Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gender Disparity in MoMA's Collection: Rays of Hope and Other Considerations

For some reason, Facebook (FB) limits the number of "friends" you can accept to 5000. That might seem high enough, but compared with Twitter (in which Ellen DeGeneres, for example, currently has 2.1 million followers) it makes the social network a highly limited means of communication.

Knowing that one of my favorite "friends" to follow on FB, the art critic Jerry Saltz, has reached his limit of 5,000, I wanted to reprint a report he posted there recently because I believe it deserves as wide an audience as possible. If you're already among Jerry's FB friends then you know he's been leading a truly spirited debate about the disparity between work (made before 1970) by men and women on exhibition at MoMA. Recently, and rather bravely, Ann Temkin (MoMA's Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture) met with Jerry to discuss the issue. The following is re-printed with Mr. Saltz's permission:

Jerry Saltz meeting with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin.

Jerry Saltz
June 29, 2009

Last week I met with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin. We talked about the two week discussion (that took place on my Facebook Page) about the lack of representation of women artists on the fourth and fifth floors of the museum’s permanent collection (of work completed before 1970). Of the 135 artists installed on these floors only 19 are women, 6%. Temkin asked that this meeting be “off the record” but agreed that I would report on its perimeters and my impressions.

The meeting was cordial, relaxed, open, and serious. It began at 5:00PM and lasted a little under 90 minutes. It took place midweek at a bar in a midtown restaurant. I didn’t take notes on, or record the conversation. The restaurant was almost empty when we started; it was almost full when we left.

At no time was Temkin defensive, dismissive, or in the least hostile. She agreed with some points and was not shy about disagreeing with others. As I wrote many times in my FB posts, Temkin confirmed that she and every person at MoMA, from the Director on down, are well aware of the problem of the lack of representation by women artists on these floors. She stated at the outset that the museum is committed and determined to rectify this.

Temkin then took major issue with the focus and reasoning of my main argument about female representation at MoMA. She stated that concentrating only on the fourth and fifth floors of Painting & Sculpture, perpetuated and reinforced a flawed stereotype and prejudice about the history of modern art. Excluding drawing, design, printmaking, photography, etc. (areas where women are represented and made great contributions) reinforces an outmoded and strictly “masculinist” approach to art by privileging painting and sculpture.

At first as she said this my heart sank. Of course she’s right. I answered that it is MoMA above all art institutions that reinforces and maintains this separation between the disciplines. Although it is growing more common to see mediums being mixed at MoMA (August Sander now hangs in the gallery in P & S devoted to the German Neue Sachlichkeit), MoMA established and still exhibits the disciplines more-or-less separately and not equally. There is far more square footage situated far more centrally and prominently for P & S than any of the other disciplines. I said it would be fantastic to see the collapse of MoMA’s artificial barriers between the disciplines (“MoMA tear down this wall!”), but suspected that this wouldn’t be in the cards any time soon. In addition, MoMA’s collection of painting and sculpture is preeminent; it is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Therefore it is on these two crucial floors that the so-called “official story” of Modernism is represented. This is MoMA’s boon and its bane.

This brought us back to the main issue. Temkin stated that work by women artists has been rotated into the collection over the course of the last two years, and that the FB protestors and I were not taking this into account. I acknowledged this but said that even with these substitutions and changes the percentage of women artists on these floors did not rise, and that these adjustments weren’t enough. (If you count the works of art, rather than artists, the figure drops to four percent women.) Temkin then said that talking about the collection primarily in terms of numbers obscures larger important changes. She cited the current installation of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture at the entrance of the fourth floor. The Bourgeois sculpture is being given pride-of-place, the space on this floor that Cezanne has long enjoyed on the fifth floor. Bourgeois is being presented as a touchstone figure. I conceded that it was true that by only counting the number of women artists does not reflect structural changes. Still, this didn’t seem like a solution.

