(New York, NY) — PEN America today said a decision to postpone a retrospective of artist Philip Guston’s work—set to open at four museums around the world starting next summer—sends a chilling message about the state of artistic freedom. The traveling exhibition, scheduled to be on display at the National Gallery of Art, the Tate Modern, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, had already been postponed amid the pandemic.

Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of free expression programs, said the following:

“It is shocking to see museums suggest that artworks should not be exhibited because there is a ‘risk that they may be misinterpreted.’ No work of art should ever have to meet such a litmus test, and to present it as a rationale for postponement sets a dangerous precedent for artistic freedom globally. Perhaps the museums saw a legitimate need to further contextualize Guston’s work to reflect the present global reckoning with racism, but their statements instead reinforce the perception that elitist institutions underestimate the general public’s capacity to engage with art. In doing so, they seem to abdicate the very role museums are intended to play—to challenge the viewer, to present diverse perspectives, and to educate the public via thoughtfully presented content. 

“If additional work was needed to contextualize the exhibit in response to recent events, the museums should have moved quickly to make that happen without causing further delay. But to significantly delay the exhibition of an artist whose work was intended specifically to expose the horrors of racism and to challenge the complacent, on the presumption that the public is not equipped to understand it, sends exactly the wrong message. These institutions have relinquished an opportunity to foster dialogue and demonstrate art’s relevance to the urgent issues of this moment, choosing instead to silence an artist at the very moment when his work could provide a meaningful contribution to that public conversation.”