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BAM Curator Quits Over Exhibit Dispute

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday May 23, 2006

After serving as a curator at the Berkeley Art Museum since September 2005, Chris Gilbert abruptly resigned because of rising conflicts with museum administrators over his controversial project “Now Time: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process,” part two of which is currently showing at the UC Berkeley museum. 

Gilbert is now in South Korea, where he is currently curator for the Gwangin ju Biennale exhibit, but he explained the reason for his April 28 resignation in an e-mail to the Daily Planet. 

“My struggles with the museum over the content and approach of the projects in the ‘Now-Time Venezuela’ series go back quite a few months,” he wrote. “In particular the museum administrators—meaning the deputy directors and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations and audience development staff—have for some time been insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary solidarity, out of the project. For some months, they have said they wanted ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’ whereas I have always said that instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignment—in brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.” 

The “Now-Time” cycle exhibit received a large response—drawing 180 visitors to the March 26 panel discussion that opened “Now-Time.” The exhibit was popular because of the class interests it stood by and because of the fact that it promoted the idea that contemporary art is in danger. 

Kevin E. Consey, museum director, told the Planet that in Gilbert’s resignation letter to Connie Lewellen, chief curator, Gilbert had offered no explanation for his decision. 

“I gather from newspaper reports that Gilbert resigned because he felt that the university did not want to support his projects and therefore he did not want to continue working here any more,” Consey said. “We recommended him, hired him, gave him a budget, sent him to Venezuela, supported him academically and even held two symposiums after he returned. It does seem strange to me that after doing all this he felt that we did not support him.”  

Consey added that he has been “perfectly pleased and happy” with the exhibit and thought that it made an excellent point about politically relevant art in Venezuela. 

Gilbert had been selected last September through a national search process for the position of MATRIX curator who puts together changing exhibits at the museum. The selection committee had been impressed with Gilbert and his earlier work, including that as curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and he had been offered a position in Berkeley. 

When asked to comment about the reasons for resignation stated in his e-mail, Connie Lewellen, BMA chief curator, told the Planet: “Chris couldn’t do the program as he wanted and therefore he wanted to resign.” 

Peter Selz, founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and a former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said he was shocked to learn of Gilbert’s resignation. (Selz wrote a review of the exhibit for the Planet.) 

“Gilbert’s work was vey politically radical in spirit,” Selz said. “I felt that the kind of politically engaged art that he was showing, exemplifying the series of videos dealing with revolutionary Venezuela, is a very important aspect of contemporary art. I feel that it was very appropriate for the Berkeley campus to exhibit excellent art of dissent. I regret that Mr. Gilbert has felt it necessary to resign from the Berkeley Art Museum after such a brief tenure.” 

Gilbert explained that his decision to leave stemmed from an argument over a text panel for the ‘Now Time’ exhibit. 

“Their plan was to replace the phrase ‘in solidarity with revolutionary Venezuela’ with a phrase like ‘concerning revolutionary Venezuela,’ for another phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity,” he wrote. 

Gilbert said he threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition if his langauge wasn’t kept. Having received no reply, on April 28, he handed in his letter of resignation and said he would cancel the show. According to Gilbert, the musuem agreed to restore his text panel as he had written it. 

“Having won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show, my last one,” Gilbert wrote in his e-mail to the Planet.  

The show is scheduled to run for two more weeks. 

According to Gilbert, the general outlines of this incident mirror the familiar patterns of class struggle. He said that the class interests represented by the UC museum, which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two things to fear from a project like his. 

“One, of course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the U.S. government and the capitalist class that benefits from that government’s policies,” he wrote. “The second threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of the ‘Now-Time’ projects . . . The museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past 30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role of class interests in this.”