More details are emerging in The Art Guys Marry a Plant-Menil Collection separation.
Last week, Houston art provocateurs The Art Guys announced via a press release sent to Glasstire that the Menil had removed its controversial piece from its collection. However, that is not true, according to the Menil.
We spoke with Menil spokesman Vance Muse this week and he said that the piece, which has been criticized for being anti-gay marriage and homophobic since its inception three years ago, has not been removed from the collection, but just moved off its premises.
"It's not unheard of or even that unusual for a work of art from a museum's permanent collection to be on long-term loan," said Muse.
(Removing a piece from a collection, or deaccessioning it, on the other hand, is a rare process that is usually done to acquire more funds. The Menil has deaccessioned works in the past, most recently last year when it auctioned off one of its Max Ernst sculptures to acquire a different one.)
According to Muse, the museum decided to uproot the oak sapling and a commemorative plaque after several attacks of vandalism. Since planted on the Menil's grounds in March 2011, the tree has been attacked twice, said Muse. The first incident was in early December 2011, nearly a month after the Menil hosted a dedication ceremony marking its acquisition of The Art Guys' piece. The tree was nearly snapped in half but was able to be salvaged. The second act of vandalism happened on October 30 of last year. In that attack, the tree's branches were bent down, one was broken off, and the entire tree was loose in the ground, said Vance.
The Menil also suspects that the tree may have been poisoned, or possibly in shock from the attacks, due to its poor state.
"In the last few days, it was looking pretty bad," said Muse, noting that the tree had lost some of its leaves. "We think it may have been poisoned or attempted to be poisoned. We don't know for sure."
With limited options to protect the tree on its grounds, the Menil decided to rotate the piece out, so to speak, according to Muse. Museum director Josef Helfenstein met with The Art Guys, Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth, in December to discuss moving the tree to a different part of the Menil's grounds or off the premises entirely. The Art Guys wanted the tree and plaque returned to them instead. So on Monday, the tree was uprooted and delivered to them.
"The tree is out of harm's way," said Muse. "We see that right now as a good thing."
Critics of the Menil's decision don't see it that way. Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson, who, it should be noted, is married to one of The Art Guys, Galbreth, called the Menil's actions "institutional cowardice" in an op-ed published Saturday on her site. In the piece, she, correctly, predicted that the Menil would say the decision to move the tree was motivated by a desire to save and protect it from vandalism. She instead charges that the Menil was tired of the controversy surrounding the work and wanted it to go away as it raises money for its new drawing center.
The controversy surrounding The Art Guy's piece started brewing even before Massing and Galbreth "married" the tree in a public ceremony at the Museum of Fine Art's sculpture garden in June 2009. Some critics cried foul, saying the piece reinforced the homophobic "slippery slope" argument. That sentiment only reemerged when the Menil hosted a dedication ceremony in November 2011 to mark its acquisition. Not even a month after the ceremony, the tree was found nearly snapped in two.
When asked about the criticism, Muse referred to the Helfenstein's statement released to Texas Monthly, in which he said, "The Menil is fully aware of the intense responses that have arisen regarding this work. The Menil has engaged in numerous discussions with parties who have felt injured or offended because the work was being displayed, and parties who have felt injured or offended because the work has been vandalized and might not be displayed. The Menil has preferred to conduct these conversations in private."
Helfenstein added, "The Menil seeks to engage in a vigorous conversation about contemporary works of art and their subjects."
When asked why the Menil never hosted such a public forum for The Art Guys Marry a Plant, Muse said that the museum had discussed what kind of public conversation might happen, but decided that that would be best "beyond the heat of the moment." On Wednesday, Menil staff met again to discuss such a forum and decided against it.
"This decision comes after many discussions the Menil has held over the past year with people on both sides of the issue," said Muse.
Any future where the tree is replanted on the Menil's grounds remains to be seen. Muse doesn't even know where it is exactly, and in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, The Art Guys wouldn't elaborate, either. "We've got it all taken care of," Massing slyly said.
When we reached out to The Art Guys for comment on their plans for the tree, as well as a reason why they said the piece was removed from the Menil's collection even though the Menil itself disputes that, they responded, "We are unable to help you with your request. Thank you."
Both Massing and Galbreth, as well as Menil curator Toby Kamps, were present for the tree's removal from the Menil's grounds on Monday, according to Martin Lassoff, president of A Gardens Delight and a Menil groundskeeper for nearly 40 years. He was called on Saturday, a day after the Art Guys' statement was published on Glasstire, to do the job. The Art Guys also had a photographer on hand to take photos (presumably to update this page with the latest documentation of the piece).
The plaque and a circle of stones that had surrounded the tree previously were already gone by the time Lassoff arrived. Starting at 8 am, he and his crew worked to uproot the tree and its roots and then resodded the ground once they were done.
"It's as if nothing ever happened there," Lassoff said.