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Director’s “Hide/Seek” Revelations: What REALLY Happened; What Won’t Happen Again

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Saturday’s “Hide/Seek” panel at Rutgers University, left to right:
Moderator Daniel Okrent, author, journalist, former chairman of National Portrait Gallery’s board; Martin Sullivan, director, National Portrait Gallery; W. King Mott, associate professor of political science (specializing in queer theory), Seton Hall University; Lee Rosenbaum, CultureGrrl; Abe Zakhem, associate professor of philosophy, Seton Hall; Father Gregory Waldrop, SJ, assistant professor of art history, Fordham University


When I first happened upon Martin Sullivan last Saturday in the lobby of Rutgers University’s Engelhard Hall in Newark, NJ, I didn’t immediately recognize him. The relaxed, smiling director of the National Portrait Gallery looked like a different man from the weary, embattled leader who had tried (and largely succeeded) to win over a hostile crowd at last December’s “Hide/Seek”-related program at the New York Public Library.

Four months later and far less on the defensive, Unsullied Sullivan was much more expansive during our panel discussion on Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics and the Press. He candidly delineated how the contretemps had played out and how things will change, going forward.

After Sullivan led off with a detailed recap of the controversy over the NPG’s gay-themed exhibition, I not only had a tough act to follow, but also some high praise to live up to. Our moderator, Daniel Okrent (chairman of the NPG until 2008, but no longer on its board) introduced me by saying that he thought I had “covered this story better than anybody else.” Coming from Dan, who had served as the NY Times‘ first Public Editor (charged with assessing the quality of that newspaper’s journalism), this praise meant a lot to me. (But I’m sure that many reasonable people will disagree with Dan’s assessment!)

Here’s some of the takeaway from Sullivan and also from a surprise cameo walk-on by Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Sullivan discussed in some detail the consternation and complications caused by the hasty, unilateral decision by G. Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian’s Secretary, to bow to political pressure by removing David Wojnarovicz‘s “A Fire in My Belly” from the exhibition. He also talked about the good that eventually came out of this contretemps, in terms of a roadmap for handling future controversies:

It was a painful lesson, but it was a lesson learned, I think, in the sense that the quick decision prevented the Secretary from taking time to consult with the Smithsonian Board of Regents. He needed to consult with the commission of the National Portrait Gallery on which you [Okrent] served and with which I work, because they’re the advisory board. They very emphatically let the Secretary know, “You put us on an advisory board then all you talk to us about is the money you want us to give. When do you want our advice? And if you didn’t want it on this, are you going ever going to really want it?”

The other lack of consultation that the compressed decision-making caused is that we didn’t have time to get back to the lenders to the show, the financial donors or our friends. We were talking to our enemies only.

One outcome has been a recommendation to the Board of Regents, which is very emphatically endorsing it [emphasis added], that the Smithsonian now has a strict rule: Once an exhibit opens to the public, nothing comes out unless it’s factually wrong and/or there’s a consensus among the curators, director and others that it would be in the public interest.

I had not previously heard that the six-page report of the Regents’ ad hoc advisory panel had been formally endorsed. If so, it means that the lose-lose strategy of consulting with the public during the “pre-decisional exhibit planning phases” of exhibitions may also have been embraced. Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine disparagingly described this as “crowdsourcing” exhibitions.

In an opinion piece for this month’s ARTnews, Robin wrote:

Opening exhibition preparation to crowdsourcing is not a way to anticipate controversy—it’s a way to assure it.

Whatever one may think of Clough’s hasty, unilateral decision, it seems to have had the desired effect: From what Sullivan says, Clough’s limited, conciliatory response to Congressional art critics seems to have shut down political talk of shutting down the show or slashing the Smithsonian’s appropriations in retaliation for the NPG’s supposed misuse of federal funds (which did not directly pay for the show but which do underwrite the institution).

