Wellesley’s Davis Museum Removes 120 Immigrant Artworks in Protest of Trump Travel Ban
Visitors strolling through the Davis Museum at Wellesley College earlier this week would have seen a portrait of George Washington, dressed in a blue suit jacket with his hair freshly powdered, displayed on a gallery wall.
Today, however, the painting—completed in 1796 by Swedish-born artist Adolf Ulric Wertmüller several years after immigrating to the United States—will be taken down in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Between February 16th and 21st, there will only be empty space where the artwork once hung.
This de-installation is part of the Davis’s new initiative, “Art-Less,” in which the museum will remove or conceal all works on display in its permanent collections galleries that were either created by, or donated by, American immigrants. The initiative is the latest in a series of art-world protests against the executive order issued by Trump on January 27th, which temporarily prevented visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Although lower courts have blocked the travel ban indefinitely, Trump has responded by saying that his team will soon file a “brand-new order” to achieve the same goal.
In total, the Davis will take down or shroud in black cloth some 120 works—about 20 percent of the museum’s collection currently on view. Each of the works’ labels will be marked with a tag that reads either “made by an immigrant” or “given by an immigrant” (or, in the case of Wertmüller’s presidential portrait, both: The painting was gifted by the Munn family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden after World War II). On the list is Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, Canadian-born Agnes Martin, Cuban-born Ana Mendieta, and English-born Thomas Cole, among others.
“I think visitors will have a profound awareness of the enormous contribution that immigrants have made, even just within this building, and extrapolate from that,” the director of the Davis, Lisa Fischman, told Artsy.
Traditionally, museums aren’t prepared to deliver speedy responses to current events; most exhibitions take years, even decades, to organize. But Fischman said the quick turnaround for “Art-Less” was made possible by three years of research that went into the re-installation of the Davis’s permanent collection, completed last fall.
“We were perfectly poised to respond to this executive order on immigration in the sense that we had, by chance, by serendipity, a lot of deep research in hand,” she explained. “We all felt we needed to respond to the concerns and anxieties raised by this executive order and wanted to find a positive way to articulate the contributions of immigrants to our sphere. And we figured that not only could we demonstrate the contributions of immigrant artists, but we could demonstrate the contributions that immigrant donors had made here as well.”
Every permanent collection gallery will be affected, although the African gallery will see an outsized impact. Nearly 80 percent of these works were donated by the Klejman family, immigrants from Poland following World War II who eventually sent their daughter to school at Wellesley. The early American galleries will be heavily affected as well, offering a stark visual reminder that in the first days of nationhood, practically all U.S. citizens were immigrants.
The Davis is not the first museum to respond to the executive order—New York’s Museum of Modern Art made headlines two weeks ago when it shuffled the contents of its galleries to display works by artists hailing from the countries affected by Trump’s executive order. In hopes that other museums will also highlight the contributions of immigrants to their collections, the Davis has made its “immigrant” labels available for download on its website.
For her part, Fischman isn’t sure about the short-term effects of art world protests. But she does see an opportunity for museums to influence the future. “From my perspective, academic museums carry forth an educational mission, so we are responsible for engaging students through art with the world,” she said. “But we also understand those students as the next generation of citizens, and that seems important. Art may not change policy, but it can certainly influence the ways that people encounter and experience the world. Museums can be activists in that way.”