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MeTube: Curators and Director Discuss “Hide/Seek” Controversy in NYC

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Martin Sullivan, director of National Portrait Gallery, sitting next to me at NY Public Library discussion of “Hide/Seek” (to his left, NY Times art writer Kate Taylor, clutching her laptop)

I don’t have a nose for news. News has a nose for me!

While I sat second-row-center in the New York Public Library’s auditorium, waiting for the start of last night’s discussion about “Hide/Seek”—the exhibition and the controversy—who should happen to sit down next to me but Martin Sullivan, the man at the center of this firestorm. The director of the National Portrait Gallery and I were in there to hear the show’s co-curators, David Ward and Jonathan Katz, discuss some key works on display in the Washington show and field questions from the audience.

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David Ward, National Portrait Gallery historian, left; Jonathan Katz, director of doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, right

David Wojnarowicz‘s hot-button video was not discussed during the first part of the evening; Eakins, Bellows, Hartley and Cadmus (among others) were. But Wojnarowicz was Topic A during the audience-participation portion of the proceedings.

I asked my captive interviewee, Sullivan, whether there was any chance that “Hide/Seek” might travel to other institutions (as I have advocated here and here). He said this couldn’t happen, “because of the number of loans and lenders and their conditions” and also because touring the show would be “very expensive.”

The good news, he told me, is that the NPG has just received a $50,000 gift to “beef up the website and add a lot more images and a lot more depth. That’s going to have to be our way of getting it out more.”

After the public discussion concluded, I asked Sullivan whether he agreed with a comment made by Katz (an “activist academic,” according to the NYPL’s program announcement), that the removal of the video was “stupid.”

Sullivan replied:

How can I say it was stupid? I think there were considerations that the Smithsonian and the whole Federal Government has right now. I think what David [Ward] said about [the downside of] “acting in haste” [in removing the video] was appropriate.

He added that related to the removal of the video was “the whole money issue. Everyone is just so jittery about money.”

Wayne Clough
, the secretary of the Smithsonian, whose made the decision to pull the plug on the video, was not in attendance. But his Dec. 15 “holiday message” to Smithsonian employees was present in my inbox (sent by the Smithsonian) yesterday afternoon. Here’s what Clough wrote to his staff about “Hide/Seek”:

I am being criticized for removing one item from the exhibition of 105 works, but I stand by my decision. Whether we left the video in or removed it, we would face criticism. Some critics have cried “censorship.”  I do not agree. I believed the protests over a small part of the exhibition would potentially drown out the voices of the many other artists in this carefully curated show. Others have criticized the placement of the entire exhibition in a publicly funded museum….

What has been obscured in the media buzz is the fact that NPG and the Smithsonian had the courage to mount the exhibit, making its important works available for free to all Americans and to people worldwide.

With the benefit of hindsight, would Sullivan have done anything differently?

Let me start by saying a fundamental reality when I came to the Smithsonian three years ago is that you may have a museum, but you’re part of a big strong bureaucracy—a parent organization—and you don’t always know where the parent organization is going to go.

Would I do the show? Absolutely. The whole show.

Now, let’s go to the two video tapes. First, the curators have their say:

At the very end of the program, after a hostile questioner asked
if Sullivan was in the house, he stood up next to me, requested the microphone
and to my mind (and also, it seemed, to the audience’s) acquitted himself
admirably:

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