By way of qualification, let me say that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a fine institution.
Quite young by museum standards, the O’Keeffe has already achieved an uncommon level of national distinction. In addition to preserving and exhibiting its considerable collection of O’Keeffe’s own works, the museum continuously arranges for the exhibition of all manner of related and complementary works and has displayed one groundbreaking investigation into American modernism after another. Its Women of Distinction series gives us a glimpse at the work of living women who continue to push the frontiers that O’Keeffe herself explored, and its educational program for boys and girls both has become a national model worthy of emulation.
The O’Keeffe Museum Research Center is the only entity in Santa Fe to regularly give residence to scholars of art and history, a practice the community could only benefit from expanding.
The museum also maintains O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch properties, which are a genuine privilege to visit for those lucky enough to go. O’Keeffe was—and remains—a hugely important artist, and her influence echoes far beyond the iconic images with which she is most often associated and far beyond her association with New Mexico. In that sense, we’re quite lucky that New Mexico—Santa Fe, in particular—is home to a museum dedicated to O’Keeffe.
I still chuckle when I remember the O’Keeffe Museum sticking it to the Historic Design Review Board when plans for the museum were about to be voted down: “Golly, I guess we’ll have to open in Española instead.” That was a good lesson in the tiered nature of power and influence—the average citizen has little recourse, but a tourism powerhouse can thumb its nose at bothersome bureaucracy.
Still, that’s no excuse for poor behavior. Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals gave the O’Keeffe Museum a smackdown for trying to assert that the troubled Fisk university should forfeit its possession of the Stieglitz Collection (gifted to the university by O’Keeffe) and O’Keeffe’s famed painting “Radiator Building—Night, New York.” It’s a complicated scenario, but the net effect is that a Santa Fe museum is beating up on a troubled Nashville school, one that the museum’s namesake had arranged to supply with significant support. I wish Fisk had been a better steward of the works it was gifted, and I’d love to have those works in the collection here in Santa Fe, but not as a result of legal bullying. If Fisk can sell the collection to its betterment, then it should do so and it should go to the highest bidder.
But having learned that picking on a university can be expensive and unproductive, the O’Keeffe Museum switched its sights to an elementary school. Nice.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary School, part of Albuquerque Public Schools, never asked permission to use the name (nor would such permission have been required) and has never been hassled by O’Keeffe’s estate or the O’Keeffe Foundation, which recently rolled its assets into the O’Keeffe Museum. But now that the school plans to put up a sign with the initials “GOK,” the kid gloves are coming off.
Apparently, if people were to say “gawk” based on a set of initials that represent Georgia O’Keeffe, it would be a disrespectful and troubling issue, one the O’Keeffe Museum has no choice but to challenge in its capacity as guardian to all things O’Keeffe.
Dear O’Keeffe Museum: Please get over yourself. You are embarrassing the museum, the memory of the artist you claim to represent and you are embarrassing Santa Fe. Yes, we know O’Keeffe was particular and ornery and wanted things to be just so. Yes, we know you are doing a great job as her museum. But you simply cannot know whether or not she would give a damn about some initials on a sign in Albuquerque.
Certainly, however, we can agree that O’Keeffe would likely be pissed about a bunch of administrators, lawyers and bureaucrats arguing about what she would or would not have wanted.