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Art Exhibit Closes Early Amid Sexual Harassment Claims Against Photographer

Apr 13, 2018
Originally published on April 13, 2018 8:01 pm

A large retrospective celebrating the photographer Nicholas Nixon has come down 10 days early, amid sexual harassment allegations against the artist.

Nixon, 70, is best known for "The Brown Sisters," a series of portraits of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters, taken every year for more than four decades. The sisters stand close together, always in the same order. They stare intently at the camera, not smiling.

Diana Crane remembers the first time she saw it, years ago at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She says she sat in front of it for over an hour.

"I was so taken by it, and so moved by," Crane said. "I just found it extremely powerful."

When she heard that the exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston would be closing early, she rushed over to see it.

"I literally cleared my calendar to get here this morning," Crane said outside the museum. "I was supposed to come on the 20th with a group of friends. And when I heard the report last night that it was closing, I said, I have to get there."

But Crane said this time it wasn't quite the same.

"Because of the controversy, I was really, really sad, on a lot of levels," she said after looking at Nixon's work.

Nixon retired abruptly last month from his teaching position at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design amid allegations that he sent students sexually explicit emails, asked them to pose nude for him, and showed them photographs of his own genitalia. The Boston Globe reported on this behavior last week, having interviewed more than a dozen students.

After that report, the Institute of Contemporary Art was faced with a decision. The exhibition had been on view since December and would come down April 22. But many people who commented to the museum questioned whether it should be taken down sooner.

The museum decided to keep the exhibit on view as planned. In a sign posted in the gallery, it addressed the allegations in a written statement and said this was a "difficult decision."

"There are divergent opinions within the ICA community and our publics around this decision," the statement went on. "In the end, we have kept the exhibition on view with a commitment to thoughtful and due process, open dialogue, and debate." The sign also invited viewers to comment on the issue on an open online forum, which has since been taken down. Several comments, including from ICA staff members, expressed "disappointment" and even shame at the decision to leave the exhibit up.

Then, a plot twist: Nixon himself asked for the work to be taken down.

In a letter to the ICA's director and chief curator, the artist wrote that he "believes it is impossible for these photographs to be viewed on their own merits any longer.

"In response, with deep regret, and only after careful thought, I believe it is more respectful to all concerned — to your mission, and to the work itself — to take down the show ahead of schedule, and remove the exhibit as soon as possible."

The museum honored the artist's wishes, disassembling the exhibition the following day. The news is what led art lovers like Crane to rearrange their schedules — to see "The Brown Sisters" for what she believes could be the last time.

"A part of me feels like, we'll never see it again," she said. Though she supports the #MeToo movement and understands why it will be difficult for museums and galleries to show the work in the future, she does feel a sense of loss.

"I have really mixed emotions about the whole thing," she said.

The photography community and art community at large are struggling too, with whether one can or should separate art from the artist.

Natalie Schaefer, an artist and photographer in Boston, said that showing and celebrating Nixon's work contributes to the power he has over young women.

"He wasn't just a professor," she said. "Half the reason [photography students] go to MassArt likely is because they know he works there. So they already really respect him as this celebrity."

Other photographers feel that his entire body of work should not be lost because of the recent allegations.

"He's done a lifetime worth of work," said Nina Berman, a photographer and professor at Columbia University. "When did this bad behavior begin? So, you know, say, the first 30 years of his life, the pictures are OK to show, but the more recent pictures aren't? You can't really judge someone's creative output that way."

The ICA staff say they don't know what will happen to the photos now that they have been removed.

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