Artists Protest Museum’s Cancellation of Michael Fried-Inspired Show


Eight artists who would have been included in the exhibition Three American Painters: Then and Now at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) have penned a letter to the board of directors to protest the show’s abrupt cancellation earlier this month and the termination of its curator.

Conceived as a reimagining of art historian Michael Fried’s 1965 show Three American Painters, the SBMA’s exhibition was developed by former Deputy Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng, whose role was eliminated by Director Amada Cruz.

“The show was typical of Kahng’s work, in the sense that it addressed important moments in the history of modern art that were of major importance but underserved in the critical literature,” the letter reads, citing the curator’s 13-year track record at the institution including shows exploring Van Gogh and his inspirations and Picasso and Braque’s Cubist experiments.

“But, despite the success of Kahng’s earlier efforts, Cruz decided the show was ‘too academic.’ Worse still, having cancelled the exhibition, she then went on to cancel its creator, taking the outrageous step of dismissing Eik Kahng and appointing herself to Kahng’s position,” the missive continues.

noland
Kenneth Noland, “Interface” (1973). Noland was one of the three “American painters” in the original 1965 show, along with Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. (© The Kenneth Noland Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The letter was mailed to individual board members on Friday, January 26, and is reproduced in full at the end of this article. It is signed by Willard Boepple, Luc Delahaye, Anthony Hernandez, Joseph Marioni, Larry Poons, Stephen Shore, and James Welling — seven of the 22 artists selected for the SBMA show — and by the Jules Olitski Foundation, which represents the estate of the artist, one of the three “American painters” included in Fried’s original presentation along with Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella.

Kahng’s exhibition aimed to examine the legacy of Fried’s show of modernist paintings at the Fogg Art Museum, considered a precursor to his 1967 essay on theatricality in Minimalism “Art and Objecthood,” through the lens of works by contemporary artists and photographers. Years in the making and set to open this summer, the exhibition was nixed by Cruz shortly after she assumed the role of director in October.

In a statement to Hyperallergic, Cruz said that the show was canceled in line with the aim of making the museum “more inclusive and more reflective of Santa Barbara County’s diverse community,” adding that the show and catalogue “fell short from a diversity perspective.”

“It was determined that the best way forward is to cancel this exhibition and focus our limited resources elsewhere,” Cruz said. “We regret the impact this may have on those involved especially Michael Fried, the artists, their estates, lenders, and the talented writers who contributed.”

Participants who spoke to Hyperallergic expressed shock that an exhibition and publication would be scrapped altogether at such a late stage, with funds and loans already secured. Some said that in addition to diversity concerns, museum leadership had brought up a line in a private letter from 1967 in which Fried used a homophobic slur to describe certain aspects of Minimalism. The SBMA has not provided a reason for Kahng’s termination.

“We consider these recent developments not only alarming but also insulting — to us, to the Santa Barbara art community and indeed to all artists,” the recent letter reads. “What is happening at SBMA now threatens the institution’s public and scholarly missions.”

Read the letter from the artists to the SBMA’s board below.


Board of Directors, Santa Barbara Museum of Art

January 26, 2024

Dear Director,

Over the past three years, Eik Kahng, chief curator and deputy director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) has been working on an exhibition that would aim to do two things: restage the 1965 Fogg Art Museum exhibition Three American Painters, which was created by the important critic and scholar Michael Fried, and complement that restaging with a selection of new works related to those earlier paintings in various ways. The ambition of the show was to facilitate a deeper understanding of a largely neglected moment of high modernism and to open a conversation about the ways in which some of the most celebrated art of the last thirty years — paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, video — has continued to be invested in the issues raised in that moment though of course in new and surprising ways.

To these ends, an extensive array of loans was arranged — this being one of the most ambitious exhibitions in the museum’s history — and a catalogue (to be distributed by Yale University Press) with an introduction and four essays was written and produced. The show was typical of Kahng’s work, in the sense that it addressed important moments in the history of modern art that were of major importance but underserved in the critical literature. Previous exhibitions focusing on cubism in the years just before collage and Vincent Van Gogh in his late nineteenth-century context attracted lively public interest and attention in the popular press while also providing forums for serious new scholarship on neglected topics.

A few weeks ago, the SBMA’s incoming director, Amada Cruz, decided to cancel the exhibition. The manuscript for the catalog was complete and about to enter the design stage, and the show was set to open in early July. But, despite the success of Kahng’s earlier efforts, Cruz decided the show was “too academic.” Worse still, having cancelled the exhibition, she then went on to cancel its creator, taking the outrageous step of dismissing Eik Kahng and appointing herself to Kahng’s position. This despite the fact that she has no training or qualification to curate while Kahng has been Chief Curator at the museum for thirteen years (and at several major institutions prior to that) and has served in recent years as deputy director, with responsibility for major aspects of the museum’s operations.

It’s appalling to imagine that a show could be cancelled and the deputy director fired because her exhibition was deemed “too academic” by a newly arrived director scarcely familiar with the exhibition’s reasoning and development and ignorant about or just contemptuous of the interests of the community her museum has been serving with great distinction. Even the most casual web search will suggest that Cruz’s career has been controversial. And as we see it, the latest turn of events at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which began within weeks of her arrival, trivializes art, condescends to its audience, and continues Cruz’s pattern of controversial leadership, while determinedly overlooking the high pitch of Kahng’s career of work there. We, the artists involved in the exhibition, protest the cancellation of the show and the firing of the Chief Curator. We consider these recent developments not only alarming but also insulting — to us, to the Santa Barbara art community and indeed to all artists. What is happening at SBMA now threatens the institution’s public and scholarly missions.

Sincerely,

Willard Boepple, Luc Delahaye, Anthony Hernandez, Joseph Marioni, Larry Poons, Stephen Shore, Jim Welling, Jules Olitski Foundation


Editor’s note 1/30/24 10:07am EST: This article has been updated with a quote from Amada Cruz, Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.



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