The Royal Ontario Museum has hurried together a summertime display devoted to the #MeToo movement to coincide with a photography exhibition by an artist accused of sexual assault.
The ROM will announce on Friday that Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs will open July 21 and will be accompanied by a free exhibit titled #MeToo and the Arts. A tricky balancing act between showing a controversial artist and acknowledging his accuser, the approach is a marked contrast to institutions that have simply cancelled programming in the face of #MeToo allegations.
The Toronto museum had yet to publicly announce the Singh show, which was the subject of an art performance and protest by the Brooklyn-based artist Jaishri Abichandani when it made its debut at the Metropolitan Museum’s Met Breuer satellite location in New York last year. Singh, a prominent émigré photographer, was well-known through art books filled with colour images of Indian life. He is acclaimed for successfully introducing colour to street photography at a time when Western photographers felt it cheapened the documentary value of the work. He died in 1999 at 56.
Abichandani says that when she was a young artist in 1995, Singh invited her to India as an unpaid photography assistant whose travel would be covered by his publisher. On the trip she believed to be a professional opportunity, she says was coerced into sex despite her repeated refusals; before the age of cellphones and international bank cards, she said she was trapped and forced to acquiesce.
Modernism on the Ganges has already visited Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts this spring without much public discussion of Abichandani’s accusations, but ROM staff felt they could not host the show without acknowledging her. After consulting a committee of community members and arts professionals, the museum decided that the Singh show would be exhibited largely unchanged from its New York version. However, a parallel display, located before the museum’s turnstiles, would include Abichandani’s accusations and address the impact of #MeToo on the arts in a documentary manner.
“We feel it’s important to do the [Singh] exhibition and not avoid it, because if you avoid it, nobody is learning,” ROM chief executive Josh Basseches said this week, arguing the museum should be a public space where difficult issues can be explored.
ROM curator Deepali Dewan, who is organizing both shows, said Abichandani’s accusations had made her feel “shocked, concerned and confused, both as a woman and as a curator,” but also made her reconsider how power is at work in photography. “You can’t go out into a busy street in Bombay and take a photograph as a woman,” she pointed out.
The ROM’s approach contrasts strongly with that of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It surprised observers in January when it indefinitely postponed exhibits devoted to painter Chuck Close and photographer Thomas Roma after both were accused of sexual misconduct. That museum argued the focus on the artists’ personal lives made it an inappropriate time to unveil the exhibitions.
Kavita Dogra, a women’s rights activist in Toronto and one of the community members the ROM consulted, said each situation will be handled differently, but she was pleased with the ROM’s solution: “When you don’t do the show, you are shying away from the conversation and the conversation needs to be had. I think what they are doing is going to have a greater impact … As a cultural institution, they had an opportunity to set a precedent.”
Abichandani, who came forward with her story when the Singh opening in New York coincided with the #MeToo movement outing sexual predators, said she is generally happy with the museum’s response. “That is the gauntlet I threw down for people to take up this conversation at an institutional level. I think the ROM is taking the lead in how to respond.”
Abichandani has never called on museums to cancel the Singh show but says the media attention paid to her story has brought her some peace. Her one complaint about the ROM’s response is that the museum chose not to display her own work, specifically a recent sculpture titled Predator at Rest that shows Singh in bed naked with his camera beside him.
“I’m 70-per-cent happy,” she said of the ROM’s solution. “Raghubir is dead; I will never get justice, but I feel heard and vindicated.”
Abichandani will not be speaking at the ROM but thematic programming associated with the exhibits does include speakers on how museums should respond to #MeToo and how power is exercised in photography, as well as several film screenings.