What the McNay’s rejection of Sarah Fox’s work says about contemporary art in San Antonio

click to enlarge These puppets feature in the video commissioned by the McNay. - Instagram / foxsar
Instagram / foxsar
These puppets feature in the video commissioned by the McNay.

The McNay Art Museum's rejection of a commissioned piece from a local artist over its sexual content has forced the museum to rework the exhibition and local creators to question its commitment to fostering the city's contemporary art scene.

In a February 12 social media post, Sarah Fox announced that the museum had rejected a video clip of a puppet show she submitted for an upcoming exhibition focused on the collection of founder Marion Koogler McNay. Museum officials objected to the clip, which features a pair of papier-mâché puppets engaged in an illicit encounter.

The decision to reject Fox's video has kicked off a broader debate in the San Antonio arts community about what kind of work is valued, which artists wield power and who decides what's exhibited.

Since the McNay's refusal, five of the seven other artists from whom the museum commissioned pieces for its exhibition — Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Xavier GiImore, Lisette Chavez, Alyssa Danna and Libby Rowe — have pulled out in solidarity.

A McNay spokesperson said that the exhibit is "being reimagined to include an even greater focus on the legacy of our founder, Marion McNay." It's still scheduled to open Thursday, March 17, with just two of the original artists.

In a statement provided to the Current, McNay spokesperson Rachel Trevino said the museum raised concerns about the video when it was first shared with the curatorial team February 1. Members eventually asked Fox to submit a different piece, which the artist declined to do.  

"The video by Sarah Fox created for the exhibition does not adhere to the exhibition's focus on our founder, Marion McNay," Trevino wrote. "The artist's decision to diverge from the show's original thesis — and subsequent refusal to work with the Museum's Curatorial team on realigning with the exhibition focus — is not in step with the McNay's co-collaboration process."

Not a literal interpretation

It's unclear on what grounds the museum judged Fox's work as having diverged from the show's original thesis. Fox told the Current she followed the spirit of the original guidelines. 

Fox explained that when she and the seven other artists were invited to participate in the exhibition in December 2020, officials told them their work should be inspired by a piece in Marion McNay's original bequest. However, the museum noted that their work needn't be a literal interpretation of the source material. 

Fox went through McNay's original bequest and found her inspiration: a print by a German artist Käthe Kollwitz of an older, tired-looking woman clutching her belly. 

"[Kollwitz] is a huge feminist," Fox said. "It's working in the same line — albeit very contemporary and in a different way — as the same kind of work she was making. She was super political." 

Fox and other artists also argue that museum representatives knew full well what they were getting with her work, which frequently explores sexual themes. In an early Zoom meeting with museum representatives, Fox offered to respond to the Kollwitz piece with one of three options: a lithograph print, a quilt or a puppet show. 

"I showed them the last puppet show I had made, which was called Bad Bunny, and it was this rabbit chain smoking and gyrating and twerking all by herself and getting blackout drunk and falling down," Fox said. "I showed them that work, and they said, 'We want you to do another puppet show.'"

So, she set about the arduous process of creating the show, building a character and recruiting other artists to participate. At a Zoom check-in, McNay representatives approved of drawings she made for the show, according to Fox. She thought the museum was excited about the piece.

However, six weeks before the exhibition was set to open — and after Fox's extended family made plans to travel down from New Jersey for opening night — she found out that wasn't the case. 

click to enlarge Artist Sarah Fox said her willingness to explore themes of gender, sexuality and class is relevant in understanding the McNay’s decision. - Instagram / foxsar
Instagram / foxsar
Artist Sarah Fox said her willingness to explore themes of gender, sexuality and class is relevant in understanding the McNay’s decision.

No full explanation

Fox and museum representatives went back and forth on proposals for how to keep the work in the exhibition. The artist declined to make a new piece of work or show an old one, but said the museum declined her offer to show the work in a separate room with a content warning so viewers could decide for themselves whether they wanted to engage with it. 

Shortly after, Fox announced that she'd been disinvited from the show — at which point, the five other artists dropped out as well. Some said they were stunned by the suddenness of the museum's decision not to accept Fox's video. 

"The institution has shown work similar to that before, and they know what the artist's work looks like and what they have done in the past," interdisciplinary artist Gilmore said. "If that was a concern, it should have been made [clear] in the beginning."

Datchuk said no one from the McNay tried to convince her or the other departing artists to stay. Nor did officials fully explain their decision to reject Fox's piece. 

"They had a line, which they were not comfortable showing Sarah's work — which was news to us. Because if that was in the contract or part of the stipulation of showing, I would have said no from day one," Datchuk said. "I think it shows very much that they don't care about the community that they live and work in." 

The artists said the decision to remove Fox's work reflects on the kind of content that ruffles feathers in the city's often-conservative institutions.

"I think overall, the city kind of enjoys more traditional forms of art — and by that, I mean things that look nice," Gilmore said. "Work that is challenging isn't always accepted."

'Supposed to start a dialogue'

Challenging work should be expected in a contemporary show that asks artists to interpret and reflect on a person's existing work and legacy, Fox said. In contrast, the reimagined McNay exhibition will be more of a "historical show than a show about contemporary art," she added. 

"I think it does a disservice to San Antonio as a whole to assume that people are not going to get this and not spend the time to try to understand what the work is about," Fox said. "And some people will get offended, but that's OK! Art is supposed to start a dialogue."

An accomplished artist whose work has been shown around the country, Datchuk questioned whether Fox's video would have been more upsetting than work already on display at the McNay. 

"I can't help but point out the hypocrisy in this, in that ... sexual themes and even violent themes are hung and shown in their work, but it seems the themes that often gets silenced or policed are dealing with women's histories or stories," she added. 

Fox said that the fact that she's a woman whose work deals with themes of gender, sexuality and class is relevant in understanding the museum's decision. 

"Society as a whole is terrified of women expressing their sexuality," she said. "Women from the beginning of art have been displayed as objects of desire for male sexuality — museums are full of that — and I do think part of [the censorship] is because I'm a woman making work about sexuality. They're not used to that. And I think it scares them."

People interested in seeing the pieces originally commissioned for the show will still have their chance: the artists' work will be on display starting Friday, April 1 at Blue Star Arts Complex's C136 Blue Star space. An opening will run 6-10 p.m.

That show will stand in contrast to the exhibition at the McNay, Fox said.

"When the McNay does stuff like this, it holds us back from being a real, grown-up, contemporary arts city — which we are," she added. "I think decisions like this to cancel out controversial work is a sort of a small-town thing to do."

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