Date of Award

2018

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Art Business

First Advisor

Elizabeth Pergam

Second Advisor

Stephan Pascher

Abstract

Over the last two years, museums in New York City have experienced a rise in protest and backlash against the display of works of art, particularly those that are perceived as offensive, controversial, and relevant to current sociopolitical issues.

This thesis explores three case studies of controversy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all of which faced protest and public criticism over particular works of art and responded in a unique way to their respective scandal. This study is comprised of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The first chapter outlines important topics within the field of art law that specifically relate to museum controversies including statutes, legal standards, and precedents set by landmark cases in the United States. The second chapter discusses the controversy that erupted at the Met in 2017 over the display of Balthus’ Thérèse Dreaming (1938) due to its perceived relevance to sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement. The third chapter explores the controversy over the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) in the 2017 Whitney Biennial in relation to racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement. The fourth chapter discusses the controversy at the Guggenheim Museum over three works of art in the 2018 exhibition, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, where the museum was accused of supporting animal abuse.

By exploring these controversies and analyzing each museum’s response, this thesis examines the tensions between legal and ethical obligations that art institutions have to their mission and to the public, as well as provides guidelines for how museums should respond to controversies over works of art in the future.

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