January 2005

Curator who Nixed Panda Art is Axed

Washington, D.C. – The curator of Options 2005, a prominent Washington-area art biennial, has been fired after publicly saying he would bar artists who had participated in two city-funded sidewalk-sculpture projects, “Party Animals” and “Pandamania,” from showing their work in the exhibition. The curator, Philip Barlow, says he viewed the sculpture projects as “detrimental to local art.”

In September Barlow told the Washington Post that artists who participated in the two projects need not apply for Options, a survey of emerging talent begun in 1981 by Washington Project for the Arts, with the Corcoran Gallery of Art joining in 1996. In the sculpture projects, the city government gave large, cartoonish models of donkeys, elephants, and later pandas to local artists, and commissioned them to paint the pieces in their own way. Six weeks after Barlow made his statements, Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran (WPA\C) announced that he had been dismissed. WPA\C operates a nonprofit arts-promotion group that has been affiliated with the Corcoran since the museum joined WPA to organize Options.

“Philip is no longer involved in Options 2005,” Jennifer Motruk Loy, the chair of WPA\C’s advisory board, told ARTnews. “He drew a line that went beyond normal curatorial practice.” Barlow had told the board in private that he would rule out “Party Animals” and “Pandamania” artists from the exhibition before he spoke to the Post, although it was the decision itself, and not the fact that he told the press about it, that led the board to fire him, says Loy.

Barlow, an actuary by profession, had never previously curated a show. Criticizing the sidewalk-sculpture projects, Barlow told ARTnews, “It’s not serious art, and no one forced artists to do it. Some of them did it for the money, or because they had ties to the D.C. Commission for the Arts, but a lot of other painters stayed away from it. I wanted to use this position to comment on what I thought was good and bad about local art, and taking a panda-shaped thing and painting it cannot qualify, by any minimal definition, as art.”

Corcoran director David Levy says Barlow’s position “violated the institutional policy of freedom of expression.” Asked if he had requested that the WPA\C board fire Barlow, Levy told ARTnews he made the point to the board that it was a “very serious breach.”

Options 2005, rescheduled for the fall, will now be curated by art-history professor Libby Lumpkin of California State University at Long Beach.

–Roger Atwood