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My Q&A with the Smithsonian on “Hide/Seek” (and NPR&#146s interview with me)

Martin Sullivan, director, National Portrait Gallery

Keying off this CultureGrrl post, NPR interviewed me today for an “All Things Considered” segment on the controversy over the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition.

If all goes according to plan, that report will air this evening, possibly after 5:30 p.m. You can listen live to NPR here; I’ll post the link to the audio (with or without my comments) when it’s up.

In the meantime I’ve gotten the Smithsonian Institution’s take on this brouhaha. In response to my e-mailed queries, spokespersons for the Smithsonian and its National Portrait Gallery (Linda St. Thomas and Bethany Bentley, respectively) jointly sent me the official statement by the NPG’s director, Martin Sullivan, on this culture-wars flare-up, as well as answers to the additional questions that I posed.

Here’s Sullivan’s statement (now also posted online, but with a different last paragraph):

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some. The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.

The museum’s statement at the exhibition’s entrance, “This exhibition contains mature themes,” will remain in place.

Here’s my Smithsonian Q&A (questions sent before I received the above statement):

CultureGrrl: Why did you decide to take down “A Fire in My Belly” [the Wojnarowicz video]? Is it going to stay down?

Smithsonian: Yes, it will stay down. The other videos will remain on view.
[The “why” question gets answered at the end of this Q&A.]

Q: Are there going to be any other changes in the show?

A: No.

Q: Have you been formally asked by anyone (i.e., a Congressman or other federal official) to make other changes or to take down the entire show?

A: No. [House Speaker-designate John] Boehner and [incoming Majority Leader Eric] Cantor issued statements directly to the media. They did not contact the museum or the Smithsonian Secretary. Several Congressional offices did contact our government relations staff. (Note: six members of the [Smithsonian] Board of Regents are members of Congress—three senators and three representatives.)

Q: Have the Congressional critics actually seen the show?

A: Not that we are aware of. It has been open to the public since Oct. 30 and when members of Congress visit exhibits, they generally call us in advance or ask for a tour. We know of no visits.

Q: Have you received any reactions from the broader museum and artist communities? If so, what?

A: As you would expect, we have some e-mails and calls from citizens about the Smithsonian’s caving in to conservative Congressional pressure. The position was pretty well stated in the essay by Blake Gopnik in today’s Washington Post.

Q: Going forward, are there any lessons to be learned from this?

A: Art exhibitions are sometimes controversial, as you know better than we do. Many works of art, especially contemporary art, may offensive to some people. We do not shy away from art exhibits because of this nor do we refrain from exhibitions about other controversial subjects. For example, evolution hall [the Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History] is controversial to creationists, but we opened that permanent exhibition earlier this year.

Q: What else do you think people should know about this?

A: Eleven seconds of a four-minute video were seen as the entire exhibition. It’s a huge exhibition, one of the largest ever at the National Portrait Gallery, with 105 works of art, many of them masterpieces that have been displayed in museums around the world. But that few seconds of video featuring the crucifix became the focal point, and the significance of the exhibition would have been overshadowed by that one piece [had the museum not agreed to remove it]. 

an ArtsJournal blog