Last night a group of nearly two dozen Boston artists mounted an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. Not in a gallery, though. Instead they snuck work into a pair of bathrooms for a “renegade” exhibition.
Yes, this means they installed art in a major institution without obtaining permission. But, no, they did not break in. And yes, they got caught — but not immediately.
The MFA stays open late on Wednesday nights, and last night was particularly crowded because admission was free. This allowed the art bandits to slip in casually with the other visitors.
At about 6:45 p.m. they entered the men’s and women’s rooms adjacent to a stairway between the below-ground Chihuly exhibition and the MFA’s new atrium courtyard.
They quickly pulled out a trove of original drawings, prints, photos — even sculptures. The works were smuggled into the MFA inside backpacks, shoulder bags, folders and notebooks.
It took just 15 minutes to install the unsanctioned exhibition, titled “Best of Boston.” The “opening” took place as scheduled, at 7 p.m. Security started removing the artworks about 20 minutes later.
As it turns out a nearly identical scene played out at the MFA exactly 40 years ago to the day.
In fact last night’s stunt was a reenactment marking the June 15, 1971, “joke show” known as “Flush with the Walls.” It was organized by seven Boston artists: Todd McKie, Martin Mull, Fred Brink, David Raymond, Bob Guillemin, Jo Sandman and Kristin Johnson. They even printed rascally invitations on toilet paper that said, “When you gotta show you gotta show.”
“It just seemed like it was a shame that the anniversary of this sort of legendary show would go by without notice,” artist and organizer Greg Cook explained on the phone with a laugh. Cook publishes an arts blog called “The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research,” and he has a thing for coming up with novel ways to engage the Boston community with the art and artists around them. For instance last year he created a campaign to identify and remove the “Worst Public Art in New England.”
Cook has been thinking about “Flush with the Walls” for quite some time now. While 40 years separate the two guerrilla-style art shows the intent behind them is exactly the same. The participants wanted to call attention to Boston’s lively, productive pool of contemporary artists.
The timing for the 2011 bathroom exhibition is significant too, Cook explained, because the MFA’s new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art is scheduled to open in September.
“You know there’s a great opportunity at the MFA, with a new space bigger than the ICA, to show great stuff from around the world — but also to engage more deeply with the talent that’s here in Boston and New England.”
To be clear, Cook’s group of fellow artists wasn’t a rag-tag bunch of naughty art students exercising their impulses to go “guerilla” at a major art institution. “These are people with pedigree,” he reminded me. Some joined Cook at the MFA for their “flash” art show, others donated works to the cause. All are established in the local scene, and beyond. Many have awards under their belts or have shown their work at some major institutions, including the ICA and even the MFA — including painter Joe Wardwell. Ben Sloat, a sculptor and 2009 Fulbright Scholar, joined the charge. Same with Newton artist Deborah Todd Wheeler. Laura Chasman, winner of the MFA Maud Morgan Prize in 2001, contributed a piece and made her way to the MFA bathrooms last night. She actually attended the original “Flush with the Walls” exhibition in 1971.
Community artist and advocate Bob Guillemin — a.k.a. “Sidewalk Sam” — helped organize that first renegade show 40 years ago. He remembers it well.
“Museums are set up to make sure people don’t steal art OUT of the museum — so we stole art INTO the museum,” Guillemin recalled, echoing Cook’s sentiments. “We wanted to open a dialogue and to have the museum reconsider its relationship to artists in Boston.”
Hundreds of people showed up in 1971, but it didn’t take long for the museum’s security guards to swoop in and remove the art from the walls, according to Guillemin. He suspects most of it wound up in the trash. The MFA’s Board of Trustees happened to be in the building during the “flash” art show, and Guillemin said there is a belief among his peers that their efforts helped encourage the museum to hire its first curator of contemporary art a few months later.
For his part in this year’s exhibition Guillemin submitted a dainty image of the Mona Lisa. He made direct reference to the 1971 “Flush with the Walls” invitation by sketching it on piece of toilet paper. He calls the renegade show a “benign gesture” and hopes the MFA sees the humor in last night’s prank.
At the time of this writing the MFA had not provided an official response to all the creative activity in its bathrooms last night.
Organizer Cook was fully satisfied with the way things unfolded. Once home he sent me an email confirming that there didn’t seem to be any negative ramifications for his guerrilla act. The artwork was confiscated, though. And Cook said he received a voicemail message from a friend pretending to be MFA Museum Director Malcolm Rogers. It said, “What sort of monstrosity have you unleashed in my bathrooms?”
Then Cook added, “At least I think it was a friend.”
The “Best of Boston” exhibition may very well have had the shortest run of any show displayed at the MFA. It was only in the public’s eye for about 20 minutes. But Greg Cook made sure to produce a fully illustrated historical commemorative catalog with the clever subtitle, “Bathroom Reading.”