The Top Art News Stories of 2017—Part 2

Here’s part two of the top 20 art world news stories from this year, arranged in chronological order.

11  Several former top South Korean government officials received prison time for their roles in blacklisting thousands of artists in the country.

A court handed down stiff sentences on July 27th to several prominent political figures in South Korea who were accused of abuse of power and perjury, among other charges, the New York Times reported. The accused were top members of the administration of ousted South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office by the country’s constitutional court for corruption in March. They faced charges for their role in secretly ordering the blacklist of thousands of artists because of their politics, barring them receiving government funding or support. News of the blacklist first surfaced last year, prompting widespread outrage in South Korea. Among the six officials sentenced is Kim Ki-choon, former chief of staff to President Park Geun-hye, who received three years after being convicted for creating the blacklist, then lying about his role before South Korea’s parliament. Kim Jong-deok, a former culture minister, was sentenced to two years for similar charges.

12  The Guggenheim pulled three artworks featuring live animals from an exhibition amid allegations that the works contained animal cruelty.

The Guggenheim removed two videos and one sculpture from “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” on September 25th, citing unspecified but “explicit and repeated threats of violence” as the reason. The exhibition opened without the three works on October 6th. Controversy around the exhibition erupted in late September and initially centered on Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), a video work by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu that shows restrained dogs on treadmills running in an attempt to fight one another. The work quickly drew criticism, including a petition calling for “cruelty-free” exhibitions at the museum, which gained 600,000 signatures in five days. Two other works, A Case Study of Transference (1994) by Xu Bing, a video showing live pigs mating, and Theater of the World by Huang Yong Ping, the exhibition’s titular work of live insects and reptiles devouring each other, were also not shown. While animal rights activists and some art historians applauded the move, critics charged that the museum had censored the works. “As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art,” the museum said in a statement. “Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”

13  The United States withdrew from UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization.

The U.S. Department of State cited “the need for fundamental reform” and “continuing anti-Israel bias” at UNESCO, along with “concerns with mounting arrears” owed by the U.S. when the move was announced on October 12th. The tangible financial and legal impact of leaving UNESCO, experts say, are few. The U.S. had its UNESCO voting rights suspended in 2013, after two years of refusing to pay dues, following the acceptance of Palestine into the cultural organization as a full member in 2011. The withdrawal halts the increase in owed dues that the U.S. would have to pay if it wished to reenter UNESCO at any point in the future. America’s annual contributions amounted to, then, around $80 million, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget, and the U.S. owes in the region of $550 million to the organization. Audrey Azoulay, who was elected as UNESCO’s director-general just one day after the U.S. announced its withdrawal, has said that U.S.’s departure is “not the beginning and end” of the agency.

14  Beatrix Ruf resigned as director of Amsterdam’s influential Stedelijk Museum amid allegations of conflicts of interest.

The allegations stemmed from Ruf’s operation of a private art advisory service while serving as director, and the terms attached to a major donation to the institution last year. Ruf’s resignation came after a pair of investigations were published by the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. One of the reports revealed that Ruf earned €437,306 in 2015 from her private art advisory company, Currentmatters. The Stedelijk’s annual report from the same year—which specifically provides a space for the museum to disclose its director’s activities outside of her employment there—includes no reference to Currentmatters (which is registered in Switzerland), nor to any income she derived from it. A statement posted on the museum’s website on October 17th cites “speculations in the media over the past weeks that may have an impact on [our] reputation” as the reason for Ruf’s departure. Ruf called the allegations a “misunderstanding,” in a November interview with the New York Times, telling the paper that she “reported everything in good faith” to the Stedelijk Museum and that the payment to Currentmatters was mainly for services rendered prior to her assuming the role of artistic director. Ruf is frequently cited as among the contemporary art world’s most influential players, and served as the director of the Kunsthalle Zürich for 12 years before taking up her post at the Stedelijk in 2014.

15  Several prominent art world figures—including Artforum publisher Knight Landesman and artist Chuck Close—were accused of sexual misconduct.

Landesman, the longtime co-publisher of Artforum, resigned on October 25th following allegations of sexual harassment first reported by Rachel Corbett in artnet News. The same day, Amanda Schmitt, a former employee of Artforum, sued both the publication and Landesman for defamation and retaliation, among other allegations, asserting that she was sexually harassed both during and after her time at the publication. Both Landesman and Artforum each moved to dismiss the lawsuit in December. In October, the publication vowed to “transform Artforum into a place of transparency, equity, and with zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind.” Landesman is one of several high-profile men in the artworld to be accused of sexual misconduct in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, including former Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmann and Benjamin Genocchio, who was removed as executive director of the Armory Show following allegations made against him in the New York Times. Artist Chuck Close was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in December, including one who said he had invited her to pose for him before asking her to strip naked and then made lewd comments about her vagina. Close denied the specific comments, but apologized to any he made feel uncomfortable. “Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense,” he told the New York Times.