I stated that the problem behind the problem of the lack of women on these floors is the 875 million dollar (almost criminal) failure on the part of those who built the new museum to provide enough space for this crucial portion of the institution (let alone other departments). Until the space can be substantially increased the museum is in a terrible double bind: It has to display its extraordinary collection and at the same time allow modernism to live, and not calcify in a masterpiece-by-masterpiece
installation of 94% male artists. With the economy the way it is, moreover, it’s unlikely we’ll see new space built within the next decade (the same day we met a community board reinforced its objections to MoMA’s future building plans). This puts even more pressure on the museum, now.

What to do? Temkin talked convincingly about how important it was to change the perception of these two floors, away from being seen as permanent to fluid installations of reappraisal and experimentation. She said that unlike all the previous decades the museum intends to alter these two floors on a more regular basis. Even “important work” might temporarily be de-installed. This would open up the story, expand it, and allow the focus of the collection to continually shift. Temkin suggested that whole rooms could be dismantled and all new work put on view. When I asked for an example she talked about de-installing the monographic gallery of Joseph Beuys and replacing it with a gallery devoted to late-1960s artists Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse.

MoMA desperately needs this to play with its collection. However, Temkin’s example perpetuates yet another problem plaguing MoMA. Beuys, Nauman, and Hesse are all bona fide top-dogs; the A-list as art history. I love them all but curators have to take more chances and not just default to the same artists. Other artists were working at extremely high levels in the late 1960s. It would be amazing to see that MoMA gallery with any combination of H.C. Westermann, Jay De Feo, Jess, Yvonne Rainer, Benny Andrews, Dorothy Iannone, Jim Nutt, Bruce Conner, Vija Celmins, Barclay Hendricks, Adrian Piper, Ken Price, or Martin Ramirez. And let’s not forget that Picasso was one of the best artists of the 1960s (or that Henry Darger was in the process of working on his epic masterpiece). MoMA could hang an entire floor with only the late work of artists. This would show that art is about 30-year careers not just 30-month careers.

This brought us to what for me was an emotional turning point in the conversation. We began talking about so-called “institutional time.” I said that institutional time, as she described it, was “glacial” and “too slow” to address the serious problems plaguing MoMA. Temkin talked about how every change at MoMA has implications and repercussions and that over time even small changes and minor adjustments make significant differences. “Art is long” she seemed to say. My reaction was that, time is short. I said that I believed that if enough isn’t done soon, the changes MoMA is talking about will come about when MoMA and Modernism have come to be seen as retrograde and the museum is seen as stuck in the mud.

I then brought up the possibility of a much larger change, the re-installation of the entire fourth floor. Temkin said that she has been seriously studying this for some time. She is considering having the entire floor devoted to one stylistic post-war period. This seemed hopeful. Then she added that this sort of plan could be implemented in three or four years. I complained, “Why not sooner?” After hearing her thoughts about considerations having to do with loans, schedules, restorations, etc., I said again that while I thought that revamping whole floors was a fantastic idea, the time was now.

We looked at each for a while, then at our watches. We left the bar and shared a cab uptown. We talked about summer plans and recent travels. We got out and said a friendly goodbye.

As I opened my umbrella and walked away I thought about how extraordinary this meeting was. Past MoMA curators of Painting and Sculpture would never have met with a critic who started a kerfuffle on Facebook (or anywhere else). I thought about how absolutely open and aware Temkin was of the situation. Then I thought about how she sees her responsibility as opposed to the way I see it. She is trying to do the best for MoMA, its history, audiences, and art. She is taking a long view. I value these things. I love MoMA. But I also see the situation as dire and deteriorating. And we had barely even discussed the thing that got all of this started; how to dramatically raise the percentage of women artists exhibited on these tow floors and not have it be about tokenism or quotas. To me, MoMA is becoming like a madman who thinks he is King; it is telling a story that by now only it believes.

As I walked through the rain I thought about how much I admired Temkin but that the problems at MoMA are so vast and inter-connected that if any change is to come it will likely come slowly, by piecemeal, and incrementally. The irreparable space limitation, a mindset still guided my mediums, the problem of exhibiting mainly well-know names, the issue of having so few women; each of these is gigantic in itself. Each will take time and effort to correct. When I think about how this museum built too small during the richest period in the history of the world I grow furious and morose.

