Visual Arts

(UPDATED) Menil To Remove Controversial Art Guys Piece From Its Collection Property

Update: The Menil Collection has clarified that The Art Guys Marry a Plant has not been removed from its collection, just moved from its property.

And "The Art Guys Marry a Plant" saga continues.

Less than two years after the Menil Collection acquired a controversial piece by the Houston duo that some critics say is anti-gay marriage and homophobic comes news that the tree and its commemorative plaque will be removed from its collection property.

Glasstire broke the news Friday night by posting just this statement from the Art Guys:

The Menil Collection has decided to remove "The Art Guys Marry A Plant" from their collection. Tentative plans are to remove the tree and plaque and return them to us soon, perhaps sometime next week, although the specifics have not yet been determined. We offer this news to you without further comment. We have nothing further to say right now.

Thank you.

Michael Galbreth Jack Massing

This is just the latest in a story that has intrigued many in the local arts community given the major players involved and its implications for public art, artist intent and institutional responsibility. Here's a quick timeline to catch you up to speed on the life of the tree thus far:

  • June 13, 2009: The Art Guys marry a live oak sapling in a public ceremony held in Museum of Fine Art's Cullen Sculpture Garden. The piece sparks criticism for "reinforcing the homophobic 'slippery slope' argument," argues then-Houston Chronicle art critic, Douglass Britt, who is gay. The Art Guys contend that this work isn't anti-gay marriage and doesn't mean anything beyond the act itself.
  • March 2011: The Menil Collection quietly acquires the piece and plants the tree on its grounds. It later announces plans for a dedication in the fall.
  • November 18, 2011: Britt preemptively responds to the dedication with a performance art piece of his own. In "The Art Gay Marries a Woman," he finds a Houston woman on Twitter to marry, Reese Darby, to show "what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like." He also henceforth goes by Devon Britt-Darby and, in a tangential event, loses his post as art critic for the Chronicle.
  • November 19, 2011: The Menil hosts the dedication to commemorate its acquisition. It features readings from poet Lawrence Weschler and sculptor James Surls, who addresses the response from Houston's gay community to this unconventional marriage by saying, "Maybe the marriage of a plant is what we need to take stock and give inventory to what we are as a people."
  • December 2, 2011: A vandal attacks the tree sometime at night, nearly splitting it in half, but is salvageable and remains on the Menil's grounds. The vandal is never caught and his or her motive never known, though it is assumed it is in response to the interpretation that the piece is homophobic.

And that more or less brings us to the present (a more lengthy account of the drama can be found in this Texas Monthly piece). The Menil has yet to publicly respond to its decision to remove the piece from its collection, though more details did emerge in a piece Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson published on her site on Saturday. Knudson is married to one of The Art Guys -- Galbreth -- so would therefore be privy to close details while at the same time creating an admitted conflict of interest. She writes that this past December The Art Guys met with Menil director Josef Helfenstein, who told them of his decision to move the tree "either behind a building somewhere on the Menil campus, or preferably, off the premises entirely." He asked The Art Guys which they preferred. He denied their request to have it remain as is, so the artists asked to have it returned to them "rather than be ignominiously hidden behind a building somewhere in Montrose."

Knudson called the Menil's decision to remove the controversial piece from its collection "breathtaking cowardice."

"The Menil Collection is certainly not the first museum to own an artwork that some people don't like or choose willfully to misunderstand. There are a lot of options in such a scenario, but in a nutshell, a museum can either stand by the artwork (and the artist) and keep the piece, or it can cave and get rid of it," she wrote. "The Menil Collection has caved. And now they are trying to quietly make this whole situation go away."

One of the art piece's most vocal opponents, Britt-Darby, is glad the tree will ultimately move but was also disappointed by the Menil's silence on the issue.

"I can assure you that when I stuck my neck out by legally marrying and divorcing a woman I'd barely met, my goal was not for the Menil to quietly get rid of that tree, but to promote a debate about The Art Guys' piece and the Menil's institutional responsibilities," said Britt-Darby when emailed for comment. "I'd rather have had and lost that debate than not to have had it at all. Because I don't believe a museum should place an artwork on permanent view when it is unwilling to entertain a public discussion of that artwork, I'm glad the Menil decided to move the piece, but returning it to the artists doesn't eliminate the need for that debate -- quite the opposite."

We reached out to the Menil yesterday and are awaiting comment. We'll update you once we have more.

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Meredith Deliso
Contact: Meredith Deliso