Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Earlier in December, the National Gallery of Art named its new director. Currently the president and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Kaywin Feldman will succeed Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III as the fifth leader of the nation’s fine-art treasury. She may be the first person in the museum’s history to be subject to a vicious right-wing smear before day one on the job.

“Obituarists looking to write the epitaph of the American art museum could do worse than ponder the elevation of Kaywin Feldman,” wrote Roger Kimball in a blistering editorial for The Wall Street Journal. He begins with her appointment as the first woman to run the National Gallery and expands his complaint to encompass every wrong turn he thinks art has made since the 1960s, seemingly laying them all at her feet. Kimball’s bellicose rant ends with a Trumpian blast: He labels Feldman as one of the “enemies of art.”

Welcome to the resistance, Kaywin Feldman. 

An essay that Feldman wrote for Apollo magazine in May comes under special fire in Kimball’s broadside. In her piece, Feldman explains what she sees as the role of art in an era of rising uncertainty. Endless war in Syria, the plight of Puerto Rico, the crisis of Brexit, and above all, President Donald Trump’s unmoored administration are taking a psychological toll on the nation—and a museum director has a responsibility to address this anxiety. A sentence like this is kryptonite for Kimball and his New Criterion set: “Art museums are intensely political organisations—political with a small ‘p’.” 

“A concerned trustee at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MiA), where I am the director, recently asked me if we would ever be the focus of protest. I assured him that we would,” Feldman wrote. She backed it up by posting a black billboard, following the first Muslim ban issued by Trump in 2017. Under the banner of the MiA, it said: “Everyone is welcome. Always.”

Kimball takes exception with what his essay describes as the “National Gallery of Identity Politics.” No surprise there: Curmudgeons like to believe that fine art belongs under glass, its authority the sole function of pedigreed gatekeepers who lurk in library stacks. Above all, in Kimball’s book, art must never associate itself with the -isms of the left, which pretty much rules out any painting made after World War II. Although Kimball would do well to learn his art history: Andrew Mellon seeded the National Gallery through his purchase, in 1931, of nearly two dozen European masterpieces from the Soviet Union. Launching the National Gallery facilitated Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. (Russia used to trouble Reagan-era culture warriors.)

More recently, the National Gallery has made leaps and bounds toward breaking out of the political boundaries prescribed by the priests who keep the canon. Recent artists highlighted by the museum include Anne Truitt, Theaster Gates, and Barbara Kruger. Philip Brookman curated a show of early works by Gordon Parks, while Kara Fiedorek assembled diptych photographs and video from Dawoud Bey’s “The Birmingham Project” (2012)—two generations of artists asserting black culture through photography. 

Art by women anchored two of the museum’s best exhibitions in 2018: Rachel Whiteread and Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. The former, a co-production with the Tate Britain, is the culmination of the National Gallery’s acquisition of Whiteread’s “Ghost” (1990), a post-minimalist masterpiece. The formalist survey was made possible (or made easier) by the museum’s forward-looking investment in her work. That’s three strikes for Kimball: contemporary art by a living artist who is a woman.

A Thousand Crossings, curated by Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel, surveys Mann’s photographs of Stonewall Jackson’s Virginia. The show (which is traveling broadly) explores the familiar contours of Mann’s Southern Gothic condition, from melancholy shots of her naked children in their innocence to haunted photos of Civil War battlefields in their immensity. The exhibit also includes work in which Mann wrestles with race (sometimes unsuccessfully). There are historical photos of Mann’s African-American nanny, Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, as well as portraits of black men, the artist’s fumbling efforts to discover through the camera the people she never met growing up in a segregated society. It is not like the National Gallery to tackle race at all—much less through work that is so uncertain, and maybe even problematic.

The National Gallery’s incoming director has thoughts about how politics can shape a museum. 

“Leaders are afraid of a misstep that could lead to vocal public protest,” Feldman wrote (in Apollo). She mentions the decision by the Whitney Museum of American Art to stand behind Dana Schutz, whose 2016 painting “Open Casket”—which depicted the gruesome open-coffin portrait of Emmett Till, murdered at 14 for the crime of being black—prompted intense criticism from black artists and viewers in the museum’s 2017 biennale. (In a coincidence, Mann, who is white like Schutz, photographed the site of Till’s murder.) Feldman correctly assessed the stakes for the museum amid calls to withdraw Schutz’s painting, but she didn’t make clear how she would respond to a similar situation.

But Feldman is on the record as thinking about these issues, and she was when the National Gallery selected her. Feldman has a gimlet-eyed view on the importance of diversity on both sides of the registrar’s ledger: whose work is shown and who’s doing the showing. The National Gallery has long lacked visionary leadership, although recent curators (and board members) have taken notice of living artists, black artists, and women. With Feldman’s appointment, there is an opportunity for the National Gallery to unify around the mission of serving and representing the many cultures of the American people—to Kimball’s dismay, apparently. 

“Cultural leaders sometimes shy away from bold statements and agile actions in response to contemporary issues and trends,” Feldman wrote. Her impact at the National Gallery, in the form of shows and hires, may not begin to manifest until after Trump leaves the White House. But the cortisol spiked by this administration won’t leave the nation’s system as soon as he does. 

Division will still be the rule. Fascism will still be a menace. Finally, the National Gallery is facing up to the national reality. The year 2018 might be a turning point—the year the nation’s most important museum turned from the past to the present.