At least six San Antonio artists said they have pulled out of a planned exhibition at the McNay Art Museum following one artist’s claim that her artwork was censored by the museum because of its content.
In a Feb. 12 Facebook post, artist Sarah Fox claimed that the museum declined a commissioned puppet animation video intended for its 8 Create [SATX] exhibition because of its sexual content. Fox said that after she refused to withdraw the artwork, the curatorial staff disinvited her from the show.
Five more artists — Lisette Chavez, Alyssa Danna, Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Xavier GiImore and Libby Rowe — slated to participate in 8 Create — titled to reflect the number of featured local artists — confirmed that they will no longer take part in the exhibition due to the removal of Fox’s work.
A McNay spokesperson confirmed that Fox declined to submit an alternative artwork to replace the video.
Fox said after several alternate options were presented to her, she told the curatorial staff, “there’s no possible way to do that, I’ve been working on this thing for a year.”
The museum spokesperson said in an email to the San Antonio Report that Fox’s video “does not adhere to the exhibition’s focus,” which in the museum’s January publication was described as interweaving works from the art collection of McNay founder Marion Koogler McNay with works by the eight San Antonio artists.
In the publication, Fox describes her work for 8 Create, titled Bad Bunny Gets Lucky, as “a surreal puppet show” that uses “humor, sexuality and rage to push back against the policing and politicization of women’s bodies.”
In a follow-up email, the McNay spokesperson specifically mentioned the video’s sexual content as raising concerns among curatorial staff.
Fox participated in a 2018 McNay exhibition with artwork focused on the history of prostitution in San Antonio and spoke on the topic during an artist talk with René Barilleaux, the McNay’s head of curatorial affairs.
She said she feels that the staff understood prior to inviting her to make work for 8 Create that her work focuses on sexual themes, and had signaled approval of a papier-mâché puppet’s animated penis before a curator declared that the work was not “family-friendly” and “would sour a visitor’s experience.”
“From the beginning, we were told we had full creative freedom,” Fox said. “I think if they had wanted me to make family-friendly work, they should have told me something when I told them I was making a work about rage and sexuality.”
The eight artists were originally asked to choose a work from McNay’s founding collection as a basis to work from in producing new artwork for the show. Fox chose a print by early 1900s-era German artist Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit übereinandergelegten Händen (Woman with Crossed Hands), a black-and-white rendering of a possibly pregnant matron wearing a dour expression. Kollwitz was known for engaging difficult themes in her work, including childhood death, grief, poverty and the deprivations and harrowing experiences of war.
Fox’s recent animation video work features a “bad bunny” puppet character with flare-red exposed breasts and lips, that drinks and smokes her way through a bout of presumed grief. The expression on the puppet’s face bears a striking resemblance to Kollwitz’s depiction.
The museum spokesperson described the process of curatorial staff working with the artists as “co-creating transformational art experiences.”
Tapestry-maker Drew Morros said she has not yet decided whether to participate in the exhibition. As an artist relatively new to exhibiting her work, she called the experience “devastating,” but said the other artists have been supportive during her decision-making process.
Morros said the museum’s charge “to make a piece that communicates with work from Marion McNay’s initial bequest, was very clear cut.” However, she said, “the museum offered no other parameters for what work we could produce as artists,” and said she wishes “to high hell that a reasonable resolution could have been found” between Fox and the museum.
After deliberations with the other artists, photographer Joshua Perez decided to remain in the show. He cited several factors, including a contract that stipulated the return of a $1,000 honorarium should he not participate, and many hours and funds already poured into making artwork.
Despite uncertainty as to how the exhibition will take shape without at least six of its artists, Perez said museum shows are rare opportunities, and the cost of pulling out of the show would be too great for him and his spouse, Klare Perez, also a photographer and his primary studio assistant.
“We’ve put so much into it. … It’s like this family sacrifice at this point,” he said. “The amount of time and effort and money, plainly, what’s been spent on our end, I really can’t see dropping out.”
Datchuk called the situation “very disappointing,” and said in an email to curatorial staff that she now perceives the McNay as “an institution that values the perceptions and opinions of its donors and patrons, instead of conceptually challenging them, over artists in their very own community.”
Datchuk said that the museum has not responded to her email.
Artists who have pulled out have received offers to show their work created for the exhibition in alternate venues, but plans have not yet been finalized, and the fate of 8 Create remains in flux. The “reimagined” exhibition remains on schedule to open March 17, according to the McNay.
Disclosure: Jennifer Ling Datchuk is a member of the San Antonio Report Board of Community Advisors. Nicholas Frank participated in a 2020 Contemporary Art Month exhibition at the McNay Art Museum.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Klare Perez’s name.