As the rain started coming down harder I realized that despite Temkin’s valiant efforts, and the museum’s dedication to alter its course, that we can no longer look to institutions like this for change. Institutions have different responsibilities, mindsets, priorities, pocketbooks, histories, and internal clocks. They’re big, slow, and institutional. Change is going to have to come from all over and be done by everyone.

This is already beginning to happen. Locally, so many New York galleries have been doing such a tremendous job over the last decade (ditto out of town museums). The same day I met with Temkin I saw a wonderful show at Casey Kaplan Gallery in Chelsea about Russian-Georgian Modernism. A young Swiss curator, unable to get this work out of Georgia, mounted a show of catalogs, reproductions, Xeroxes, texts, and films. There was fantastic art by artists I’d never heard of, artists who it would be spectacular to see integrated into MoMA’s installation. At Kaplan (more than at MoMA) modernism breathed anew. The same thing happened this season when mega-mogul/puppet-master Larry Gagosian mounted two tremendous historical shows; one of late Picasso (that attracted over 100,000 people!), the other, a sprawling survey of Piero Manzoni. Carol Greene, Gavin Brown, Guild & Greyshkul, Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, 303, Paula Cooper, and many other gallerists have done the same. The depth of the pockets is all very different between these galleries but the results have been thrilling.

In the meantime a new generation of a museum-going public and artists may be about to not see art they might otherwise benefit from. As MoMA tries to adjust all of its other problems it’s unclear how the woman issue will play out. As long as this is the case, as long as half the story is not told, more people will turn away from MoMA or see it merely as suffocating. I believe this is already beginning to happen. Artist Cheryl Donegan recently remarked, “Modernism should not be seen as Biblical; it should be seen as Talmudic.” Meaning the bible is static. Talmudic tradition (which is more Wikipedia than Encyclopedia) involves thousands of people making comments in the margins, debating issues and ideas, shaping tradition, changing it, and keeping it alive.

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Blogger CAP said...

I'm with Temkin.

6/30/2009 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In which ways?

6/30/2009 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Therefore it is on these two crucial floors that the so-called “official story” of Modernism is represented. This is MoMA’s boon and its bane.

You bet, especially since "Modernism" is over with.

6/30/2009 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I have an idea. Why doesn't MOMA empty out the gallery full of pale minimalist artworks and add a few more artworks by women. Really, nobody is ever in that gallery compared with the others.

Further, I looked the other day to see how Alice Neel is represented at MOMA. Not well considering that she is the most important female painter of her generation. She makes Krasner look derivative at best. Most male figurative painters from the 40's through the end of the century don't even come close to her accomplishments. Of course, because of Modernism, there was no representational painting in the second half of the twentieth century.

MOMA's current malaise is the result of a failed curatorial effort which seems more concerned with promoting the MOMA design aesthetic (via Philip Johnson) and the art that goes with it.

The best thing about Carl Andre is that his sculptures fit in a small box, why don't they...

6/30/2009 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

In defense of Temkin is the exhibition at Cheim & Read The Female Gaze: Women Look At Women which is not very convincing to say the least.

6/30/2009 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous jend said...

excellent,... thank you so much for posting this!

6/30/2009 02:18:00 PM  
Anonymous cjagers said...

I really wish Jerry would get a blog. He hasn't responded to questions about that ... I wonder if he has some contractual obligations that prohibit this type of "competition"? That is the only reason I can possibly think of.

6/30/2009 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But George, what would happen to Agnes Martin?

I appreciate MoMA's artificial barriers between the disciplines.


6/30/2009 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger more mad said...

as much as i did not want the donnell library--which sits right across the street from moma--to close, it now sits empty since the hotel chain that was supposed to buy it pulled out of the deal. if it can't be part of nypl i think it would be a perfect place for moma to expand.

6/30/2009 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger Art said...

cjagers, I heard that he felt a blog would be too much work.

