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In an age of #MeToo, artists accused of misconduct are seen in a different light

Chuck Close is famous for his large-scale portraits in contemporary art museums across the world. But recent allegations of sexual harassment have prompted museums to postpone an exhibition and remove his work. It's yet another flashpoint in a national reckoning over abuse, and how we reevaluate the art of those accused. William Brangham sits down with Kim Sajet of the National Portrait Gallery.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: how the MeToo movement is leading to difficult questions in the world of art and among renowned museums around the country.

    There's long been debate about whether one can, or should, separate the work of a great artist, such as Picasso, from their personal behavior.

    William Brangham looks at how that question is taking on renewed urgency.

  • William Brangham:

    Chuck Close's large-scale portraits hang in contemporary art museums across the world. They have been heralded for their innovative, creative approach to this oldest of art forms.

    But does your view of his work change once you know this? In December, two women told The New York Times that Close had asked them to model naked for him, requests that made them feel exploited and uncomfortable. One artist described how, once Close asked her to take her clothes off, he started telling her about sexual acts he performed and asked highly invasive questions about her intimate grooming.

    Close apologized for making inappropriate remarks, telling The New York Times, "Last time I looked, discomfort wasn't a major offense. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry. I didn't mean to."

    The fallout came just days later. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., postponed an exhibition of Close's work planned for may. Seattle University also removed one of his paintings.

    But many of his famous works, like this one of President Bill Clinton in the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, are still on display in museums around the country.

    The controversy over Close is yet another flash point in a national reckoning, as women come forward with their stories of abuse and harassment at the hands of powerful men across numerous industries.

    The MeToo movement has forced the country to take as second look at art and weigh the personal behavior of those who create it. How do we reckon with the works of people who've been accused of terrible things? It's a question being asked in circles well beyond the art world.

    Sometimes, the response is swift and clear-cut.

  • Louis C.K.:

    Some things don't change, and some things I'm sick of, like the constant — just the constant perverted sexual thoughts.

  • William Brangham:

    Last fall, the comedian Louis C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct with several women. In short order, FX Networks canceled their production deal with him. He no longer serves as executive producer or gets compensated for his four shows on the network.

    When actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy, director Ridley Scott scrambled to reshoot his scenes with a different actor for the film "All the Money in the World" with actor Christopher Plummer.

    One of the most polarizing examples, filmmaker Woody Allen. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow first came forward in 1992 with her allegations that Allen abused her beginning when she was 7 years ago. Allen denies this.

    But he's largely retained his vaunted artistic status in Hollywood, and has continued to make films with major stars.

    Farrow spoke out recently, accusing those who continue to work with Allen, while also supporting the MeToo movement, of hypocrisy.

  • Dylan Farrow:

    With so much silence being broken by so many brave people against so many high-profile people, I felt it was important to add my story to theirs, because it's something that I have struggled with for a long time,

  • William Brangham:

    Actress Kate Winslet recently suggested she had bitter regrets about working with men like Allen.

    This week, a Connecticut theater said it was canceling a production of Allen's musical, "Bullets Over Broadway."

    So how do we wrangle with the artistic works of people accused of awful behavior? And how are these issues now reverberating in the world of fine art?

    There's a wide spectrum of voices on this topic. And, tonight, we talk to a prominent art museum director who's wrestled with this very issue.

    Kim Sajet is director of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Kim Sajet:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's talk about this case of Chuck Close.

    The National Gallery of Art said , in light of these allegations, we are going to put off this exhibition of his work.

    I know you have a piece of his work in your gallery. How do you all reckon with this? These accusations exist. The man is a great artist. What do we do?

  • Kim Sajet:

    I just came from a meeting of the American Directors Association. We were literally in San Antonio talking about this.

    And I think we're all trying to get it right. We're all trying to think about it. I would say that the fact that — let's say the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has an exhibition up right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Of Chuck Close's…

  • Kim Sajet:

    Of Chuck Close's photographs.

    And I think that the director there has done absolutely the right thing. They didn't have a knee-jerk reaction. They stopped, they thought about it, and they said, let's really have a conversation.

    Now, of course, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is an art school. It has students, and they have a very strong tradition of drawing from live models. So for them, it also has this extra dimension. And they have decided that, in conversation with their student body and their patrons, that they will now do a second sort of display and exhibition talking about the relationship between the artist and the model.

    And I think that's a very smart idea, because, at the end of the day, museums are about conversations.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think the National Gallery's decision was a knee-jerk reaction?

