Sex and power at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Detail of Dona Lief, “Silence of Abuse” 1995, part of a Chuck Close counterpoint exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Linda Lee Alter Collection. PAFA.

In December, allegations of sexual harassment and crudity were leveled at artist Chuck Close, whose photographic work is the subject of a major retrospective now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through April 8.

The following month, in response to the allegations, the National Gallery in Washington decided to postpone a planned Close exhibition then scheduled for May; it has since been postponed indefinitely. Seattle University removed a Close print from view in its library.

At PAFA, the staff met the day after the allegations surfaced to discuss what to do in this #MeToo moment. Taking down the exhibition was not a viable option, Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the PAFA museum, said Monday.

“The notion of taking down the show, from my vantage point, was an act of censorship,” Anderson said. “It’s quite different to cancel a show than to take down a show in a museum context. To cancel a future show — we do that all the time in our business. But to actually close a show that’s actually on view to the public is quite another thing.”

After a PAFA-wide forum in January, which brought in students from the academy’s school, staff members, teachers, curators, and administrators, the decision was made to mount another exhibition, a counterpoint to Close, with programming that would focus on the large issues the Close allegations raised.

“The Art World We Want,” a small exhibit consisting of old and new works from PAFA’s permanent collection, was pulled together quickly and went up last month.

It consists of about 20 works of art in a gallery adjacent to the Close exhibit and is intended to highlight issues of white male power in the art world and to populate the museum gallery with diverse images often absent from those precincts.

Works by Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, Dona Lief, Christina Ramberg, the Guerrilla Girls, Mequitta Ahuja, and others are grouped beneath questions stenciled on the gallery walls: “Who has the power to speak about women’s bodies?” “What other myths has power enabled?” “Who do we need to hear more from?”

Camera icon PAFA
 “Aaron” (1941) by Thomas Hart Benton, part of a PAFA exhibition mounted to highlight issues of power, race, gender, and identity concurrent with a Chuck Close retrospective.

“What you see here are a bunch of different ways to explore power, and we wanted to show the voices that are rarely seen in a museum exhibition,” said Anderson.

What better way to start off such an exploration than to hang empty frames at the exhibit’s start, provide a stack of Post-It notes, and invite a community of students, artists, and visitors to make their suggestions of what the frames should contain?

In fact, the notes — there were hundreds in the frames and on the walls Monday, although many had already been taken down (and saved) to make room for more — are really the stars of this show. Right off the bat, there’s displeasure.

Camera icon PAFA
Post-It notes cover a timeline along one wall where students, museumgoers, and staff poured out their thoughts about the state of the art world and what should be done to address issues like gender inequity and sexism.

“This exhibition is inadequate and cowardly and is not the result of community discussion at the forum and fails our request for change,” reads one note. The first picture frame contains a note that says, “Stop seeing women as objects.”

Some others: “Stop thinking women are just here for your enjoyment.” “Break the f-ing rules.” “Help your generation make change.” “Nothing.”

“In that [forum] discussion we conceded to the idea of placing collection work ALONG SIDE his [Close’s] work, not separate from it and poorly displayed.”

And the inevitable drawings of a cat and an early childhood bud of male power: “Boys rule.”

“I think we’ve provided our audience with an opportunity to have a conversation about the power base and the power that we want in the future,” said Anderson. “And I feel that as a museum and as an art school, we don’t always have those conversations. … We want to be a place where people with different points of view can come together and share those points of view and hash things out with us.”

On April 8, the last day of the exhibition, PAFA will host “Guerrilla Warfare: Screen Printing Your Protest,” a workshop using Guerrilla Girls posters as inspiration for making new posters.





The Art World We Want

    • Through April 8 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Hamilton Building, 128 North Broad St. Information: 215-972-7600 or