6/30/2009 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Cathy, I think Alice Neel is a more important artist than Agnes Martin. She managed to produce an extraordinary body of work at a time when the art world was totally sexist and anti-representational. Agnes Martin fits the Greenbergian "modernist" mission fostered by the trustees of MOMA in the postwar years, it's cool, clean and minimal but lacks the humanism found in Alice Neels paintings.

That said I don't think there is a need to exclude one over the other.

6/30/2009 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

I don't know. When I visit a museum, I want a ride in an honest time machine. Which means exhibits have to communicate what periods were actually like. This can mean recreating a period's disregard for women. Now, there's no reason you can't also have permanent exhibits of "art undervalued at the time." This has the benefit of giving visitors a true picture, and raising questions about the past - and present.

I sympathize with the good intentions of revisionism. But the real answer might be to triple the size and resources of this place.

6/30/2009 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous cjagers said...


Update: He did respond on facebook, but the reason he gave was that he doesn't understand how this stuff works. Perhaps he does perceive a blog would be too much work? But it would be so much less work than dealing with Facebook!

Hard to believe he doesn't have someone to help him out here. I have made a post here about why a blog is better for his practice: http://chrisjagers.net/wp/?p=1280

... and he doesn't have to give up FB, its just crazy to use it as the base for all his operations.

6/30/2009 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...


History is always written by those in charge. It doesn't mean that other history was not being made.

In the same way, just because an artist was undervalued during her era doesn't make her work less important, just less known. What better opportunity is there to recitify the oversignt than at a museum of record?

Please send that post to Jerry.

6/30/2009 06:18:00 PM  
Blogger Eva said...

But Tom, I think the point Jerry was trying to make is that MOMA does indeed already own a lot of work by women. They were there, they made work and it was bought. Jerry even had a long list of all the women MOMA owned - but did not hang. The list Jerry held of women artists not shown was impressive and not necessarily revisionist. It wouldn't hurt to see some Alice Neel, Hannah Hoch, Anni Albers, Lee Miller, Louise Nevelson, Meret Oppenheim, Bridget Riley, Dorothea Rockbourne, Hilma af-Klimt, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Anne Truitt... the list goes on.....instead of some of the work up there.

6/30/2009 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tom said Which means exhibits have to communicate what periods were actually like.

This is an illusion. There may be some truth found in good historical projects (books, films etc) but as time passes all the details get ground up into dust.

I wrote a blog piece about the Warhol at Ferus exhibition in 1962. It was inspired by the 1962 Henry Hopkins review in Artforum. What I found interesting was how time slowly morphs the truth of what happens into an historical legend (cliche).

That said, I find it both interesting to view artworks from more than one point of view. History spanning leaps can make connections between artworks which are mutually influential from some point of view. Period organizations can illuminate an historical period such as we have today -- never before has it been possible to have these types of discussions without being privileged somehow. It's why I waste so much time at it.

I admire the fact that Jerry took on Moma which is rumored to be rather heavy handed about criticism. I also agree that Moma has become a bloated corporate entity and that the most radical and far reaching curatorial projects will originate somewhere else. If you're a member, it's a nice place to go for coffee and a gander at a good Pollock. Want to see an Alice Neel/ forgetaboutit.

6/30/2009 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Sorry - I’m late getting back to this.

I disagree with Saltz’s carping about gender distribution in recent painting. Are we going to fret about how many races, religions, sexualities, star signs, brand allegiances, education and neighborhoods are reflected in painting? That’s not painting, that’s politics. We went down that tokenistic multi-cultural road in the 70s and all it does is divide people. Do you think maths or physics would be any better off for having more women involved? Maths and physics don’t care – they want results. What makes a great scientist like Madame Curie, is THE WORK she did, not her opportunities or allegiances.

