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Frick Pittsburgh's postponement of Islamic art show stirs controversy

A large mansion with a stone sign in the front.
Gene J. Puskar
The Frick Pittsburgh is an art museum on the grounds of the former home of 19th-century steel titan Henry Clay Frick in Pittsburgh.

An exhibit of traditional Islamic art at the Frick Pittsburgh was marketed as a way to bring people together “beyond borders and boundaries.” Instead, its postponement because of the Israel-Hamas war is sowing controversy.

“Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art,” was announced by the museum in early October — days before Hamas attacked Israel — and was slated to open Saturday, Nov. 4. The touring exhibit featured “fine glassware, ceramics, metalwork, painting, weaponry, weaving and more from countries across the Middle East.”

On Oct. 17, the Frick said it had postponed the show until further notice, citing “an unforeseen scheduling conflict.”

But as first reported by Triblive, the real reason for the postponement was concern that, in wartime, the exhibit might offend some members of the local community.

“When violence broke out, the conflict in the Middle East, we recognized that the exhibition needed more context and local intentionality,” Elizabeth Barker, the Frick’s executive director, told WESA.

“And rather than have the exhibition become a divisive political touchstone, something that might have caused offense to our community and distracted from our core work, we thought it would be wise to postpone and return to the subject when we had more time to present it with a richer context and perhaps most importantly to partner with local organizations to make sure our show resonates with the community here in the Pittsburgh region," she said.

On Monday, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the decision.

“I’m afraid statements that conflate Islamic tradition or the Islamic world as terrorists [are] dangerous. It’s dangerous to our community that has already suffered,” said Christine Mohamed, the nonprofit advocacy group’s executive director. “We’re talking about Islamic art and tradition that is very broad. And to conflate it with terrorism is just disheartening.”

Mohamed said she understands the intent behind the postponement. And she emphasized that “any loss of life, be it Palestinian or Israeli, is hurtful, it’s disheartening, it is sad to see.”

But she noted the artwork to be exhibited — all of it from the 19th century or earlier, according to the museum — didn’t reference the Israel-Hamas conflict. She called on the Frick to reconsider the postponement.

art exhibition screenshot
A screenshot of the Frick Pittsburgh web page announcing postponement of "Treasured Ornament"

In a written response to CAIR’s statement, Barker wrote: “This postponement was never intended to be a political statement. At the core of the Frick's mission is sharing art, history and nature that create experiences of discovery, inspiration and learning that bring people together and enrich our lives and the cultural fabric of our region.”

Barker told WESA she was not aware of anyone who had objected to the show. But at least one local Jewish advocacy group did seem puzzled by the postponement.

“Equating Islamic art and Muslims in general with Hamas is certainly bias and is certainly something we’re against,” said Adam Hertzman, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “I believe that few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibit on Islamic art because we understand that has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”

CAIR’s Mohamed said she has been hearing reports of local incidents of Islamophobia, including “profanities shouted at people.” She also criticized as insensitive statements by schools and workplaces that, in expressing solidarity with Israel, “completely disregard the Arab-Muslim community and the struggles that they may be going on with, and their loved ones that are trapped in Gaza.”

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“It’s the language and the terms that are being used. And instead of bringing us closer together, my concern is that it’s going to put a divide — and an unnecessary one — because at the end of the day, we are all part of the human race,” Mohamed said.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 8,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict to date, mostly women and children. The Israeli death toll is about 1,400, according to the Israeli government.

“Treasured Ornament” was organized by the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, W.Va., which did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Although the Frick described the show’s removal from the schedule as a postponement, Barker acknowledged it was unclear when or if it would return.

“We hope it will be possible to bring this exhibition here,” she said. That would depend largely on the show’s availability. But if the museum were unable to book “Treasured Ornament,” she said, it would find another show to reflect “the very important contributions that artists from Islamic lands have made throughout the history of art.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: