stifling online creativity and artistic expression, Amnesty International warned.

The human rights organization highlighted instances in which Spanish authorities have used a law criminalizing the “glorification of terrorism” or “humiliating victims of terrorism” to persecute social media users and artists in ways that amount to “a chilling attack on freedom of expression,” according to the group. In 2017, 39 people were charged under Article 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code, which Amnesty charges is vague and ill-defined. One of those charged was Cassandra Vera, a 22-year-old student who made a Twitter joke about the assassination Franco confidant Luis Carrero Blanco—even though the niece of Blanco opposed the student’s prosecution. While Vera was convicted and given a suspended sentence of one year in prison, courts in Spain have rolled back some prosecutions under the law, and Vera’s sentence was overturned. They also shelved an investigation into a puppet show that allegedly supported terrorism, but Amnesty warns that the law has created a climate of self-censorship and a fear of engaging in political satire. The European Union is implementing a directive on terrorism in September that includes language similar to the Spanish code, specifically that “glorification” of terrorism may be criminalized.

10  An Albuquerque jewelry dealer accused of selling counterfeit Native American art will be the first individual sentenced following a federal investigation into the $1 billion-a-year industry.

Nael Ali, who pled guilty to pawning off cheap imports as authentic Native American goods in October, will be sentenced next month. The case is seen as a test of whether a years-long federal investigation into fraud in the Native American art trade will yield substantive punishment that counterfeiters of indigenous work often evade. Passing off goods not made by Native Americans as authentic is a federal crime that comes with up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, though some view that as inadequate and offenders have rarely been prosecuted, reported National Geographic. The case against Ali is one of several to emerge from Operation Al Zuni, an investigation that spanned three years and saw authorities using invisible ink to track shipments of foreign goods that were then passed off as Native American after arriving in the United States. Authorities ultimately charged Nashat Khalaf, who runs the import and distribution firm Al Zuni Global Jewelry, and his family, along with four members of the Aysheh family, a seperate group who also ran a large-scale import operation. Lawyers for members of the Khalaf family deny the charges. The four Aysheh brothers have yet to enter a plea after being charged in February of last year. Their trial will begin in October.

Cover Image: Portrait of Helen MolePhoto by Kathryn Page/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.