Legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins on Getting Rejected from Film School and Releasing His First Book of Photographs at 72

Shortly before Roger Deakins sat down for this interview about his new book of photographs, Byways, the cinematographer received an email from director Denis Villeneuve, with whom he’d worked on Blade Runner 2049.

“I can see it’s you,” Deakins recalled Villeneuve saying about the book, meaning that he recognized the eye behind the images. 

I can too. Embedded throughout Byways, published this month by Damiani, are many of the Deakins hallmarks made famous by his lens work for directors including Sam Mendes and the Coen brothers, and in such acclaimed films as The Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall. In the book, the yawning highways and wind-whipped hills from a set of shots taken outside Albuquerque seem to recall the landscapes of No Country for Old Men, for instance, while a handful of bleached-out Norwegian vistas put Fargo front of mind. Occasionally, the connections are more overt: here, the tree from the parting shot of Mendes’s 1917 makes a more permanent cameo on the page.  

As a cinematographer, Deakins looms large: he is, for many movie peoples’ money, the greatest person doing the job today (witness his 15 Oscar nominations, with two wins). But his reputation as a fine-art photographer is far less developed. Not only is Byways his first monograph, it’s also the first place many of these pictures have ever been shared publicly. 

It’s for this reason that, as satisfying as the similarities between his films and these pictures are, the differences are just as revealing. Comparing the two bodies of work is an exercise in comparing the essences of film and photography, and an uncommon opportunity at that: rare are the practitioners who are equally accomplished in both formats.

The central difference between Deakins’s two bodies of work makes spending time with Byways a special pleasure. Whereas a film is a collaborative endeavor, one routed through the mind of its director, this collection of still images represents a wholly personal project. It may be the purest distillation of Deakins’s vision—stark, plaintive, and reverent of land and light—we ever get.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

There are 150-some photographs in the book, representing roughly five decades of work. How many pictures did you go through to come up with that selection? In other words, how big is your archive?

Not very big—I don’t really keep much, you see. I mean, I take a lot of photographs when I’m working on a movie, but they’re just a reference for the film. The photographs that I take for my own pleasure are quite few, really. I don’t have the time when I’m working, and thankfully I’ve had quite a productive career.

So you’re not somebody who carries a camera with you at all times? 

I’m not that obsessed by it, I must say. I do have a camera with me most of the time when I’m shooting a film, but I think it’s a very different thing to spend your own time with a stills camera, looking for something that grabs you.

Roger Deakins, <i>Albuquerque Cemetary Rainbow</i> (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Albuquerque Cemetery Rainbow (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Do you use the camera to record memories, or is it more of an aesthetic instrument for you, a tool to make art?

I don’t like the word ‘art,’ really. [Laughs] I’ve obviously been on holiday and taken snapshots of a memory, but the photographs that are in the book, they just grabbed my attention. I liked the frame or I liked the light. Often I liked the slightly surreal quality of the image, a juxtaposition of things in the frame. It’s not art; I’m not a photographer and they’re not memory aids. I don’t sketch with a pencil. I sketch through the camera, I suppose.


In the foreword to the book, you write, ‘The choice of when to take a picture, and which of the resultant images has a future, reveals something of us as individuals. Each of us see differently.’ Do you think someone who knows your film work could see these images and know they were made by you? What are the ‘Deakins-isms’ we might see here? 

I think there’s definitely a sensibility. That’s true even when I work on a film. I’m not the author of the film, obviously—I’m working for a director and with anywhere up to a couple of hundred people—but I do think you stamp your point of view, your taste, on the work you do. When I shoot films, you can see there’s a continuity, that there’s an individual behind the camera. I look at some other people’s work in film and that’s true, too. I could always recognize a film that was shot by Conrad Hall, for instance; there’s a certain sensibility that he had. That’s the case for still photographers as well. 

Looking back through these photos, I wondered if my eye had changed, and I don’t think it has, really. The photographs I took back then are really quite simple; they’re pared down in terms of what’s in the frame. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. [Laughs]

Roger Deakins, <i>Teignmouth Dog Jumping</i> (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Teignmouth Dog Jumping (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Why haven’t you shared these pictures before now? 

I don’t know, really. The earliest photographs I took in North Devon, and they’re part of a public archive. But the other images are just things I’ve shot over the years. Some of them were taken in Berlin, for instance. When we were over there working on a movie, I’d go out and explore the city on the weekend. I had my camera and would snap the odd shot. There’s probably three or four in the book from Berlin; maybe I only ever took a dozen total. I don’t take many photographs. It has to be something that grabs me, and then obviously you have to be able to get it at that moment. There are a lot of things that grab your attention but you miss the shot.

These are just photographs from here, there, and everywhere. There’s not really any structure to the book. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, other than the fact that they’re all shots that I like. Some people had asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do a book?’ And eventually I just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’

One of the first jobs you had out of art school was as a photographer. Can you take me back to that gig? How did it impact the way you saw the world?

Originally I wanted to be a painter, a bohemian! [Laughs] Then, while I was at art college, I discovered photography. My paintings were fairly naturalistic, just based on things that I’d seen, so it made sense to have a camera and photograph the things I saw. A great photographer, Roger Mayne, was teaching at the school; he would come in for a few days every now and again. He was quite an inspiration, him and his work. So I thought I would become a photographer. But then I was talking to a friend who was applying to the National Film School, which was just opening the year that we were finishing at art college. I had always been interested in film, especially documentary filmmaking, and so it seemed like that might be a great opportunity.

Well, I didn’t get in the first time I applied. But in the interim, I was offered this job recording country life in North Devon. I was really hired as a recorder, not necessarily a photographer. I didn’t do a very good job, I don’t think, because I’m not very skilled at recording. I took a lot of photographs, but they weren’t great in terms of documenting a historical moment. Nevertheless, it was a great learning experience for me. I just spent all day every day with my camera, experimenting with framing and other things. It was a great time to play. 

Roger Deakins, <i>Weston - Super - Mare, Looking for Summer</i> (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Weston-Super-Mare, Looking for Summer (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

I was going to ask you about your relationship to painting. I know that you’ve always had a love of the medium. Does it influence your work behind the lens?

It’s funny, when somebody asks, ‘What are your influences?’ I don’t know what to say. Surely your influences are every experience you’ve had. There’s so many painters whose work I love and know quite well, whether it’s Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch or Giorgio de Chirico. I studied many of them in college. But to say how much they’ve influenced me, that’s hard. There’s a couple of photographs in the book that remind me of de Chirico, maybe, but is it an influence or just a coincidence? I’m just as influenced by growing up in South Devon and spending my childhood out at sea, fishing. These things accumulate.

All of the photos in the book are black and white, which might come as a mild surprise to people familiar with your work in film, where you have displayed such a mastery of color. What is it about black and white that interests you when it comes to still photography?

I’ve been trying to work in color and I just can’t do it. I just find it uninteresting! [Laughs] Black and white is much more about the content, the frame, and the light. Color can be so distracting. There are very few photographers that really work in color and use it well. Alex Webb is a great example of someone who can use color to his advantage.

Maybe it’s just because I grew up in love with the work of Brassaï and Bill Brandt and Alfred Stieglitz, all these great photographers that worked in black and white. Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur.


Roger Deakins, <i>Paignton Lion and the Gull</i> (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Paignton Lion and the Gull (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

The relationship between film and photography is something I think about often. It’s a question I’ve asked many photographers in interviews like this one: ‘How has film informed your pictures?’ Every time, without fail, they play it down. 

I believe it.

Why do you think that is? Do you feel that there’s a line to be drawn between the work you do as a cinematographer and your experiences taking photographs?

Obviously, there are things that you learn in one that help you in the other, technically speaking. But I do think capturing a still photograph is very different.

I say at the beginning of the book that I’m not a photographer, and I’m really not; I’ve just taken some pictures. But I think with great photographers, you look at their photographs and there’s a story within them. You can’t really do that in a movie because those frames keep moving. You can’t make the frames too complex, because you’re telling the story as a composite. It’s a different way of communicating, you know? 

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Airbnb Will Offer Overnight Stays at the First Home Legendary Architect Antoni Gaudí Ever Designed for Just $1

For the first time ever, members of the public will have a chance to spend a night in the first home designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Airbnb is offering single-night stays at Casa Vicens in Barcelona for the low-low price of just €1 ($1.19).

The catch? You’ll have to be fast. The once-in-a-lifetime chance to stay at the masterpiece of Neo-Mudéjar Moorish revival architecture will be offered on a first-come-first-served basis once reservations open at 10 a.m. EST on July 12.

Airbnb describes the home as “a fabulous multi-colored oasis which fuses Moorish, neoclassical, and organic motifs,” promising that “guests who request to book this overnight stay will have the chance to spend the night in another stunning jewel decorated by Gaudí in his distinctive version of Art Nouveau.”

Built between 1883 and 1885 as a summer home for industrialist Manel Vicens i Montaner, the building served as a private residence until it went on the market in 2007 with a €35 million ($39.24 million) asking price. The Andorran bank MoraBanc finally bought it for an undisclosed amount in 2014, soon unveiling plans to turn the property into a museum.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

One of seven Gaudí buildings in the Barcelona area designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2005, Casa Vicens opened to the public in 2017 after restorations. The Airbnb listing offers an all new way to experience the property. Two guests will get a private tour of the historic building from museum employee Emili Masferrer, the official Casa Vicens Airbnb host.

“I am part of the team that transformed this historic house into a museum and knowledgeable of all the secrets of its recent restoration project,” Masferrer said in his listing bio.

The stay will also include dinner with a “Gaudí-inspired Michelin star menu” from Barcelona restaurant Hofmann, served in the dining room, with a nightcap to follow in the smoking room, and a Mediterranean breakfast in the property’s private garden—”best croissants in town included!”

This isn’t the first time that Airbnb has teamed up with an art institution to offer a unique overnight experience. In 2019, the Louvre held a contest for a two-person sleepover at the Paris museum, with dinner and drinks in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa. And in 2016, the Art Institute of Chicago recreated Vincent van Gogh’s bedroom and listed it on the vacation rental site for just $10 a night.

See more photos from the Casa Vicens Airbnb listing below.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

Casa Vicens. Photos by Belen Gonzalez, courtesy of Casa Vicens.

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An American Curator Wrote a Memoir About Building Tehran’s Legendary $3 Billion Art Collection. In Iran, It Hasn’t Been Greeted Warmly

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) has for decades been a beacon for the Iranian people. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a human shield formed around the building to protect the art inside. In 2016, when plans to privatize the museum were made public, protests filled the street. 

After two years of renovations, TMoCA—which houses the most valuable collection of Modern Western art outside Europe and North America—swung open its doors again on January 28. But that’s not the only reason the museum is back in the limelight. 

Its reopening coincided with the publication of a new book by Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and assisted with the assembly of the famed collection. The 208-page book, The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art, has garnered international headlines—and sparked controversy in the Iranian art world. 

The Museum of Modern Art, Tehran, Iran.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

Iranian art critics, patrons, and founding members of the museum say that Stein’s book—and the international coverage of it—perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Iranian society. They also claim that her role in building the collection is not as central as she suggests. 

Stein disputes these characterizations. “My book is an effort to tell my story, what I know and remember, and I have documents and letters to support my conclusions,” she told Midnight Publishing Group News. “After 50 years, I think a picture of that time from a participant’s point of view is valuable and I want people to know the truth about the art and my role as an American woman living in Tehran during the mid-’70s.” 

What is “true” in regards to the establishment of TMoCA’s famed collection, however, changes based on who tells its story.


The Role of the Museum

When TMoCA was inaugurated by Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the height of Iran’s oil boom in 1977, it was lauded around the world for its impressive collection of Western art. Iran, a nation the world has come to know as repressive, was then open to the world and free. 

To put things in perspective: The museum was inaugurated the same year as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and 25 years before the Tate Modern in London. Works by art history’s most esteemed names—Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, and many more—were there. The collection is now valued at $3 billion to $4 billion, according to Kamran Diba, the museum’s architect and former director. Its vision was to display Western art alongside the work of Modern and contemporary Iranian artists.

From left: Empress Farah Pahlavi, founding patron of TMoCA; Kamran Diba, founding architect and director of TMoCA; and David Galloway, founding curator of TMoCA. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

From left: Empress Farah Pahlavi, founding patron of TMoCA; Kamran Diba, founding architect and director of TMoCA; and David Galloway, founding curator of TMoCA. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

“TMoCA is a unique institution because it is the first museum of Modern art of international standards established in the Middle East and still not surpassed,” the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi told Midnight Publishing Group News. “The museum and its world-class collection represent a symbol of modernity, which is a source of national pride for Iranians, offering collaboration with artists throughout the world.” 

Then came the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In January of that year, the Empress and the Shah fled, never to return to their country again. The Shah died in exile in 1980 while the Empress divides her time between Paris and Washington, D.C. She continues to be a fervent supporter of the Iranian art scene from afar. 


Controversial Claims

This backstory helps explain why the museum—and the narrative that surrounds it—is so precious to many Iranians. It is also why they feel aggrieved when that narrative is, in their minds, misinterpreted. 

Critics of Stein’s book, three of whom spoke to Midnight Publishing Group News, feel her story perpetuates harmful misrepresentations of the museum. When asked about these claims, the Empress, who is pictured with Stein on the cover of the book, declined to provide further comment.

Critics claim Stein takes credit for playing a larger role in the museum’s formation than she actually did. “In my opinion, Donna Stein was a young employee without much experience,” Diba, who is also the Empress’s first cousin, told Midnight Publishing Group News. As director, he was personally responsible for purchasing key works, including Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965), for $81,400, and Jasper Johns’s Passage Two (1966) for $255,000.

Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965). Courtesy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965). Courtesy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

TMoCA’s acquisition process was a collaborative effort. In two interviews given to Dubai-based journalist Myrna Ayad for Canvas and The Art Newspaper, Farah Diba Pahlavi credited founding director Diba, chief of staff Karim Pasha Bahadori, founding curator David Galloway, and lastly, Stein for “shaping the collection.” 

While Stein claimed to have played a central role in selecting works on paper (including prints, drawings, and photographs) as well as paintings and sculptures, Diba said she was involved largely in building the photography collection, which he does not consider to be the strongest part of the museum’s holdings. 

“Going through the pages of the photography collection catalogue alongside prints which she helped assemble, it quickly became obvious to anyone in the know that none of the key pieces that should have been acquired as part of a worthwhile collection of contemporary art of the time were in fact acquired,” he told Midnight Publishing Group News. 

Author and curator Donna Stein. Courtesy of Skira.

Author and curator Donna Stein. Courtesy of Skira.

Stein—who had previously worked as an assistant curator in the prints and illustrated books department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was hired after traveling to Iran on a National Endowment for the Arts grant—says her contribution was underplayed because of her nationality and gender. 

“Many people took credit for the work that I had done,” Stein said, noting that the empress did not acknowledge her involvement officially until 2013, when she contributed a chapter about her experience to a book on Iranian visual culture. 

In an interview with Midnight Publishing Group News, Stein went even further than she did in the book, contending that she also advised on Iranian artists for the collection in consultation with other curators. “What I didn’t say in the book was that not only was I choosing the Western works in the collection, but I also was choosing Iranian works,” she said. (She added that she kept “careful files of both the Western and contemporary Iranian acquisitions, which I recently learned are archived at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.”)


Culture Clash

In addition to the story of TMoCA and its collection, Stein also recounts her experiences as a single American woman living in Tehran during the mid-’70s and how she was often mocked for what Iranians then saw as her unusual lifestyle. 

“Iranians at the time had no conception of women who lived alone; a woman either lived with her family or was married,” she said. “I was neither. It was a strange society for someone like myself who was young and adventurous and a hard worker.”

Kamran Diba in the center, with his predominantly female curatorial / museum staff. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

Kamran Diba in the center, with his curatorial and museum staff. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

But some in the Iranian art world interpreted her account, accompanied by her comments in international press, as what Maryam Eisler, former chair of the Middle East acquisitions committee at the Tate, called an “accusatory chronicle of an Iranian society.” Eisler points to a New York Times interview in which Stein described Iran as “the Third World” and the museum’s audience as “uneducated.” 

“Perhaps a reminder is in order to counter such stale ‘orientalist’ narratives; in fact, the ‘educated’ amongst us universally recognize Iran to be one of the greatest cradles of civilization,” Eisler said. 


Testament to Iran’s Living Memory

Against a backdrop of political repression, rising inflation, and continued sanctions in Iran, some might question why the story of the TMoCA matters at all, or why those involved in the museum are going to such lengths to, in their minds, correct the record—both in regard to Stein’s book and international news coverage. 

“Each time TMoCA’s Western art is exhibited, someone writes an article about how this is the first time this art has been seen since the revolution, usually accompanied by a photograph of a veiled woman looking at Warhol or Giacometti,” said Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian specializing in Middle Eastern art. “Maintaining the myth of novelty—for whatever reason—becomes an act of cultural erasure. It erases the traces, often ephemeral, with which we write histories of art and develop better understandings of the role of art in society.”

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

For a country that has been secluded to the world for decades, it has always been through its art that Iran has communicated with the outside world. TMoCA is the epitome of Iran’s powerful belief in art and culture; in many ways, it is its last symbol of freedom.

“What people tend to forget is that this museum was just as much about creating an important cultural dialogue and interplay between the great Western artists of the period and their Iranian counterparts, me being one,” prominent Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli told Midnight Publishing Group News. “That, to me, is the greatest legacy of the collection—not only internationally, but also, and most importantly, for the people of Iran.”

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Legendary Gallerist Paula Cooper Cements a Succession Plan, Promoting Four Longtime Employees to Partner

A month after her 83rd birthday, art dealer Paula Cooper has named four partners to carry on her legacy at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery.

Steve Henry, the gallery’s director since 1998, will be senior partner, and Lucas Cooper, the dealer’s son, who has worked at the gallery since 2013, will be managing partner.

Longtime employees Anthony Allen, who joined the gallery in 2000, and Alexis Johnson, who was on staff from 2010 to 2016 and returned earlier this year (after five years at Lévy Gorvy) will be partners. Collectively, the four employees boast 60 years experience at the gallery.

“It is with great enthusiasm that I welcome these four remarkable individuals as my partners,” Cooper said in a statement. “Their dedication and that of the staff, community of professionals, and collectors with whom we collaborate has made clear that there is a place for a focused, artist-driven gallery like ours—even in an art world that has continued to change dramatically since we opened our doors in 1968.”

The Paula Cooper Gallery at 155 Wooster Street, in SoHo, in 1973. Photo by Mates and Katz, courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

The Paula Cooper Gallery at 155 Wooster Street, in SoHo, in 1973. Photo by Mates and Katz, courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

Cooper has been at the forefront of change in the industry since the gallery moved from Soho to Chelsea in 1996 and, this year, opened its first outpost outside of New York, in Palm Beach, Florida. Henry, who spearheaded the space, will split his time between the two cities.

In New York, the gallery is currently renovating its primary location at 524 West 21st Street, which is slated to reopen late this year. In the meantime, it is holding exhibitions at 524 West 26th Street and on the second floor of 521 West 21st Street.

Cooper still isn’t retiring, but her succession plan will allow her to gradually hand over some of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the business, a process that has already begun.

Passing the reins of a long-running art business can prove challenging, as Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer recently noted in their announcement about the closure of their 40-year-old Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures at the end of 2021.

But Cooper is confident her hand-picked successors will be able to build on her success. “Lucas, Steve, Anthony, and Alexis understand what has made this gallery possible for 50 years,” she said. “They not only understand the culture, but also how to evolve in the next chapter.”

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A Museum Show Dedicated to a Legendary Asian American Art Collective Has Been Cancelled After a Majority of the Artists Withdrew in Protest

The Museum of Chinese in America in New York has called off an exhibition focusing on a 1990s Asian American art collective after the majority of the participating artists withdrew.

The 19 artists, who were members of the group Godzilla, oppose the museum’s acceptance of $35 million in city funds, which they say suggests its complicity in the construction of a new jail in Chinatown that is part of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plan to close the notorious Rikers Island jail.

Among the signatories to the letter are Byron Kim, Paul Pfeiffer, and Lynne Yamamoto.

Community groups in the neighborhood have been fighting vigorously against the planned jail, which they say will hurt businesses. Godzilla, in its statement, said the museum’s acceptance of city money, and its alleged failure to speak out against the construction of the complex, suggests its “complicit support” of a broken criminal justice system.

The museum, in a statement, said it “has always been unalterably opposed to building a jail in Chinatown,” and that it has expressed that position many times. The museum’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, also told the artists in a letter obtained by Artforum that it issued a statement against the proposed jail online.

But the artists say that “grossly misrepresents” the museum’s position, and assert that “its leadership sought to actually benefit from the jail construction.” According to Artforum, the group also claims the museum’s public statement against the jail was only available as a PDF on an obscure webpage that has already been redesigned.

In a 2019 document titled “Borough-Based Jail Plan Points of Agreement,” the city offered the money to the museum to help it construct a new permanent home, as well as a new performing arts space.

Adding an additional wrinkle to the case is museum board member and local landlord Jonathan Chu’s decision to evict the owners of Jing Fong, a beloved local restaurant, from his premises.

Slated to open this spring, “Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990–2001” was to be organized by Herb Tam, the museum’s curator and director of exhibitions, and independent curator Ryan Wong.

As himself Wong wrote in a 2017 Hyperallergic essay about Chinatown art collectives, Godzilla had real clout.

When the group criticized the Whitney Museum of American Art for failing to show Asian American artists, the museum included group member Byron Kim in its 1993 Biennial, and hired member Eugenie Tsai as a curator the next year.

The collective also organized shows at venues like Artists Space (in 1993), and was included in the 1998 show “Urban Encounters” at the New Museum. By 1997, the group boasted some 231 members, but by 2001, Godzilla disbanded, with many members convinced the group had accomplished its purpose.

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