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What to do about controversy?

October 14, 2008

Art has always been controversial.  Even artists like Monet were not free from criticism for being too “out there”.  When Monet was working, art critics often would joke that his paintings were made up of spots and splashes and weren’t worth looking at.  Art critics even called Impressionist works l’ecole des taches, the school of spots.

Poppies Blooming, 1873, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Poppies Blooming, 1873, Musée d Orsay

Then the critics and art galleries even went so far as to put up signs outside of Impressionist exhibitions warning pregnant women they might miscarry if they looked at the paintings.  Apparently the art was too shocking.  Now  Impressionism is seen as pretty and even cliche.

Controversial art is something I think a lot about.  When I’m done with school I’d like to be part of a communications department at an art museum or gallery.  What if the gallery or museum I am working at decides to purchase something controversial or have an exhibit of controversial art?  At the beginning  of the year, the Museum of  Danish Cartoon Art in Copenhagen was talking about buying the cartoons of Muhammed that sparked all those riots and lead to around 100 deaths.  How would I, as a public relations professional, handle the communications surrounding something like that?

It would be my job to defend, explain and provide justification for the museum’s choice to display controversial art.  The public and the media would need to know why the museum thought the artwork was important and worth preserving.

Doris's Crack at the Tate museum

Doris's Crack at the Tate Museum

Controversy is something that most companies and organizations try to steer away from.  At an art museum it’s different, they choose to display controversy for the world to see.  Sometimes people even have to interact with the controversial art if  they want to come to the museum, which is the case with Doris Salcedo’s crack at the Tate.

PR professionals from all areas of the career need to think about controversy and how to handle the media.  What would you do if your company or client entered into a controversy willingly?

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One comment

  1. I think controversy is sometimes a good thing. Many things that were shocking at their outset are now accepted widely. Rock and Roll, Elvis, especially anything art related. Those things are often at the fringes of normalcy often stir up fear and mistrust from people not comfortable with them. I think controversy can also sink you sometimes. Don Imus and his racial comment, Janet Jackson and “Nipple-gate.” I think sometimes stirring up trouble can be beneficial but it can also ruin you, you have to make a concerted effort and weigh the options before you go and do something bold because it can either secure some legacy or make you the pariah of the nation.



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