Design Museum returns artists' works after arms controversy - Museums Association

Design Museum returns artists’ works after arms controversy

But museum's directors slam “professional activists” for exploiting situation
Robert Picheta
The Design Museum has returned around a third of the works in its Hope to Nope exhibition to artists who criticised its decision to host an event for an arms manufacturer.

Nearly 40 artists signed an open letter demanding their work be removed from the London museum after discovering it had hosted a reception for Leonardo, the world’s ninth biggest defence company.

The artists, whose work was being displayed in the exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18, called the museum “hypocritical” for hosting the event alongside an exhibition that featured artwork by political activists, and gave the museum a 1 August deadline to remove their works.

Among the works returned were the iconic 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” poster by the American street artist Shepard Fairey, designs by the American artist Milton Glaser, who created the “I ♥ NY” logo, and works by the British graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

In total, more than 40 works were removed. The smaller exhibition will now be free to visit until the end of its run on 12 August.

A Design Museum spokesman said: “Some artwork has been removed from the exhibition, before the exhibition closing date of 12 August, at the request of the lenders. As a result, and until the end of the run, the exhibition will now be free to visit. We are sorry for any disappointment caused for visitors.

“We believe that it is important to give political graphics a platform at the museum and it is a shame that the exhibition could not continue as it was curated until its original closing date.”

The museum has committed to reviewing its event hire policies, but said they were in line with those of other major cultural institutions around the world. The artists’ letter called on the museum to reject any funding from arms, tobacco and fossil fuel companies.

The museum’s two directors warned that the controversy risked curtailing free speech and curatorial independence at the museum.

In a joint statement published on the museum’s website, Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black said the situation had been exploited by “professional activists” whose work did not feature in the exhibition, “not all of whom are being accurate in their presentation of the situation”.

The statement said: “As an educational charity, we cannot take an overt political stance as some activists would like us to do. Recent events have shown us that breaching the laws that regulate charities could put us at risk of having our charitable status removed…
“We are in the midst of an argument not of our making. We will not be seen as an easy target and a surrogate for the real targets of these campaigners. We do not want our programmes to be co-opted by the agenda of others and we stand by our curatorial independence.”

It continued: “The outcome of these protests will be to censor the exhibition, curtail free speech and prevent the museum from showcasing a plurality of views.”

The artists intend to display their removed works in a new exhibition during the London Design Festival in September.

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