In November, the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami opened a major survey for Los Angeles–based artist Charles Gaines that received praise, including from this reporter in Art in America. But, in a phone interview with ARTnews on Friday evening, Gaines said that the museum not only removed one artwork from the show for a brief period, but had also at various points attempted to block certain works from going on view because of their political content, and suggested altering an artwork in order to remove a word used in it.

Gaines’s show closed this past Sunday, however, last week, in its final days, the Miami New Times revealed that the ICA briefly removed from it a work depicting the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said. The museum reportedly removed the artwork earlier this month, around the time of the museum’s annual benefit, and later readded it to the show.

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Charles Gaines Asks Heady Questions with No Easy Answers

According to Gaines, it was not the only work that the museum wanted to leave out of the exhibit.

In mid-November, a few days before the exhibition was set to open, Gaines said, the museum’s artistic director, Alex Gartenfeld, asked that one work belonging to the series “Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael” (2015–20), featuring words from a 1967 speech on Black power by Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael, not be in the show. As part of the 1967 speech, Gaines said, Carmichael makes “sweeping critical comments about racism in the world, and a part of that is his comment criticizing Israel for the treatment of Palestinians.”

Gaines recalled that the reasoning Gartenfeld gave for replacing the work with another from the series was that “it was a sensitive subject.” The exhibition opened in mid-November, a little more than a month after the October 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages. Since then, Israel has repeatedly bombed Gaza, where more than 31,000 Gazans have been killed to date.

In the end, Gaines agreed to swap the works. He said he was willing to compromise on the work’s removal because the “substance of the series could be sustained.”

In response to a fact-checking query from ARTnews, the ICA Miami characterized Carmichael’s speech as containing antisemitic remarks and generalizations of Jewish people, citing a rise in hate crimes in South Florida around the exhibition’s opening. In an email to ARTnews on Tuesday, Gaines clarified that he had agreed to remove the work so that “any controversy would be avoided” and because “exchanging it for another work did not undermine the critical interests of the work.” 

The work, which is based on a 1967 speech by Carmichael, features the activist saying that “land is power,” and noting, “The precedent is set. Jews, whether they live in Miami, California, Chicago, London, Brussels, France, Italy, their major preoccupation is building a strong Israel. That’s all they talk about, Israel.” Carmichael goes on to speak critically of Israel, which that year led the Six-Day War against several Arab countries, including Egypt, which Israel had invaded in 1956. “Egypt is Africa. Africa is ours. We never did a thing,” Carmichael says, claiming that “some of us sided with the Jews” and accusing the media of putting forward “propaganda.”

The museum also pushed back against a work that contained a racist epithet. For the exhibition, Gaines recreated several site-specific works, including a text-based mural on a black-painted wall. That work is part of a larger series, begun in the early 1990s and titled “Submerged Text: Signifiers of Race,” for which Gaines takes “an article that has nothing to do with the subject of race and I pull out words that signify race in American culture based on my experience,” he told ARTnews.

For the wall-size piece at the ICA Miami, whose text is taken from a 1992 Newsweek article, words that Gaines pulled out include “crude,” “dark,” “riot,” “assertive and loud,” and “identify their anger,” as well as the non-abbreviated form of the hip-hop group N.W.A., whose name includes the N-word. The museum wanted to alter the work, to remove the N-word from it, according to Gaines.

“I drew a line,” Gaines told ARTnews, noting that he could not “preserve” the work with that one word removed. Gaines said that Gartenfeld did not provide a clear reasoning as to why the N-word should not appear in the piece. When the exhibition opened, the piece was presented in its complete format.

“Their reasons were vague,” Gaines said. “If anybody’s going to be insulted by that word, it would be me. I put the statement in there. I don’t know why a white curator would try to monitor my sensitivity, but that’s the way I felt.”

He continued, “My personal opinion is that administration [of the ICA Miami]—not Gean [Moreno], the curator—has no idea what the work’s about. … Rather than being able to identify and recognize in its proper context in terms of the critical issues of what the work’s about, they only see the word. They have no larger narrative to contextualize it, so it immediately goes to this superficial level.”

In response to a fact-checking query, the ICA Miami confirmed that there had been discussion with Gaines about how to properly contextualize the use of a racial slur within an artwork on view. The ICA Miami declined to provide a statement to ARTnews for this article.

Gaines said that his communication with the museum continued to prove difficult. The removal of the work depicting Edward Said, part of a series that presents layered portraits of various thinkers across centuries whose work dealt with identity, was reported widely, in outlets such as Hyperallergic and the Miami New Times, but Gaines said the museum never personally told him the work had been taken away. Instead, he learned about the removal from his son, who had seen the news circulating online.

“Edward Said has had the most impact not only on my political ideas but on my artistic ideas, particularly in the way he raised the significance of language and text in informing the direction of history,” Gaines said. “He is very important to me, so on a personal level, it was particularly offensive that they removed it.”

When Gaines and his gallery, Hauser & Wirth, contacted the museum to inquire about the work’s removal, the ICA Miami confirmed that the work had been taken down. Gaines said that the museum did not provide a reasoning for the work’s removal, and confirmed on Tuesday morning that it still has not given a reason. The work was ultimately restored to the exhibition for the final two weeks of its run. (The museum did not provide a timeline for when the work was taken off view and for how long.)  

“My subjective judgment takes over, and at all indications, they removed it because Edward Said was Palestinian and pro-Palestinian,” Gaines said. “This [removal] is even greater because we talked about the earlier ones and tried to come to some compromise. But in this [case], they did it behind my back.”

He added, “[Institutions] aren’t so much interested in protecting an idea. They’re interested in protecting themselves.”

Gaines said he had not received any apology from the ICA Miami for the work’s removal without notification. Upon learning about the situation, Hauser & Wirth encouraged the museum’s senior leadership to send a formal letter of apology to Gaines. As of Tuesday morning, Gaines and Hauser & Wirth said they had received no such formal apology.

In response to a fact-checking query, the ICA Miami said that the museum had communicated with Gaines by phone and email and apologized. In an email to ARTnews, Gaines said, “I never received a formal apology for the removal of the Said portrait behind my back, which would include the reason it was removed. Had the museum included me, and demonstrated a sound reason for the request, just like in the case of the Carmichael work, I probably would have agreed to replace it, too, for the same reason.”