A week ago New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz launched a bomb on his Facebook page:

“The Museum of Modern Art practices a form of gender-based apartheid. Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that’s 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that’s 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why? What can be done?”

After hundreds of comments from his Facebook Friends, he re-posted the original entry three more times to make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. Three or four additional follow-up posts on the topic brought in hundreds more comments and Saltz told his community that:

In the next month I plan to write a cover letter and amass all of your FB comments in regards to the paltry percent of women artists on the 4th & 5th floors of the permanent collection and send the package to the following MoMA officials…

Before he had the chance,the museum responded, sending a note to Saltz to post on his page:

“Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women’s Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”

This in turn let loose a whole new flood of comments, many criticizing the idea of a “Modern Women’s Project.” And the debate rages on as Saltz explained that now that the group has MoMA’s attention, it should press the museum to rectify an injustice. Saltz has nearly 5,000 Facebook friends, and he’s built his community by positioning himself as much as a discussion leader as a traditional critic.

There was a time when arts organizations (following good corporate example) stayed aloof from criticism, preferring not to respond publicly when criticized unless forced. Many’s the time that the subjects of negative arts stories we have posted on ArtsJournal have contacted me to try to correct the record as they saw it. In each case (maybe 20 over the years), I offered a chance for the institution to write a rebuttal to the story and said I’d post it on AJ. How many do you think took me up on the offer? Three.

Most figured that even though the story was wrong, it would blow over more quickly if it was ignored. But in the digital age these stories stay out there forever, and besides, I’d argue, responding is an opportunity to engage.

And so it is. And so MoMA engaged with Saltz’s group, and good for them. Except.

One of the great things about social media is that it encourages personal interaction. One of the challenges for institutions is to not sound so institutional. In MoMA’s official response, the unnamed “we” have been “following your lively discussion” with “great interest” could hardly be more institutional. Then there’s “this has been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA” and the even more co-opting “we welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation.” And finally: “We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”

Could it be any more condescending?: “We noticed you’re having this lovely little discussion over here at the kids’ table… pat, pat, pat… How charming of you…” If someone spoke to you like this in real life you’d roll your eyes and walk away. Moreover, the response doesn’t address the issue with either a direct acknowledgment of it (you’re right, only four percent of the artists represented on those floors are women) or that there really is a real disparity of gender. Instead, it’s an attempt to deflect the criticism by appealing to a broader context and sidestepping the issue as it was raised.

How could the museum think that anyone would be placated by such a statement? Indeed, I think it made things worse because the museum looks intellectually dishonest in front of a core audience that really cares.

My purpose here isn’t to debate the gender issue, but to point out that traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost. Just because this conversation didn’t bubble out in public earlier doesn’t mean that people haven’t been having it privately for years. To not confront it honestly and openly now that it has gone public this way does real harm to MoMA.

Not surprisingly, the debate roars on on Saltz’s page, and he’s even created a new group on Facebook Jerry Saltz; Seeing Out Loud to continue to press the issue. A day or so after it was created, it already has 587 members.

Douglas McClellan