  • Kim Sajet:

    I can't speak for them, but I understand in some ways that you don't want the allegations of Chuck Close to become the story.

    Are you really — you know, I think we feel that Chuck Close is an amazing artist. You can't talk about portraiture without talking about Chuck Close, but they must have felt at a certain point that that wasn't going to be what people were looking at.

  • William Brangham:

    So, more broadly, how do we reckon with the work of someone who is accused or proven to be a predator? Should that affect how we see the work? Should it affect whether we even see the work?

  • Kim Sajet:

    At the Portrait Gallery, we have a lot of people who have less-than-laudatory lives, right, not just those who have been accused of sexual harassment, such as Tupac Shakur or Floyd Mayweather, but murderers like John Wilkes Booth or gangsters like Al Capone.

    Now, our strategy has always been to be very up front about what those people did. But at the end of the day, we were set up by Congress to talk about the men and women who have made an impact on American history and culture. And they have.

    And Chuck Close has. He's in the collection both as an artist, but also as a sitter. So he sort of plays this double role.

    So we really — we write 140 words, English and Spanish, about the biography of that person, and they can often get rewritten. So we will change, you know, the context of someone as time goes on.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that there's a risk in condemning an artist for one part of their life? I'm not saying that it should be excused, but do you think that there's a risk that we cast aside an entire body of work because of the behavior at one slice of their life?

  • Kim Sajet:

    I do think that we need to slow down a little. I'm not saying we do nothing, but I do think having a dialogue and being very careful and deliberative about what the messaging is, because, as we know, a lot of fabulous artists have been — you know, had questionable morals, and yet, you know, we still enjoy Picasso, for example, or Cellini, who was definitely accused of sexual assault.

  • William Brangham:

    Diego Rivera.

  • Kim Sajet:

    Yes. I mean, the list goes on, right?

    So, what I found actually interesting is that they have tended — of course, they're artists long dead. And they haven't related specifically to contemporary times.

    In the Portrait Gallery, we have lots of sitters. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that we have actually had to deal with an artist's reputation. But, again, there is a tendency, I think, to have a knee-jerk reaction. I would caution everyone to slow down.

    I would also say that museums are the one place that you can have a dialogue. And so I think one of the things we talked a lot about was, you know, do you provide an avenue for the public to really talk about, you know, how they feel about this?

  • William Brangham:

    This reminds me a little bit of the debate that we had over Confederate monuments.

  • Kim Sajet:


  • William Brangham:

    Some people argued, unsuccessfully largely, that the monuments should stay up, but we should then wrap them in context and talk about who put them up, and why they were put up, and what the person on the top of that statue did in their life.

    Do you think we can do that for an artist? Can you do that with a large, powerful piece of artwork? Can you wrap it in enough context so that you would feel comfortable, if this person had done awful things in their life, that that context would be meaningful for a viewer?

  • Kim Sajet:

    Yes, I mean, I do think so.

    I'm not condoning that person. I don't think we can excuse sexual harassment in any form. But I do think putting it in the context of how that may have informed that person's work, the social mores at the time.

    And we know, of course, that our approach to sexual harassment is very different from what it was back then. I remember there was a quote done of Lord Byron. He was mean, bad and not to be trifled with, sort of, and it was seen in this idea of the artist as being somehow exempt of the social mores, right, this idea that somehow artists get a pass on good manners.

  • William Brangham:

    And that would be a fuel for brilliance in art.

  • Kim Sajet:

    Brilliance, and somehow — and I think we're now at a point where we say, well, there is no excuse for all sorts of behaviors.

    But does it change? I think the question is, at the end of the day, is it still good art? And it doesn't excuse it, but it is certainly something that adds to that story.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the merits of the art itself matter in this case, you would argue, that Chuck Close is, as you were saying, when you talk about portraiture, you can't not talk about Chuck Close, and so we have to take him in the fullness of his humanity.

  • Kim Sajet:


    And I would say that the actions of people who have changed this country, good and bad, matter, just like what we do today matters. If we were to have an opinion of culture and only just look at the great things, we wouldn't learn from the lessons from the worst things.

    In fact, I often think that the more interesting conversations when you talk to people about regret, things that they were not able to achieve, and I would encourage us to have more of that conversation.

  • William Brangham:

    Kim Sajet of the National Portrait Gallery, thank you so much.

  • Kim Sajet:

    You're so welcome.

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