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#MeToo stories of harassment compel local artists to rethink work

A portrait by Chuck Close was already hanging as part of the Tweed Museum of Art's exhibition this year when the photorealist was accused of sexual harassment.

In response: a solo exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in Washington was indefinitely postponed. And at Seattle University, another self-portrait was removed.

At the Tweed, "Lucas/Rug" stayed up until the end of the gallery's exhibition "Treasures from Home: An Anthology of Gifts from Collectors," which was in the main gallery from mid-January to mid-August. But it included an essay for context.

"Recently, (Chuck) Close has been called out by several women that he had separately invited to model for him," Ken Bloom, the Tweed's director, wrote in an essay that hung alongside the artist's work. "Each has claimed to have been harassed by his crude language, particularly about aspects of their bodies, and inappropriate touching."

The addendum considered the question of character versus work versus the current political climate and if the artist — in this case a popular photorealist known for his oversized portraits — should have his work reconsidered.

It's been just more than a year since the most recent wave of #MeToo, a movement that was reignited when high-profile actors like Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon shared stories of sexual harassment and rape via Twitter with the hashtag and, in some cases, with major news outlets. Many of these accusations are set within the world of arts and entertainment: Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K., actor Kevin Spacey, writer Junot Diaz, actor Scott Baio, comedian Aziz Ansari and many more.

The #MeToo movement has in some cases changed the local conversation with artists, promoters, instructors and aficionados.

"It became evident that we should respond," Bloom said. "My thinking is that if I went and decided to challenge the artwork in the collection of every artist who is misbehaving, it would be a big problem."

Instead: "I posed the question of how to interpret the work knowing the behavior of the artist," he said. "The audience would read the piece and decide for themselves."

CLOSE CALLS AND OTHER QUESTIONS

Bloom's response to the Close piece is in line with what the Guerilla Girls propose. The anonymous collective of feminist activists makes grand gestures to showcase sexism and racism in the art world — traditionally from behind gorilla masks. The Guerilla Girls offered three options for labeling Close's work, ranging from one that is friendly toward billionaire trustees to one for museums that are conflicted to one that is straight up GG-approved.

For his "Portrait of Bill Clinton," which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.: "Chuck Close has had a huge career with prices to match. He has been accused of sexually abusing models, and students he picked up at fancy art schools. How fitting and ironic that he painted the official portrait of Bill Clinton."

Jamie Ratliff, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been teaching art history from a feminist perspective for a long time. She said she is glad to hear more conversations about how we should value the work of artists who have exploited people.

She was on board with the Tweed's response to the portrait.

"I thought it was a good example of what museums need to do," she said of the added text panel.

(Note: Close told the New York Times that he has a dirty mouth and apologized if he embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable.)

Anne Dugan, who teaches art history and gallery practices at the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior, respectively, said the questions of artists' morals is one that has been brought up in both of her classes.

"How do we reckon with artists who are horrible human beings?" she said of artists in general.

And, Dugan asked, is there a difference between Pablo Picasso, who is from a much different time, and Chuck Close, who can make different choices today.

IN OTHER #METOO ARTS NEWS

Brittany Lind of Femn Fest is a local music head who promotes shows via her Twitter handle @ellipsisduluth. She has enough ties with the scene to know which bands have problematic people — though, she said, there are not many.

"If I know that someone has done something wrong," she said, "I straight up won't book them."

This becomes a little more gray in promotions. If a problem person is on a bill with non-problem people, she might still Tweet about it. She won't take it out on the entire lineup.

"It depends on the level of what I've heard," she said.

For Robert Lee of the Duluth Playhouse, the #metoo movement has helped him focus on the programming at The Underground. The popular "What She Said" festival is a collection of one-act plays written by and celebrating women. It predates the current wave of #metoo, but he said it was a similar energy that helped to build it.

In August, Lee staged "I Am My Own Wife," a one-actor show based on the real story of a transgender woman who lived — and collected vintage pieces — in Nazi Germany. Part of his goal is to find more female voices, directors and actors to work with.

"I think (#metoo) has changed the conversation," Lee said.

Dustin Tessier, a Duluth-turned-Minneapolis-based artist who performs as Timbre Ghost, was moved by the movement to create.

"It allowed me to examine my past and put it against other persons who had shared very personal and insightful and painful stories," he said.

The result: His to-be-released album is built around his own experience of sexual assault. In the first single, he repeats: "You're not alone."

CONSUMING ART (AND POP CULTURE)

Brittany Lind has been revisiting 1990s pop culture — specifically the TV shows and music. While she is doing it just for the love of the 1990s, she has found at least one former favorite unwatchable. "Saved By the Bell," she's found, does not stand up in 2018. The sitcom is based on an eclectic mix of high school tropes, including the always conniving Zack Morris, the handsome wrestler, the nerd, the cheerleader, the fashionista and the feminist.

It's the sexist comments, she said. And even the character Jessie Spano, who is quick to call out a misogynist, offered up bad relationship to a male friend: "Don't take no for an answer," Lind said.

On the other hand: "Home Improvement," Lind said, is surprisingly awesome. "Boy Meets World" also stands up, she said.

"Topanga, obviously, is super awesome," Lind reported.

Dugan admits it's a bit of a contradiction: She was proud of the efforts that went into creating a diverse program for Free Range Film Festival, the two-day movie festival held in her family's 100-plus-year-old barn in Wrenshall — but she also spent money to see the movie "A Ghost Story," starring Casey Affleck as the titular ghost. He spends much of the movie with a sheet over his head.

Affleck was the subject of two sexual harassment civil suits and ultimately settled in both cases.

"We have to be honest with our choices," Dugan said.

SO WHAT NOW?

More than an individual artist's biography, Dugan said she is focused on adding more artistic voices. In her own curating, she said she is sensitive to the depictions that are offered in movies and visual arts.

And in teaching, she has gone beyond the textbook to consider pop culture. Consider Hannah Gadsby's Netflix comedy special. Dugan called the Australian artist's "Nanette" one of the most powerful voices of the year. The queer comedian's show, which often leans serious, considers mental health, homophobia, assault, mansplaining and her own reluctance to continue in this style of entertainment. The New Yorker said of it:

"Gadby's material is almost two years in the making and seems to harness the broader fury of the #metoo moment. Gadsby, like many women, is done hiding her anger and in 'Nanette' she bends the bounds of stand up to accommodate it."

Ratliff said it's important to deemphasize the idea of the masculine genius — which tends to be a straight white man. At Prove Gallery, where she is on the board of directors, the mission has always been to break with the status quo.

"We're seeing a wider appreciation" from the public, she said.

Ratliff said that in the past few years, she has started looking more closely at local artists than well-known artists.

"I think by doing that, it gets us away from the systems of power and the power structures that rule the art world," she said.

She recommends Carla Hamilton, who recently showed "Minnesota Nice" at Prove. Also, painter Sarah Brokke.

Tessier, too, is looking to local artists. Both Low and Gaelynn Lea have new albums that are resonating with him. But he also wanted to be part of the conversation, and the best way to do that, for him, was through art.

"I have to open up," he said. "It felt like the words just came out. I felt like 'This, I can feel comfortable with sharing.' Especially if it helps other people to be able to connect."