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McNay rejects San Antonio artist's piece due to sexual content; 5 artists quit exhibit, citing censorship

"Bad Bunny" still
Sarah Fox
"Bad Bunny" still

The McNay Art Museum has rejected an artwork it had requested, sparking a firestorm over artistic freedoms. The controversy stems from work by Sarah Fox.

“I am an artist and an educator and a mom,” she said.

The McNay had contacted eight artists, asking them each to create a work inspired by a piece of their choosing at the museum.

“I chose a piece by the artist Käthe Kollwitz. It was an expressionist print,” Fox said. “An etching of this kind of tired working-class woman with clenched hands and exhausted eyes. And it really spoke to me.”

Fox offered the McNay three different artistic avenues she could travel down to create her piece: by creating a quilt, making lithographs or a puppet show video.

"Bad Bunny" still
Sarah Fox
"Bad Bunny" still

“And I showed them an older puppet show I had done that was this rabbit twerking and gyrating and chain smoking through a bout of grief and getting blackout drunk. So they knew the kind of work I made already,” she said.

The McNay chose the puppet show, and Fox got to work. A year later, she showed the nearly complete video of what she had created: a fictional date between a fox and a rabbit, both marionettes.

“Then the last scene is the scene the McNay had a problem with. They go back to the Fox's apartment and they make out and then there's a sexual encounter, but it's papier maché and it's puppets. I wanted it to be silly and funny,” Fox said.

The McNay declined to speak with us, but in a statement they said, “The video Sarah Fox created for the exhibition does not adhere to the exhibition’s focus on our founder, Marion McNay, her original bequest, and her home and grounds. The artist’s decision to diverge from the show’s original thesis — and subsequent refusal to work with the Museum’s Curatorial team on realigning with the exhibition focus — is not in step with the McNay's co-collaboration process.”

Fox maintains that the portrait was the inspiration, a kind of jumping off point.

“I was not making a replica of Käthe Kollwitz. I was using it as a source of inspiration to make a new contemporary piece of artwork,” Fox said.

Sarah Fox and that Bad Bunny
Sarah Fox
Sarah Fox and that Bad Bunny

And that jumping off point went straight to contemporary issues.
“I created a puppet show that deals with women's rights. The work is about women's bodily autonomy, sexual freedom, and it pushes back against the government's attempt to silence and control women's bodies,” she said. “But it's a comedy, so I like to try new things like camp and comedy to give viewers an entry point into work about serious issues.”
In the statement, The McNay noted, The exhibition’s curatorial team also invited the artist to submit alternative work, to which the artist declined.”

Fox understands that the work is a bit edgy for some.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

“I tried to work with them and ask them to put it in a small room with a warning so that people could choose whether or not they see it,” she said. “I have a son; I bring him to museums. They didn’t want to do that either.”

Fox was notified by email that The McNay was withdrawing their offer to exhibit her work. She says this whole affair has been very difficult.

“It's been devastating and humiliating and so disappointing,” Fox said. “But the way the art community has stood behind me through all this has been really incredible and really encouraging.”

Five of the other artists who were exhibiting in the show have pulled their artwork from it in solidarity. And now there’s this development.

“We just had a meeting with all the artists last night that had their work, and we're going to stick together and have a group exhibition, hopefully in March at the Blue Star Arts complex. They're giving us a space to host the work,” she said.

So while her video won’t be exhibited at the McNay, it will be exhibited.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii