Here Are the 14 U.S. Museum Shows That Matter This Fall, From a Survey of 21st-Century Feminisms in Berkeley to a Radical Art Rediscovery in Atlanta

As museums begin to reopen in the United States, we cast an eye over upcoming exhibitions for those that promise the most urgent and notable art of our time. The resulting list contains a diverse roster of 14 shows—by solo practitioners and groups chosen by keen-eyed curators—coming to museums from coast to coast.

Some exhibitions will introduce you to artists you may not know, like Bani Abidi at the MCA Chicago, Michaela Eichwald at the Walker Art Center, and Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum. Others will offer new insight into artists or eras of artistic production you thought you knew, from a spotlight on Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography in Houston to a sweeping feminist art survey in Berkeley. 

Regardless of what city you’re in, this fall’s season of museum programming is bound to open both eyes and minds.


New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
August 28, 2021–January 30, 2022

Farah Al Qasimi, It’s Not Easy Being Seen 3 (2016). Courtesy the artist; The Third Line, Dubai; and Helena Anrather.

With 140 works by 76 artists and collectives, this exhibition at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is one of the largest to date on contemporary feminist art, and will coincide with a year of public programming focused on feminist theory. Works by the likes of Laura Aguilar, Christina Quarles, Zanele Muholi, Wu Tsang, and Francesca Woodman are included, tackling such topics as the fragmented body, domesticity, female anger, and feminist utopias. 


Raúl de Nieves: The Treasure House of Memory
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
September 1, 2021–July 24, 2022

Raúl de Nieves, The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more (2021). © Raúl de Nieves.

Multidisciplinary artist Raúl de Nieves is adored for his exuberant works that blend queer club culture, religious iconography, and folklore traditions from his native Mexico. Here, the artist continues his ongoing exploration of his culture and its traditions through a new body of work, created especially for the ICA, that looks at memory and personal transformation.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022 

Nellie Mae Rowe, This World is Not My Home (1979). Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Born in Georgia in 1900, the daughter of a formerly enslaved man, Rowe achieved fame as a self-taught folk artist. The first major exhibition devoted to Rowe in more than 20 years celebrates the late artist’s notable drawing career, which was only fostered later in her life, after the deaths of her husband and employer, in the 1960s. The museum bills the show as the first to position Rowe’s creative pursuit as a “radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights-era South.”


Joan Mitchell
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
September 4, 2021–January 17, 2022

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1992). Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This highly anticipated retrospective devoted to the queen of gestural abstraction contains over 80 works, encompassing everything from early paintings and drawings, sketchbooks, letters, and photographs to the large, color-drenched, multi-panel works that defined her later output.  


Selena Forever/Siempre Selena
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
September 4, 2021–January 10, 2022

John Dyer, Selena (1992). Courtesy of the artist.

At the height of the beloved Tejano singer’s fame, it was photographer John Dyer whom she entrusted to produce the images of her that were seared into the American pop-culture consciousness. Over the course of two collaborative photoshoots, in 1992 and ‘94, Dyer captured the legendary Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in her signature gemmed bustier and red lip, pictures that became immortal after her tragic death in 1995.


Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 4, 2021–June 5, 2022

Bani Abidi, An Unforeseen Situation 4. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Bani Abidi’s work infuses deadly serious subjects like militarism, nationalism, and memory with humor, holding up a mirror to power structures. The Pakistani artist, who lives in Karachi and Berlin, gets the survey treatment at the MCA, co-organized with the Sharjah Art Foundation, in a show that looks at over 20 years of her career and features new work alongside existing video, photography, and sound installations. 


Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?
Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 18, 2021–January 30, 2022

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Pendleton, who has put forth a “Black Dada” framework inspired by Amiri Baraka, ambitiously takes over MoMA’s Marron Atrium with an immersive floor-to-ceiling installation described as a “spatial collage” containing text, image, and sound. All together, the show’s paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures, and moving images seek to disrupt the 1:1 relationship of words and images, allowing a complex new vision of Blackness to emerge in abstraction.

The Art Institute of Chicago
September 19, 2021–January 24, 2022

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. Photo by Susan Broman via Flickr.

The prolific Pictures Generation artist has collaborated with the Art Institute to map out a survey of her entire career that takes up the whole of the museum’s 18,000-square-foot gallery space. It’s all here, and squirm-inducingly relevant: her trademark “pasteups,” works on vinyl, animations, and video installations, plus a new site-specific work in the adjoining atrium. On top of this, Kruger has created work for the city at large, making billboards and designs for the Chicago Transit Authority, among other organizations.


Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared
Dallas Museum of Art
September 26, 2021–May 15, 2022

Naudline Pierre, Lest You Fall (2019). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Pierre is known for her colorful canvases that depict ethereal beings and explore power struggles in intimate relationships. The Brooklyn-based painter’s first solo museum exhibition will consist of existing works—one of which was recently acquired by the DMA—as well as new creations, with five major paintings making their debut. 


Greater New York
MoMA PS1, New York
October 7, 2021–April 18, 2022

Robin Graubard, selection from “Peripheral Vision” (1979–2021). Image courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Antwerp.

One of the hottest survey exhibitions of new art from across New York’s five boroughs is back for its fifth iteration. This latest edition, curated by Ruba Katrib with Serubiri Moses, Kate Fowle, and Inés Katzenstein, was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, but still promises to showcase the best of artists and collectives currently working in the Big Apple, including Carolyn Lazard, Alan Michelson, and BlackMass publishing.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
October 17, 2021–January 17, 2022

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) (1964–68). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

The artist best known for her paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes is recast here in the first exhibition to focus entirely on her photography, with nearly 100 prints from a newly examined archive to go on view. Described as a “Modernist approach” to the art form, O’Keeffe’s pictures document family members, fellow artists, and her travels. 


Soft Water Hard Stone
The New Museum, New York
October 28, 2021–January 23, 2022

Amalie Smith, Clay Theory (2019) (still). Courtesy of the artist.

The latest triennial from the downtown institution draws its title from a Brazilian proverb: “Água mole em pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura,” meaning “soft water on hard stone hits until it bores a hole.” Curators Margot Norton and Jamillah James have translated this idea into an exhibition of 41 international artists focused on how systems we once considered infallible have been, in fact, proven fragile by recent global crises. 


My Barbarian
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
October 29, 2021–February 27, 2022

My Barbarian, Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2011–15. Studio photograph, courtesy of the artists.

For the occasion of the performance trio’s 20th anniversary, the Whitney has commissioned a new filmic piece, Rose Bird, about California’s first female chief Supreme Court justice, to accompany this two-part survey of My Barbarian’s work. A series of live events—including a play, a festival, a cabaret-style concert, and a “rehearsal-as-performance”―will be enacted alongside an exhibition containing footage of previous performances, in addition to sculptures, paintings, drawings, masks, and puppets.

Michaela Eichwald
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
November 14, 2020–May 16, 2021

Michaela Eichwald, Die Unsrigen sind fortgezogen (The Ours Have Moved Away) (2014). Collection Brian Pietsch and Christopher Hermann.

The Berlin-based artist and writer, who is primarily a painter, marks her first solo exhibition in the United States with a presentation looking back at the past ten years of her career. Her palimpsest-like paintings, sculptures, and collages contain surprising materials like candy and chicken bones, and often allude to her interests in philosophy and literature.

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Here Are the 12 Biggest Controversies That Rocked the Art World in 2020—and Why They Won’t Disappear Next Year

Within the art world—and, to a much larger extent, outside of it—2020 was one of the most tumultuous years in history. Museums and galleries faced financial challenges that threatened their very existence, as Black Lives Matter uprisings forced a reckoning with the art world’s structural racism and controversial monuments that celebrate shameful histories around the globe.

Here, we spotlight 12 thorny questions that sent shockwaves through the art world and sparked spirited debate that is sure to boil over into 2021.


Should Universities Teach Traditional Art History Surveys or Not?

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Back in January—a much more innocent time for most of us—the year’s first controversy presaged many of the debates to come. Yale University announced it would eliminate its popular survey course, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present,” as part of a broader overhaul to address concerns that its curriculum promoted a white, Westernized canon at the expense of other narratives. (New thematic courses—including “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road,” and “Sacred Places”—would replace the standard 101 lineup.) The move struck a nerve with those who already felt cultural norms were changing more quickly than they could keep up with; New York Post labeled it “PC idiocy,” while the New Criterion likened Yale’s art-history department head to Joseph Stalin. The university, for its part, suggested the dust-up was largely a misunderstanding. In a statement, the department wrote: “Recent excitement on social media about Yale’s curriculum demonstrates just how significant and lively—even controversial—the study of art history can, and should, be.”


Why Did a Microsoft Ad Featuring Marina Abramović Spark a Right-Wing Satanic Conspiracy?

Promo image featuring Marina Abramovic wearing the HoloLens 2 headset Photo: Microsoft.

Promo image featuring Marina Abramovic wearing the HoloLens 2 headset Photo: Microsoft.

In the spring, a stranger-than-fiction clash entangled software behemoth Microsoft, world-famous performance artist Marina Abramović, and conspiracy theorists the world over. It all started when the tech company uploaded a promotional video for HoloLens2, a headset designed for mixed reality, that prominently featured the artist. Less than a week later, the ad vanished. In the interim, it turns out, it had been given a “thumbs down” by more than 24,000 users on YouTube. Many of the disapproving votes reportedly came after Infowars, a far-right blog run by Alex Jones, published a story attempting to connect the video to a bizarrely resilient theory—which stretches all the way back to 2016’s “Pizzagate”—that Abramović is a Satanist.

Confused? Midnight Publishing Group News critic Ben Davis went down the rabbit hole to unravel this controversy, and you can read about it in more detail here.


When Is It Okay For a Museum to Sell Art?

Christopher Bedford in Venice for “Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day” at the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2017. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

When Midnight Publishing Group News spoke to Baltimore Museum director Christopher Bedford about the museum’s plan to sell several blue-chip works as part of its latest effort to diversify its holdings, he sounded more than confident about the decision. Though he stressed that the sell-off was not related to financial strain, he sought to take advantage of the fact that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) had temporarily loosened its guidelines on how members could use the proceeds from deaccessioned art amid the pandemic.

He may not have expected just how emphatic the blowback would be. Weeks later, hours before a planned multimillion-dollar auction at Sotheby’s, the museum withdrew the works from the sale.

Other museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, forged ahead with deaccessioning efforts that took a more conservative approach to the new rules. But since the loosened guidelines remain in effect through April 2022, this is likely not the last time a museum will push the envelope when it comes to deaccessioning.


How Should We Reckon With Controversial Monuments?

A statue of Christopher Columbus at Grant Park in Chicago is removed early on July 24, 2020. (Photo by Derek R. Henkle / AFP via Getty Images)

As calls for social justice swept the country in June following the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people, the long-simmering debate about controversial monuments leapt to the forefront of the national conversation. Outcomes were as wide-ranging as opinions about how to respond. In Richmond, roughly 1,000 protesters used ropes to topple an eight-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus, then proceeded to light it on fire and drag it to a nearby lake. In New York, the American Museum of Natural History ceded to demands to remove a monument to Theodore Roosevelt that had stood outside the building since 1940. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot outlined a comprehensive plan to review the fates of the city’s most controversial public monuments following temporary removal of some. Meanwhile, across Europe, a groundswell of activism focused on toppling monuments to problematic figures from slavers to colonizers.


Will Leaders Change the Way They Treat Workers for Good?

Nathalie Bondil has been dismissed as director general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal Photo by Marco Campanozzi.

Nathalie Bondil. Photo by Marco Campanozzi.

If pressure came to the museum boardroom last year, it came to the C-suite this year. As in other industries, activists and employees joined forces to call out allegedly abusive behavior in the workplace. Whether on Instagram or Twitter; in open letters; in the press; or in the offices of those with the power to hire and fire, workers aired their complaints. And in some cases, speaking up had a big impact. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit was fired; a top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as directors of the Akron Art Museum and the Cantor Arts Center, resigned; as did a board member at Rhizome who was unsatisfied with the New Museum’s response to reports of toxic leadership.

Some institutions hired outside counsel to investigate charges against top brass, including the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the chief curator of the Guggenheim (though not everyone was satisfied with the outcomes). Perhaps the messiest executive departure of them all took place in Montreal, where the former Montreal Museum director Nathalie Bondil was fired for (depending on whom you ask) fostering an unhealthy work environment or refusing to cede control to a newly hired curatorial director.


Why Was Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Turned Back Into a Mosque?

Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman mosque. Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman mosque. Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images.

It seemed no amount of alarm or vocal opposition could deter Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from converting the world-famous Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO site, from a museum into an active mosque this past July. He transferred operations of the building from the Ministry of Culture to the state Religious Affairs Directorate—and less than two weeks later, announced that mosaics depicting Christian icons would be covered during Muslim prayer. It seemed to mark the beginning of a trend: At the end of August, the Turkish government announced it would also convert the Chora museum back to a mosque. Robert Ousterhout, a professor emeritus in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, called the move a “blatant attempt to erase Istanbul’s rich Byzantine heritage.”

Will Museums Make Good on the Promises They Made During the Black Lives Matter Demonstrations?

Outside the Brooklyn Museum during the Black Trans Lives Matter March in June 2020. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Twitter.

Outside the Brooklyn Museum during the Black Trans Lives Matter March in June 2020. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Twitter.

After many museums responded to the Black Lives Matter uprisings sweeping the globe with messages of support over the summer, they were pressured to put their money where their mouths were. Well, first came the initial bumbling responses, like the Getty’s, which failed to mention George Floyd or Black lives; the Met’s, which used a work by Glenn Ligon in a post without his permission; or the Toledo Art Museum’s, which maintained the institution did “not have a political stance.” Some responses drew even more derision, like the Whitney Museum of Art’s (swiftly aborted) plan to present an exhibition of work purchased through charity benefits by predominantly Black artists at below-market prices. After these initial missteps, many museums pledged to take concrete action to address white supremacy in the form of staff trainings, inclusivity committees, and programming goals. But broader and more difficult questions—about how the business-as-usual at museums may undermine the aims they profess to be working toward—remain unanswered as we head into 2021.


Why Was There So Much Bad Public Art of Women in 2020?

Maggi Hambling, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft (2020). Photo by Ioana Marinescu.

Maggi Hambling, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft (2020). Photo by Ioana Marinescu.

As outdated monuments come down, new ones honoring figures who have previously been pushed to the margins of history are going up. And the years after the #MeToo reckoning have resulted in some… very strange sculptures of women, including a number that ignited the commentariat in 2020. Artist Maggi Hambling set off a social media hate-storm for her depiction of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft as a sexy nude figure emerging from an oddly shaped mound of silver.

Possibly even more painful to the eyes was the seven-foot-tall nude bronze Medusa statue—holding aloft the head of Perseus—installed outside of the criminal court in Lower Manhattan where Harvey Weinstein was tried. Critics took issue with the idealized figure—as well as the fact that it was the work of a male artist.


Should a Major Philip Guston Show Have Gone Ahead as Planned?

Sharon Helgason Gallagher, Philip Guston: Now. Courtesy of D.A.P. Art Books.

Sharon Helgason Gallagher, Philip Guston: Now. Courtesy of D.A.P. Art Books.

In September, four major museums—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—announced that they were delaying a major touring retrospective of the work of Philip Guston until 2024. The museums said they were putting off the show “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

The images at the center of the debate were 25 drawings and paintings that evoke the Ku Klux Klan. Those outraged by the delay included Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, as well as 100 artists, writers, and scholars who wrote an open letter admonishing the museums for the decision. The institutions held fast to their commitment to rework the exhibition—but pledged to move the opening date up, to 2022.


Will Fallout From the Jeffrey Epstein Scandal Ever Stop?

Leon Black.Photo: © 2014 Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.

Leon Black. Photo: © 2014 Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.

Fallout from the scandal surrounding the late convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein continued to slip over into the art world in 2020.

The New York Academy of Art was thrown into turmoil after alumna Maria Farmer, an alleged victim of Epstein, accused the school of enabling the late sex offender’s abuse. In response, the academy hired a law firm to investigate Farmer’s claims. But instead of closing the book on the issue, aspects of the investigation were characterized by students and alumni as victim-blaming and biased. Four board members, including actress Naomi Watts, resigned from their roles. The school, for its part, apologized to Farmer and outlined steps to address the issues raised in the investigation.

Meanwhile, billionaire collector and MoMA board chair Leon Black has been under fire for his business ties with Epstein and the roughly $50 million he funneled to the financier over the years. The US Virgin Islands subpoenaed Blackas well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s—in connection with the Epstein case. (A spokesperson for Leon Black’s family foundation previously disputed reports that Epstein remained involved with the organization for four years after his 2008 conviction, noting that his presence on tax forms through 2012 was due to a “recording error.”)


Was a Museum Right or Wrong to Cancel an Exhibition Containing Images of Police Violence? 

Shaun Leonardo, Freddy Pereira (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Shaun Leonardo, Freddy Pereira (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Some controversies become more complicated and more gray the deeper you look—and this was one of those. In March, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland quietly cancelled an exhibition of drawings by the artist Shaun Leonardo depicting scenes of police officers killing African American and Latino men. The museum said it had done so in response to feedback from the community, including local activists Amanda King and Samaria Rice (the mother of Cleveland native Tamir Rice). After Leonardo countered that he had not been given the chance to respond to their objections, the museum apologized; its director stepped down not long after. Rice—who, along with King, maintained the museum had made the right decision all along—issued a cease and desist to Leonardo asking him to stop using images of her son in his work. The series in question resurfaced in a show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this fall without incident—and without the work depicting Rice. The entire saga was a powerful illustration of the fact that there is still a lack of consensus about best practices in dealing with such difficult material.


Were American Museums Right to Make Layoffs—or Taking the Easy Way Out?

Visitors look at the frescos and the Pergamon altar in the altar room at Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Visitors look at the frescos and the Pergamon altar in the altar room at Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images.

The statistics have been bleak. Dozens of US museums laid off thousands of employees in the wake of sweeping shutdowns in March—and a second round of reductions hit the sector in June, after government loan money ran out. In that month alone, 17 institutions laid off more than 1,350 workers, according to analysis by Midnight Publishing Group News. But just as workers began to speak up about toxic work environments this year, so they questioned the wisdom—and legality—of these decisions. The New Museum Union filed charges against its employer with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that management violated the law when it let members of the bargaining unit go. One longtime curator at the Nelson-Atkins resigned in protest of its layoffs.

Some onlookers, like signatories of a petition assembled by SFMOMA staff, asked why museum executives with “unreasonably large salaries” weren’t taking deeper cuts. (SFMOMA director Neal Benezra “earns more in one month than a full-time frontline staff member earns in an entire year,” that petition stated.) Others asked why board members were not opening their wallets to retain experienced, valued team members—particularly when staff at museums were themselves contributing to mutual aid funds designed to support hard-hit peers.

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