When the St. Louis Art Museum announced that George Caleb Bingham’s “Verdict of the People” would be sent to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump, local artist Ilene Berman took to Facebook to express her displeasure. She had plenty of company.
So Berman decided to take action on those frustrations outside the social media echo chamber. She and art historian Ivy Cooper launched a Change.org petition to try and halt the museum’s loan of the Missouri artist's painting. So far they’ve gathered over 3,000 signatures.
“For me it’s not really about the fact that my candidate didn’t win, because that’s happened many, many times," Berman said. "I think it’s because the incoming administration represents something outside the norms of partisan differences,” she said.
Berman and others opposed to the loan say Trump made racist and misogynist statements while campaigning and since the November election continues to offend many Americans.
In late June, Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s staff told the museum he would be considering various artworks for display during the inaugural luncheon. Blunt later met with the museum’s registrar and the curator of American art to look various works. Among the works discussed was Bingham’s painting, in large part because of its strong pro-democracy content.
Blunt formally requested the “Verdict of the People” loan in September and the collections committee of the museum’s board unanimously approved the request in December. Berman and Cooper started the petition soon after the loan was announced.
The conflict between petition signers and the museum administration can be traced to a fundamental disagreement about what’s at stake in the loan: petitioners see the loan as collaborating with someone they say has treated so much of the electorate disrespectfully. The museum administration sees the loan as respecting the office of the president.
Berman said she doesn't have an issue with the museum loaning work for an inauguration. But she said she’s distressed that the museum would loan work for an event supporting Trump. She said his insults of minorities, women, and people with disabilities compel her to voice opposition.
“It’s more about the ideas that this particular candidate expresses, and what the impact will be on the most vulnerable and the larger community,” she said.
The museum’s decision is based on the artwork's use for the inauguration of a president, not the individual elected to office, St. Louis Art Museum head Brent Benjamin said.
“The museum takes no position on candidates for public office, nor do we support or oppose individuals elected to such offices, but the museum does support the office of the presidency itself,” he said.
Benjamin said the museum has strong working relationships with the Missouri’s congressional delegation and the Senate’s formal request is significant.
“Our view is that, you know, when the U.S. Senate requests a loan from the art museum it’s really an honor for us to participate if we’re able to do that,” he said.
Berman hopes the museum will reconsider its decision but said the petition also serves to remind local institutions that they should remain mindful of their constituency’s desires when making decisions. She said people in her social circles responded particularly strongly to the loan of a painting titled, “Verdict of the People.”
“Given all the difficult obstacles to voting there are in this country as well as the mismatch between the popular vote and electoral vote — to me it seems particularly unfit — also in light of the expressed values of hatred, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia from the president elect,” she said.
Benjamin, Berman, and Cooper will meet later this week to discuss the petition and the museum’s decision.
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