Conflict & Justice

Ai Weiwei Controversy in Milwaukee

By Chuck Quirmbach

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Chinese authorities continue to arrest scores of political dissidents and activists. Among those imprisoned is a prominent Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, detained since April. That has created something of a dilemma for the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is about to open a major exhibition of Chinese art in cooperation with the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities say Weiwei has been arrested for tax evasion. But many see it as China's attempt to silence an artist who frequently criticized the Chinese government.

Several museums have shown support for Weiwei in public ways. The Tate Modern in London hung a banner outside saying "Free Weiwei." A museum in San Diego held a 24-hour protest.

Mike Brenner, a former Milwaukee gallery owner, would like to see the Milwaukee Art Museum make a similar gesture. Last week, he announced he was going to shave part of his head outside the museum to show solidarity with Weiwei.

On Shaving Day, museum security guards were waiting for Brenner. They wanted to make sure that he wasn't even standing on a pedestrian bridge that led to the museum.

"You can do this, but you can't do it on our property," said one of the guards to Brenner.

Brenner moved a few feet off the property and proceeded to turn on his electric razor, and shave chunks of hair off the top of his head. He said he did it to mimic Weiwei's hairline.

"Artists around the world need to shown solidarity," Brenner said after the shaving. "When one of us is taken into custody without explanation for months, it's not acceptable."

Brenner's protest came about a week before the Milwaukee museum is slated to open a summer of Chinese art exhibitions, including a major one featuring works from the Forbidden City.

Brenner isn't suggesting that the museum forgo the exhibit. He just wants the museum to do more to call attention to Weiwei's plight. But Dan Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said that's not the museum's role.

"We're not about protest," Keegan said. "We feel it's important as a convener around culture, a convener around art, to create programs that respond to issues of the day, as well as this 3,000-year-history of Chinese art."

Keegan said the museum isn't ignoring Weiwei's detention. Next month, it plans to hold a panel discussion about Weiwei and artistic freedom.

Sharon Wolfe, a museum member who was visiting, said she supports the museum's approach of educating people.

"Then we can go after our representatives and say look what's going on with this artist in China, "Wolfe said. "And maybe they can put some pressure on the Chinese government to do something about it."

Another museum visitor, Michelle Didier, said she understands the Milwaukee museum may be counting on the long-planned Chinese exhibitions to provide important revenue, but she'd like to see the museum come out publicly in support of free expression.

"That's one of the great parts of being in America," Didier said. "It's unfortunate that the Chinese government has the right to do that kind of thing."

The Milwaukee museum isn't the only one facing this issue, but it's among the first to open a major China exhibit since Weiwei was detained. Louis Lankford, a professor at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis who has written about museum controversies, said the Weiwei case has put museums in a tough spot; but he added that the case can be made for openness about Wei Wei's situation.

"It would be unwise for any art museum showing Chinese art to just say, well, the rest of Chinese art is really good and we're going to keep it on display," Lankford said. "It's best to address such concerns head on."