Is that a priceless modernist sculpture or a really neat climbing gym? Depends on who you ask. There’s been a flap on Twitter since Monday after a Brooklyn contemporary art dealer posted a picture she had snapped in London’s Tate Modern museum shaming a couple who were standing by as their two children climbed inside a Donald Judd sculpture.
The art dealer, Stephanie Theodore, was flooded with comments, some of them hostile, after she posted the picture, saying “Horrible kids, horrible parents.” She tweeted that she told the parents that the sculpture was worth millions, to which they happily replied that she knew nothing about kids. (She then alerted Tate security.) Sadly, comments on the U.S. gossip site Gawker, which ran a story on the incident, are now dividing between those who feel the parents are negligent and over-entitled boors who know nothing about the value of great art, and those who take the predictable line that they wouldn’t pay millions for that piece of crap. Yet again, the choices in a debate about contemporary art seem to be snooty elitism or obnoxious ignorance.
Missing in all the noise is the truth that the children’s reaction to the sculpture is not disrespectful to Judd’s art but rather a testament to its simple but powerful incursion into their space. (It’s a minimalist classic made up of 10 shelf-like rectangles, mounted against a wall; the children were sliding themselves between the slots.) If the Judd is made of materials that can’t withstand that treatment or bear the weight, and the parents were ignorant of gallery protocol that, unless invited, you don’t touch or climb, then the Tate needs to provide better signage and more security. No parents are likely to respond politely when a stranger approaches them and tells them they are in the wrong. I once rushed to pull a plastic bag off the head of a child sitting in a shopping cart while his mother had her back turned; you should have seen the look she gave me as thanks.
Another of Theodore’s pictures showed that the Judd stands beside a row of paintings that are roped off. How were the parents to know that the Judd was off limits? At the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, you are welcome to climb on and slide down the large bronze Henry Moore sculpture outside the building; indeed, its base is worn smooth by countless sliders.
Inside the gallery, on the other hand, you are not welcome to climb on or touch the plaster casts of Moore’s sculptures in the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre. Why the difference? Because the plasters are much more fragile than the bronze, so the AGO simply has a sign up requesting you not to touch, and low railings protect a few of the pieces that sit on the ground. Certain standards of behaviour may seem obvious and only common courtesy to those who visit museums and public art galleries often, but as these institutions reach out to new audiences, it is just that kind of assumption they need to avoid. It’s the Tate, not the parents, that should really think about the implications of the Donald Judd climbing gym debate.