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Communications and Marketing

Alumnus makes waves

Lake Forest College alumnus Richard Armstrong ’71 was recently mentioned in a New York Times piece concerning the White House, a gold toilet, and the Guggenheim Museum, of which he is director.

Museum Told White House: No Van Gogh, but Here’s a Gold Toilet

By Matt Stevens

Officials at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum were tight-lipped on Thursday night about an unusual email exchange in which its chief curator is said to have rebuffed a White House request for a Vincent van Gogh painting and offered a gold toilet instead.

The exchange between the curator, Nancy Spector, and Donna Hayashi Smith of the White House’s Office of the Curator was reported Thursday afternoon by The Washington Post.

Citing a Sept. 15 email that The Post said it had obtained, the newspaper reported that Ms. Spector had turned down the White House’s request to borrow van Gogh’s “Landscape With Snow,” which officials had hoped they could use to decorate President and Melania Trump’s living quarters.

As an alternative, The Post said Ms. Spector offered up what one might call a “participatory sculpture”: a fully functional, solid 18-karat-gold copy of a Kohler toilet titled “America” that more than 100,000 people had already used in a museum restroom.

“It is, of course, extremely valuable and somewhat fragile, but we would provide all the instructions for its installation and care,” The Post quoted Ms. Spector as writing in the email to the White House curator’s office. The sculpture’s artist, the email said, “would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan.”

Asked Thursday night if she could confirm The Post’s report, Sarah Eaton, a spokeswoman for the Guggenheim, said only, “I have nothing further to add.” Ms. Eaton would not make the email described by The Post available to The New York Times and said Ms. Spector was not available for comment.

Attempts to reach Ms. Spector; Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director; and the sculpture’s artist, Maurizio Cattelan, were not successful.

It was not clear if Ms. Spector would face discipline. (The Guggenheim rehired her from the Brooklyn Museum last year in a new and more powerful position.)

The Times also sent emails to multiple White House spokespeople who did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday night.

Although most of the sculptures and historical objects on display in the White House are part of its permanent art collection, when a new first family arrives, the curator’s office selects pieces to display in the building’s public and private spaces.

Presidents and their families have full veto authority, however, and most have exercised it when seeking to add their own touches.

President Ronald Reagan insisted that a portrait of Calvin Coolidge hang in the cabinet room; President George W. Bush displayed in the Oval Office a painting by W.H.D. Koerner, which showed a cowboy racing a horse up a mountain trail; and President Barack Obama added two Edward Hopper paintings, which he got on a loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Obamas, experts and historians have said, demonstrated a penchant for modern and contemporary art.

The “America” work could also be labeled such. In a blog post Ms. Spector wrote about the piece last year, she called it “at once humorous and searing in its critique of our current realities.”

“Though crafted from millions of dollars’ worth of gold, the sculpture is actually a great leveler,” she continued, adding that “Cattelan’s anticipation of Trump’s America will, perhaps, be the lasting imprint of the sculpture’s time at the Guggenheim.” (The sculpture’s exact cost has not been revealed.)

Another blog post on the Guggenheim website said that “while Cattelan agrees that he could hardly have known about the rise of Trump when he conceived of the piece,” he has said “it was probably in the air.”

In explaining the piece, Cattelan has noted, “Whatever you eat, a $200 lunch or a $2 hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.”

–The New York Times, January 25, 2018