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Leading US and UK Museums Under Spotlight Over Tobacco Sponsorship

In further news: EU museums’ post-Brexit loan worries; Norway’s Kon-Tiki Museum to return artefacts to Chile’s Easter Island

British Museum, London. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

British Museum, London. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

London’s British Museum has acquired hundreds of artefacts through tobacco sponsorship, the Art Newspaper has revealed. The institution’s Asia department has received funding from Japan Tobacco International – according to the report, it is the only leading UK national art museum to take tobacco sponsorship. A museum spokesperson told the Art Newspaper that ‘JTI have supported the museum since 2010 and we are grateful to JTI for their long-term partnership.’ The paper also notes that JTI is one of the main sponsors of the 2019 Venice Biennale, due to open on 11 May. A report in The Guardian also shines a light on leading US arts institutions which continue to receive tobacco funding, noting that the Smithsonian took donations from Altria, US manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, in 2017. In 2018, Altria donated USD$3.6 million to cultural institutions including Washington’s John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago has taken the unprecedented decision to postpone an exhibition (due to open next month) over concerns that the show is a poor representation of indigenous cultures and perspectives. The exhibition ‘Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest’ was supposed to showcase artefacts dating back to 1100 AD, from present-day New Mexico. In a statement, the museum said: ‘we are not able to deliver on our promise to achieve the highest standards of scholarship and interpretation, inclusive of Native American perspectives, in a timeline that we had initially set for ourselves.’

EU museums are concerned that artworks loaned to the UK will incur hefty taxes post-Brexit. Ahead of the Tate’s ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ show, British and Dutch governments had to assure lenders that their works will not be subject to steep import taxes once they are returned to the EU in the case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, according to The Guardian. A Dutch government source told the newspaper: ‘Going to the UK was never a problem, but some museums were a bit concerned – would their works be able to come back?’. New guidelines have now been drawn up by the European commission which stipulate that paintings loaned before Brexit will be treated as ‘returned goods’ and subject to ‘total relief’ from import taxes. 

Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway is to return thousands of artefacts taken from Chile’s Easter Island. An agreement has been signed by representatives of Oslo’s Kon-Tiki Museum and officials of Chile’s culture ministry relating to artefacts including carved pieces and human bones taken from the Pacific island by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950s. ‘Our common interest is that the objects are returned and, above all, delivered to a well-equipped museum,’ said the museum’s director, Martin Biehl. Heyerdahl’s family have expressed that the explorer wanted to return the pieces before his death in 2002. Thor Heyerdahl Jr, who was 17 when he accompanied his father on an expedition to the islands said: ‘The repatriation is a fulfilment of my father’s promise to the Rapa-Nui authorities, that the objects would be returned after they had been analysed and published.’ 

An open letter by Latinx artists, activists and educators has been issued to New York’s El Museo del Barrio. Titled Mirror Manifesto, the letter has over 200 signatures from various states across the US and calls for new hiring practices, the establishment of an artist-residency programme and a new direction for its institutional identity and also claims that the current leadership has attempted ‘to morph the museum’ into an ‘elitist institution for Latin American art.’ The letter, which asks the museum to work towards ‘decolonization’ and to ‘take radical steps to more clearly define what it is,’ follows the pulling of work by Marta Moreno Vega from an upcoming anniversary exhibition due to claims surrounding the museum not doing enough to serve its original core community. Signatories include Hank Willis Thomas, Juan Sánchez and Firelei Báez. The museum has since announced that it is searching for a curator who will specialize in ‘the art and culture of historically marginalized Latinx communities in the United States.’

India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale has dropped an investigation into sexual harassment against co-founder Riyas Komu. A decision was made between trustees and the chair of the International Complaints Commitee Lizzie Jacob to allow Komu to resume his former position at the biennial. In a statement, the biennial said: ‘Since no complaint was forthcoming after pursuing the matter for several weeks, the ICC recommended the dropping of the inquiry suggested by the Foundation’. The 47-year old artist had been accused of sexual misconduct, detailed in an Instagram post published anonymously by the account Scene and Herd, which describes itself as ‘cutting through BS in the Indian art world, one predator and power play, at a time.’ 

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