The year 2016 will be remembered as the year when the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle fully nodded off.
While American life, culture, and politics were exploding in every direction, the Henry gave over its biggest, best galleries to a single artist's giant wooden sculptures of Disney characters with exaggerated genitalia and multiplying heads.
Typical museum exhibitions range from three to six months in duration, but this one is 10 months.
The artist is Paul McCarthy, a darling of the market and of the white, wealthy museum and art-fair world.
The Henry did not organize Paul McCarthy: White Snow, Wood Sculptures. It's not another museum's borrowed display, curated with thought and care. No, the Henry
took the show from McCarthy's commercial gallery. [Henry director Sylvia Wolf defends the Henry's curation by noting that the Henry added several works to the lineup that originally appeared in 2013's Paul McCarthy: Sculptures at Hauser & Wirth. I would submit that an accurate description would be to say that the Henry expanded upon the exhibition that appeared at Hauser & Wirth. A viewer might then decide for herself about the significance of the difference between the two—here is a view of Hauser & Wirth, and here is a view of the Henry. I was wrong, however, to say only that "the Henry took the show" from the commercial gallery.]
It's boring, and it's part of a boring Henry, I'm sorry to say. "Irrelevant" is another word for it. After the McCarthy show closes, the Henry will follow it with an exhibition of another white male artist in his 70s, Chuck Close, whose tired works also cost millions of dollars.
The Close show will be up for nearly half a year.
That means that for the first several months of either the most frightening president in modern American history, or the first woman ever to become president of the United States of America, the Henry will offer—with its mission statement as being "internationally recognized for bold and challenging exhibitions, for pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and culture, and for being the first to premiere new works by established and emerging artists"—this guy.
Let's not forget that the Henry is the museum of the University of Washington, the largest institution of learning in our city and the one where, presumably, students from across the state and nation will, having received zero art history in public schools, get their first exposure to contemporary art.
The Henry's PR will tell you that the Close exhibition is a first—"the first comprehensive survey of the photographic work by renowned American artist Chuck Close (b. 1940), featuring over ninety photographic works from 1964 to the present. For this showing at the Henry, we are thrilled to include a selection of objects from local collections including key paintings, works on paper, and tapestry related to the photographs."
I trust that our neurons will have recovered from the "thrill" by the 90th example.
The Henry also has an exhibition by Senga Nengudi up right now. Nengudi's performances, sculptures, and photography are relevant and interesting to all kinds of current discussions about gender performance, racialized bodies, and urban gentrification and displacement. Thank you, Henry!
Yet that relevant show will be up for less than three months. It's scheduled to close this week.
The end of 2015 and the start of 2016 were marked by the Henry with a huge exhibition of works by an obscure, 77-year-old German performance artist/drawer/sculptor named Franz Erhard Walther. It lasted five months.
For another three months in 2015, the Henry presented an installation by the famous British artist Martin Creed, seen thoroughly in previous years in Seattle thanks to exhibitions by the now-defunct Western Bridge. This raises an important point: Seattle's Jon Shirley is a major Chuck Close private collector, and Bill and Ruth True are Creed supporters (Bill stepped down from the Henry board this year after more than two decades, and I don't see any controversy in it, just probably exhaustion). The Trues also love Jason Dodge (and showed him at Western Bridge), who had a large show at the Henry at the end of 2013 and early 2014.
It's not that private collectors have never had a visible hand in the Henry before. On the contrary, private collectors such as the Trues and photography collectors the Monsens have been behind some of the most interesting things ever to happen at the Henry over the years—and the Henry used to be the most interesting museum in Seattle, no competition.
It's also not the case that, taken individually, an exhibition on an obscure German performance sculptor or the remounting of a Martin Creed installation can't be actually thrilling.
But the majority of space and time at the Henry is now given to a monotonous, monochromatic, middlebrow cultural experience. It's time to acknowledge that today, the Henry is the best place in Seattle to go if you want to see a glaring number of older white, male artists whose works are pretty starkly disconnected from what's going on beyond institutional walls. You might see something a little bit "bold" and "challenging" and "boundary-pushing" stuffed in a corner; make sure you see it now, because it'll be gone soon.
The Henry's budget has
dwindled since its glory years around a decade ago. [Correction: In this I am utterly wrong, Henry director Wolf emailed. According to Wolf, "In 2006, the Henry’s annual operating expenses were $3,366,729 versus $4,720,225 in 2015. In 2006, the Henry’s program & services expenses were $2,664,038 versus $3,639,029 in 2015." For this error, I sincerely apologize.] It's a predicament most museums share right now. And some of the Henry's lack of ambition might be attributed to that. [Evidently not.]
But it's not just ambition, it's also awareness.
Where are the issues of our time inside the Henry?
The last time the Henry featured a traveling exhibition with a little heat on it was Carolee Schneemann's retrospective in 2011. That show, with works that felt urgent and in-depth on issues of surveillance, sex, and what feminism has meant and might mean, was up for a little over two months.
It was the final exhibition worked on by Liz Brown, longtime curator. Before that, Robin Held had been an ambitious curator at the Henry—not long after I arrived, she mounted an enormous, interdisciplinary exhibition of artists on genetic science and ethics. The two-part exhibition by current lead curator Luis Croquer, Here Is Also Nowhere, in 2012 and 2013, was promising, beautiful and international, quietly pressing and historical all at once. Is he just treading water in there? (Assistant curator Nina Bociznik and associate curator of programs Emily Zimmerman have limited prominence.)
Whatever the causes, director Sylvia Wolf has presided over a highly unremarkable period at the Henry.
What will history remember of American life and culture in the years approaching the 2016 presidential election?
...terror against civilians, unrelenting war across the globe, devastating recession, unrestrained growth, displacement, economic inequality, severe political polarization, racial and social injustice, and deaths on the street. Broken bodies and culture wars.
That list of current events is printed across the entry of another Seattle museum now: the Frye. It was written by departing director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker to describe the world that has been advancing alongside the recent art on display at the museum.
I am not advocating that all art, and all art museums, be judged according to relevance, a concept that can bring its own churning tyranny. Museums are places of depth and thought. They should be houses where the obscure and unfashionable can survive and thrive.
But if you're actually practicing depth and thought on yourself as an institution, you will avoid meeting 2015, 2016, and 2017 by headlining the art of one old white man after another. Wake up, Henry! Your alarm is going off and it's starting to give the rest of us a headache.
This post has been updated since publication.