Should a museum really reflect the work an artist did at 20, 30, and 40 with equal value? Plainly not all artists hit their stride early and stay with it. We don’t insist on equal time for all periods because we judge the work by broader standards. It’s not important that the artist reflect an adequate demographic; it is important that THE WORK meet broader and higher standards of expression or reference. Art has these, even if Jerry no longer does. Trying to turn art into a branch of sociology is the work of sociologists.

Temkin has a point: women do other kind of art with more distinction. Women excel in literature for instance, yet there are relatively few female playwrights. Is Saltz going to insist Broadway give them equal time? Women excel as musicians, yet there are relatively few female composers. Is that Carnegie Hall’s fault? While there are unquestionably social factors involved, more social engineering is not going to increase women’s freedom.

Sure, there are lots of holdings that don’t get an airing at MoMA – and there always will be! The public and critics have their favorites and these change over time, and I think Temkin does a pretty good job pacing these – even with her ardent little floor talks.

But would I rather see a Rauschenberg than a Rockbourne? Any day.

6/30/2009 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

um 9:32, women dont excel in painting?are u mad?

6/30/2009 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


Saltz: To me, MoMA is becoming like a madman who thinks he is King; it is telling a story that by now only it believes.

Yup. It is one thing to reflect the aesthetic of a particular era from within that era, but something else to blindly assume that all the aesthetic assumptions and curatorial decisions are still correct when viewed with the advantage of hindsight.

As the cultures values change, in particular as the curatorial directions change, it is unfortunate they cannot realize and admit to the gaps in the fabric of the collection, embracing them in an attempt to provide history a more complete and true record of our history.

To Temkin's defense, she is working with a collection assembled in what must be considered a sexist period of history. So if women are represented by "less masculine" works, like knitting and macrame it is not because they didn't make paintings or sculptures. It means that the past curators saw their work differently, as less important. Temkin has to deal with this.

CAP bends Temkin's remarks to serve his own sexist position - you betcha pal, I don't buy your arguments for one second. It's not about taking down a Rauschenberg to install a Dorothea Rockburne. W

hat's wrong with hanging them both? Unfortunately your attitude is typical and part of the problem. -- The current aesthetic is shaped by what we see, what we see in the studios and in the galleries, but especially by what we see in the museums. It is more than just the exposure to great art, it is also empowering to artists of both sexes.

I spoke with a twenty year old art student at the Painting Center opening last week, I suggested that she look in the museums until she had that overwhelming moment of understanding, of the true feeling which can come from a great artwork. "Remember that feeling," I said, "and hope to find it in your studio someday"

I didn't bother to tell her what to look at, it will be different for her than it was for me. It's one thing museums are for, by the time artworks get there, they should be worth looking at, at least on some level.

My hats off to Jerry for making this an issue, because no issue = no action, making it an issue means we get a Louise Bourgeois sculpture.

It's a start, but I would really like to see someone pony up for a couple of the Alice Neel's in the front room at Zwirner and donate them to go alongside the male painters from the same period. Then we would really see who was better. I already know.

6/30/2009 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

Chris, we've discussed with Jerry before on the blog idea. He's kinda a technophobe, or completely illiterate on that end, so try not to push him any more on that end.
He's kinda proven to me on that topic after my initial disbelief-- doesn't know how to post a note, etc..
Let him keep doing whatever works for him -- cuz it's worked so far just fine.

7/01/2009 01:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, nicely said cap. I don't know if one can fully blame the art institutions. More the cultural attitude toward women artists at the time. But people should always keep the door of revisionism open. Discussing these issues is good for arts future. Yes, attitudes do need to change more. I just think Jerry's missed the point a bit.

7/01/2009 07:07:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Joanne, Eva, George. Living far away in Wisconsinstahn as I do, I yield to your knowledge and judgment of MoMA, and accept your argument for improving the story it tells. :)

7/01/2009 08:56:00 AM  
Anonymous cjagers said...


Yeah, I will back off. He has made himself clear. But it's ironic how his latest criticism implies being "slow to change" is a drawback, and fear is never a good motivation. He is asking the MOMA to do something major ... we are asking him to do something small (regardless of how he views this). And using FB is hard, no wonder he is a technophobe!

Back to more important discussion, I would love to hear Jerry's reply to CAP, whew!

7/01/2009 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

When you climb out of the hole you've dug for yourself, you might want to note this spelling: Rockburne

7/01/2009 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Kessler said...

I find it heartbreaking that MoMA could spend almost a billion dollars and add so little space. More space would make it easier for them to experiment, show more art of every kind and capture some of the mind-boggling richness and complexity of the real art scene.

7/01/2009 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger more mad said...

i am not personally on face book so i only hear about jerry's postings through a friend who is or on discussions such as this, but in lieu of creating a blog, all jerry needs to do is make his face book entries available to be seen by anyone and not just face book members, right? those of us who are not members or those beyond the 5000 friends limit could not comment but would still be able to follow the discussions. surely enabling that function can't be hard to find.

7/01/2009 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Charles says: I find it heartbreaking that MoMA could spend almost a billion dollars and add so little space. More space would make it easier for them to experiment, show more art of every kind and capture some of the mind-boggling richness and complexity of the real art scene.

Yes, Charles, but have you considered that MoMA now has the most upscale department store escalators in the universe? And an atrium to rival that of any Marriott in the country? How many museums can claim THAT?

7/01/2009 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Kessler said...

And that's another thing -- those escalators are down right dangerous. People stop to look around at the bottom, since there's no clear direction where to go, and they pile up.

And the nerve of them putting a wall on 54th street! Don't get me started on the new, new Modern. But I wouldn't mind any of it if they built enough space to show their collection.

(Btw, I like your blog Joanne).

7/01/2009 06:31:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

@Joanne Mattera:

Spelling mistake noted.

- You might want to suggest the same to Eva Lake, whose spelling I followed.

7/01/2009 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

But Eva didn't piss me off ;-)
And, Charles, thank you.

7/03/2009 06:29:00 PM  
Blogger lynnxe said...

Jerry has eloquently stated his reasons for not going to a blog, and I have to say I agree. The fact that even in this thread there are anonymous comments or things written under a non-definable handle get at exactly the reason: not knowing people's real identities. He called it "radical vulnerability", but it really boils down to accountability. Jerry's fb page has grown organically to be what it is, and it's his page so he can do what he want. I don't think he lacks for an audience, although I do think more mad has a good idea regarding privacy settings.

As far as what CAP has said, I couldn't disagree more. You're a victim of your biased education if you honestly think that women just aren't "good enough". I've seen the Rauchenbergs more times than I can count; I'm ready for the Rockburnes.

7/08/2009 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Danielle O'Steen said...

Been following this, thought I'd join in.

Many of you have touched on this, but I continue to see MoMA's new building as MoMA's real problem. The stark nature of it gives the impression that it must present the ultimate, comprehensive survey of modern art. Of course that was true before, but now even more so. After all, there's nothing comfortable about that building. I find myself wanting to flee as soon as I enter. So why else would I go unless I expect to be given the full deal, the full spectrum. I don't remember this conversation appearing when MoMA had its old home, which I now remember as cozy, quaint, lovely. Furthermore, why hasn't the Whitney or the Guggenheim been brought into the mix? Granted, they only show a fraction of their permanent collection at a given time. But aren't they also guilty? Perhaps those museums, and their buildings, just still make us feel cozy. Thoughts?

7/08/2009 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really must object to the logic of this post: women were under-represented in the history of modernism, rather than in the collection of MoMA.

To represent the history of modern art as one to which men and women contributed equally is to falsify that history. Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc, were male-dominated movements. We could condemn this, or we could appreciate the good art that resulted from these unjust milieus (or both). But what we absolutely should reject is an effort to replace Braque with Marie Laurencin, Kandinsky with Gabriel Munter, etc.

The key figures in the development of modernism were almost invariably male, and any hanging that hopes to illustrate that development will not come close to gender parity, for which you quixotically hope. In fact, representing the modern movement as one to which women and men contributed equally is to chillingly falsify a sexist history.

6/17/2010 08:55:00 PM  

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