30-Foot Painting of the K.K.K. Puts a Museum to the Test

AUSTIN, Tex. — The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin knew it had a painting on its hands that required sensitivity: a 30-foot-wide panorama by the Houston-based artist Vincent Valdez that imagined a modern-day Ku Klux Klan gathering. And a string of recent art-world controversies had emphasized the need for such curatorial caution.

A painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated body by a white artist drew protests at last year’s Whitney Biennial, and images of black people smeared with chocolate and toothpaste by another white artist angered African-Americans in St. Louis. Last September, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis dismantled a gallows-like sculpture after Native American leaders said it evoked a mass hanging of Dakota Indians in 1862.

So after acquiring Mr. Valdez’s four-panel painting in 2016, the Blanton spent two years preparing for the work’s public debut on July 17. To display the painting, the curators had a special gallery built with a sign warning that the work “may elicit strong emotions.” Such warnings are relatively rare. The National Coalition Against Censorship’s “Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy,” endorsed by several of the country’s leading museum advocacy organizations, suggests that “written warnings or disclaimers should be informational and not prejudicial.”


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