16  Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art was purchased by a Chinese investment group, securing the 798 Art District landmark’s future.

Art collector Guy Ullens, who co-founded and financially supported the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), put the institution up for sale in 2016. It spent an uncertain year on the market before selling for an undisclosed amount to the investor group in October. Previously a private company, the UCCA will now operate as a non-profit and tax-exempt foundation. Director of UCCA, Philip Tinari, has said he expects the new status as a foundation will allow the institution to raise additional funding and improve exhibitions and visitor traffic. He also affirmed that the museum has received assurance that it would remain in the 798 Art District for the long term. “Our mission continues to be a desire to put Chinese art in a global context, to provoke and stimulate a discussion about a vital part of art history,” he told the South China Morning Post. Ullens’s decision to sell the museum raised questions about the sustainability of China’s private museums and art centers, institutions that are individually owned and dependent on those benefactors for funding. The center is slated to soon undergo renovations, reopening in 2018 with a solo show of artist Xu Bing.

17  Documenta 14 ran a major €5.4 million ($6.3 million) budget deficit.

Curated by Adam Szymczyk, the fourteenth edition of Documenta ran up a deficit due in large part to Szymczyk’s decision to host the quinquennial art exhibition in Athens, Greece, in addition to the event’s regular location of Kassel, Germany, according to the findings of an independent auditor. The deficit prompted the resignation of Annette Kulenkampff, the CEO of Documenta’s parent company, on November 27th, artnet News reported, along with criticism of Szymczyk’s handling of the event’s financials. But the curator and his team have remained defiant since news of the deficit was first reported by German daily HNA in September, arguing that all of the Documenta stakeholders approved of the dual-venue format, and that “the money flowing into the city through the making of Documenta greatly exceeds the amount the city and region spend on the exhibition.” Documenta’s artists have come out in support of their curator, penning two open letters in defense of the show. Despite initial concerns that the cost overrun could endanger future editions, officials confirmed that Documenta’s 15th edition will run from June 18th to September 25th, 2022 in Kassel, The Art Newspaper reported.

18  Abu Dhabi acquired Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) for a record-smashing $450 million.

The work sold after 19 minutes of bidding at Christie’s post-war and contemporary sale on November 15th. The final $450 million price, including fees, is the most ever paid for a work of art, well above the rumored $300 million that billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin paid for Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) in 2015. The identity of the buyer of the Leonardo remained a mystery at the time, but an article in the Wall Street Journal in early December identified a little-known Saudi Arabian prince, operating as a proxy for the country’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as the bidder. Saudi authorities quickly denied that the crown prince had been behind the work’s purchase, and Christie’s released a statement confirming that the work was acquired by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened to the public on November 11th. One person “briefed on the deal” told the Financial Times that the Saudi government had purchased the work for the United Arab Emirates, the federation that includes Abu Dhabi, saying, “It is supposed to be a state to state gift, like when France gave the Statue of Liberty to the US.”

19  A tomb in Jerusalem was built by ancient Romans to mark the burial place of Jesus Christ, research suggests.

Researchers tested mortar found inside the purported tomb of Christ, which is located within Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to determine if its age matches historical accounts of the site. Some scholars had questioned whether the church—which has been destroyed, damaged, and rebuilt several times over thousands of years—actually marks the site that ancient Romans (dispatched to the region by Emperor Constantine), identified as Christ’s burial place in around 326 A.D., according to historical records. Previously, the oldest materials in the Church have been dated to the much later Crusader period. But new research released on November 28th by a team from the National Technical University of Athens found that the mortar used within the tomb, opened in October of 2016 for the first time in centuries, does indeed date back to roughly 345 AD, suggesting that it is the tomb identified by ancient Romans. “While it is archaeologically impossible to say that the tomb is the burial site of an individual Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth,” wrote National Geographic, “new dating results put the original construction of today’s tomb complex securely in the time of Constantine.”

20  British artist Lubaina Himid became the first woman of color and the oldest artist ever to win the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art award.

Himid was presented with the award on December 5th at a ceremony held in the northern English city of Hull, where her work is on view until January 7th in an exhibition dedicated to artists shortlisted for the prize. The 63-year-old Zanzibar-born artist—whose work deals with race and black identity—grew up in London and lives in the northern city of Preston. In her acceptance speech, broadcast live on BBC News, Himid thanked the Turner Prize jury and her supporters. “To the people who have stopped me in the streets of Preston and Hull to wish me luck—thank you, it worked,” she said. Himid also thanked the art historians who wrote about her practice in what she called the “wilderness years.” Administered by London’s Tate, the Turner Prize was founded in 1984 and “aims to promote public debate around new developments in contemporary British art” with the annual £25,000 award going to a British artist deemed to have an “outstanding exhibition or other presentation” in a given year.

Artsy Editors

Header image by Eduardo Munoz/Getty Images.