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“Hide/Seek” Fallout: Interference Institutionalized at the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough

The National Portrait Gallery’s controversial gay-themed show—Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture—closed on Feb. 13 as scheduled, not prematurely as museum officials had feared after the exhibition attracted the wrath of William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and two powerful Congressional leaders—House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

But negative repercussions linger on—not just in the bad aftertaste among members of the artworld and gay-rights community, but also in the problematic recommendations of the three-person ad hoc committee appointed by the Smithsonian Institution to suggest guidelines for planning future shows that might spark controversy.

I briefly reported on those recommendations last month. But I haven’t yet told you what I think of them:

The cure that the committee prescribed for possibly provocative shows is likely to be worse than the disease. The procedures that it says should be followed in planning future exhibitions would entangle our federal museums in a sticky mess of red tape whenever a cautious curator or museum director flagged a proposed exhibition as “sensitive.” This bureaucratic blanket will likely have a chilling effect on hot-button shows.

The three-man committee of inside-the-Beltway advisors—John McCarter Jr., a Smithsonian Regent and president and CEO of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History; David Gergen, senior political analyst for CNN, who served as advisor to four U.S. Presidents; Earl Powell III, veteran director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington—gave lip service to “curatorial freedom of expression, expertise and authority.” But from now on, that freedom may be seriously compromised.

If the group’s recommendations are followed, professional prerogatives will be second-guessed, in advance, by amateur outsiders and by the Smithsonian’s own governing board. “Public input or reaction” will be sought on “possibly controversial exhibitions” from “a diversity of perspectives.” These disparate views would be gathered at the “pre-decisional exhibit planning phases.”

Presumably such advance input will need to come from the very people who are most likely to be offended by a particular display. Cue Donohue, always on the alert for what he perceives as anti-Catholic “hate speech.” Either the objectors will have to be mollified, or their outrage will be magnified by their having been first consulted, then ignored.

This is clearly a lose-lose scenario.

We’re already seeing one form that this public input may take: The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2012 show, The Art of Video Games, had already been flagged (scroll down) as possibly controversial because of violent content. Now SAAM has issued an invitation to the public to vote on which games should be included. The rationale for this, as announced by the museum’s director, Elizabeth Broun, is that “playing video games involves many personal choices, so, in keeping with the spirit of the exhibition’s content, we want to involve the public in helping us select games for the exhibition.” Presumably, if some critic objects to the choices, SAAM can lay the blame on the public.

In addition to having the laymen looking over their shoulders during exhibition planning, Smithsonian curators would have the Board of Regents breathing down their necks. The committee’s recommendations state: “The Regents should be relied upon to provide candid observations and advice on potentially controversial exhibitions” that might “require further Regent engagement.” But the proper role of museum board members, who are not art museum professionals, is to make sure that their institution is well run, not to micromanage curatorial and directorial decisions about what to show and how to interpret it.

The ball was returned to G. Wayne Clough’s court. The Regents directed the Smithsonian’s head to “address the panel’s observations and recommendations and present an action plan to the Board.”

A preferable “action plan” was suggested by David Ward, co-curator of “Hide/Seek” when we chatted in the galleries during the waning days of the exhibition. Standing in front of a photo of the exhibition’s father figure, poet Walt Whitman, the curator suggested a better approach to future contretemps over content.

“Hide/Seek” co-curator David Ward (Thomas Eakins’ photograph of Walt Whitman to his left)

Ward declared that the Smithsonian’s Secretary “has to listen to the museum directors….I think that there’s been a growth of a bureaucracy on the [Smithsonian’s] Mall which has really created a separate institution in the world of museums….The two don’t jibe particularly well.”

As Ward indicated, responsibility for professional decisions should be left to responsible professionals. As I’ve previously stated, I do believe that Smithsonian museums, because they are federal institutions, need to exercise more caution than privately funded institutions when it comes to incurring the displeasure of visitors and their elected representatives. But the Smithsonian’s administration and board should listen, above all, to the counsel of its own deeply knowledgeable curators and directors, not to the gripes of imperfectly informed outsiders with a political point to make or a personal axe to grind.

Despite the controversy (or perhaps because of it), “Hide/Seek” may have ushered in a greater willingness on the part of museums to call attention to the relationship of gay artists’ sexual orientation to their oeuvre. I did a double take on Friday when I read what curator Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art had written on the label for a gouache by the poet/painter Max Jacob in the engrossing and, in some respects, revelatory Marc Chagall and His Circle, opening tomorrow.

Here’s the work:

Max Jacob, “Orpheus Attacked by the Brigands,” 1928, Philadelphia Museum of Art

And here’s the label excerpt:

The scene, in which Orpheus is held up and assaulted by a band of brigands, may relate to Jean Cocteau‘s 1926 play “Orphée.” For Jacob, an openly gay apostate Jew, the myth also carried personal significance. When Orpheus loses his wife Eurydice in the Underworld, he renounces women for the love of men, thus providing Jacob with an affirming image of homosexuality from classical antiquity.

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