ON CENSORSHIP. “Imaginary Coordinates” at the Spertus Museum / Chicago

Imaginary Coordinates“, an exhibition curated by Rhoda Rosen at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, originally scheduled to be open through September 7 suddenly closed in the end of June allegedly in response to pressure from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and individual donors. As Deanna Isaacs reported on May 29 on the Chicago Reader: “The Jewish United Fund, a major Spertus supporter, had taken a look and promptly canceled a May 13 fund-raising dinner booked for the tenth floor boardroom. Michael Kotzen, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, says he moved the event after hearing from “a number of people who thought the exhibit wasn’t appropriate” in “content and point of view””.

The exhibition showed maps (including palestinian maps) focusing on different geographic interpretations of the Holy Land some dating back to the 15th century together with contemporary art by nine Israeli and Palestinian women artists, in what appeared to be an effort to open up and reconcile the museum´s permanent historical collection with contemporary art.

Quoted by Lauren Weinberg on June 20th on Time Out Chicago, museum president Dr. Howard A. Sulkin said: “We came to realize that parts of the exhibition were not in keeping with our mission as a Jewish organization and did not belong at Spertus. This exhibition caused pain for members of our key audience who felt it presented anti-Israel points of view.”

The central polemic of the show is that several of the works “implicitly criticize” Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. And pro-Israel supporters object to seeing work that is critical of Israel and supportive of Palestine within a Jewish museum.

Though there has been a refusal to which speficif objects were considered deemed offensive, Museum´s chair and the Spertus board of trustees reject claims of censorship. On one hand they say that “Spertus is not interested in going around and hurting people’s feelings”, and on the other that they are “committed to asking the hard-nosed questions about a lot of things” ?!? – a clear example of “the schizophrenic nature of this conflict” as Richard Silverstein has put it.
As Patty Gerstenblith bluntly writes on the Chicago Tribune on June 24: “It is unfortunate when donors wield more influence over museum exhibits than the museum’s professional staff and that controversial topics cannot be raised because of objections from a local community. Presenting viewpoints that may be unsettling and challenging are precisely the role that museums should play in our modern society”.
This should give us something to think about next time we discuss changing museum funding in Europe to be more like the american private donorship system!

Margeret Ewing, who seems to be the only one critizing the exhibition without political or partidary motivations, refers to the display of maps as adding little to a furthered understanding of the question of how the land of Isreal and Palestine is defined and to the exclusiveness of female contemporary artists as insufficiently explained within the exhibition!! Which is extremely funny, if you think about the polemic the show has raised and that Ewing – a sort of authority in art exhibitions´ critique – dismisses the show as “weak” from the curatorial point of view!

Lynn Pollack of Chicago´s Jewish Voice for Peace gave a very interesting statement to the Chicago Tribune. She said: “These are not fringe Palestinian and Israeli artists. These are mainstream artists who are able to display in their own country. Why can´t this art be seen by American Jews? It´s really a shame”.

On his turn, Richard Silverstein who runs a blog on on politics, culture and ideas about Israeli-Arab peace and world music, asks if the Spertus Museum “must pull its punches by cancelling an exhibit most viewers and artists found well within the consensus of political and artistic discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hasn´t lost the right to call itself and art museum?”.
And goes on to react to the patronizing attitude by Michael Kotzin (executive vice president of Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago who said that pieces “like those videos lacked context”) saying: “We can think for ourselves, thank you Mr. Kotzin. We don´t need to be protected from dangerous art, art that makes us think”.

Usually I don´t comment on exhibitions which I didn´t see. But, since this one was shut before any of us had the chance to see it, discuss and make an opinion not to mention that the uploaded video of the exhibition is no longer available on the internet and catalogues became extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find (I am lucky enough to have held one in my hands!), I feel my usual criteria shouldn´t apply. For me this is a clear case of censorship and one of great gravity for money and religion overruled freedom of thought, critique and dicussion!


  1. Thank you for sharing this information. It is disappointing that people in general, and the art world in particular, can not accept different perspectives. Isn’t it this type of plurality that can lead us to a better understanding of each other?

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