Experts Debate Smithsonian Censorship of Gay Artist’s Work
Museum experts are weighing in on a censorship controversy at the Smithsonian Institution and what it means for publicly funded museums at a time when arts funding has been targeted for deep budget cuts.
At a symposium Tuesday night and Wednesday, the Smithsonian hosted many curators who objected to the world's largest museum complex bowing to political pressure last fall and removing a video from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
It was the first major exhibit to explore gay themes in art history. About a month after it opened, and shortly after the 2010 election drew Republicans into power in Congress, the exhibit drew complaints from conservative groups over a video that depicted ants crawling on a crucifix. It had been created by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who was gay and died of AIDS.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough had the video removed when complaints from the Catholic League drew threats to the Smithsonian's funding from Republican leaders in Congress. Clough did not attend the symposium Wednesday, though other high-ranking Smithsonian officials did.
Several curators and art critics said a few conservatives had seized on a religious symbol to generate objections that could disrupt the show because of its gay themes.
"Once again, art museums allow themselves to be used. We were used for someone else's agenda," said Kaywin Feldman, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "What happened wasn't about this exhibition. It was complete homophobia, and we have to stop putting up with that."
Newsweek art critic Blake Gopnik joined a panel and said the uproar was "gay bashing," not a real public controversy over the art.
Curators within the Smithsonian also objected to the removal of the video, including those who had no role in the exhibit.
Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum, said removing an exhibit piece allows critics to shut down discussion over how artworks are interpreted.
"The reason it matters is that an artist's voice was silenced by removal of the piece while it was in the midst of speaking," he said. "This was a big deal because we desperately need to listen to artists in our society."
Ongoing federal budget cuts could bring even more severe censorship of the arts, Brougher said.
Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture said the museum complex should become more nimble to address political controversy because interpreting art, history and science is inherently political.
In this case, Clough made a pragmatic decision to compromise by removing the video in order to protect the Smithsonian's federal funding, said Richard Kurin, under secretary for history, art and culture. Still, he said lessons had been learned.
Several other museums had declined the "Hide/Seek" exhibit, and some gay and lesbian art advocates had long complained they were excluded from major U.S. museums.
Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, said too many museums had excluded gay and lesbian relationships from their galleries and shouldn't leave such work only to the Smithsonian.
"This is a moment for the museum community to step up and do what it does best: To use its enormous creative and intellectual resources to tell important stories," he said, adding that museums can step up to defend their colleagues when exhibits draw political fire. "There's an opportunity for us to talk about these exhibitions in context when they occur and why freedom of expression is important."