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of Sullivan’s comments was his take on the artists’ rights issues raised by two events: a curator’s drastic alteration of Wojnarovicz’s original film, and the demand (not honored) by artist AA Bronson that his monumental, powerful painting of his partner, who had just died of AIDS—”Felix, June 5, 1994″—be removed from the show, as a protest against the removal of Wojnarovicz’s work.

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AA Bronson, “Felix, June 5, 1994,” National Gallery of Canada

Here’s what Sullivan had to say on the moral rights issue raised by the extensive alteration of Wojnarovicz’s piece:

I think Lee is correct as to the integrity of “Fire in my Belly.” Jonathan [Katz, the show's co-curator] was trying to reconcile two things that didn’t fit nicely together: One was the piece itself. The second was the behavioral dynamics of what happens in the busy space where people are moving back and forth. The option that we had was a kiosk…and it didn’t work. And I won’t do it again [emphasis added]…because the integrity of the artist’s product was compromised.

Later in the discussion, he commented:

I’ll be very personal and say I thought we might be doing a little damage to it [Wojnarovicz's work] by trying to compress it into four minutes….It’s an ethical issue.

Here’s what he said about the Bronson brouhaha:

The Bronson piece, equally, was just a terrible dilemma—such a powerful piece! People came away from viewing that in tears, including Congressional staff members. It was perhaps the most visually compelling image relating to that particular time period and that set of issues.

It was complex because the piece was owned by the National Gallery of Canada. It happens that in Canada artists rights are protected a little bit more firmly than they are in this country, and had this show been on view in Ottawa, he [Bronson] would have had the legal right to say, “Take it down. I object.” That particular interpretation is not true in American law.

I consulted a lot with my colleague [Marc Mayer], who is director of the National Gallery of Canada. Bronson is important with them: They have a lot of his archives and other works. But he [Mayer] was reluctant to request it back. Had he said, “We absolutely need to get it back,” we would have concurred.

The other pragmatic concern is that having had so many other lenders and so many terrific donors invest in a show of this power, would we then be opening the doors to other people’s saying, “I don’t like that either.” And one by one, the critical pieces would begin to disappear.

I was surprised to see Feldman in Newark (but not very surprised to see the Newark Museum’s veteran director, former AAMD president Mary Sue Sweeney Price, in the audience). I was even more astonished by Feldman’s question to me and her subsequent comment:

Feldman: I’d like to return to Lee’s point about the exhibition. I don’t want to misquote you. But did you say that the exhibition shouldn’t have been at a federal institution?

Rosenbaum: Not at all! I think that it SHOULD have been there. I think it was a great exhibition. I think that the Smithsonian is for all of the people—the diverse population. I think that [the position that Feldman had tried to ascribe to me] is a total mischaracterization. It’s not that I don’t think it should have been there. It’s just that I can understand why he [Clough] pulled the piece, just as other [Smithsonian] exhibitions have elicited that response, because of the pressure being brought to bear by Congress. I’m not happy that this decision was made. But I can understand and, to some extent, sympathize with what his [Clough's] thought process was on that.

Feldman: I did want to emphasize that as 501(c)(3)’s, all of our institutions are supported by the public in one way or another [i.e., through tax exemptions and tax-deductible contributions], even if they don’t receive direct public funding. So we all share this common responsibility of making these works available.

I considered pointing out that there’s a big difference between the indirect federal support, through tax breaks, that all nonprofits receive, and the direct funding to the Smithsonian by the federal government (accounting for some 70% of the NPG’s budget, as Sullivan had said), during a very politically charged and economically challenging period. But I decided to let this go, rather than create a debate.

Our gentle moderator then stepped in to make the point for me, much more succinctly and tactfully than I would have managed on my own:

Okrent: One distinction that I think is worth making about the Smithsonian: The money is a direct appropriation from a politicized Congress.

Eventually, an online video of the entire panel discussion, may be available on the website of Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics, the co-organizer of the program with the Rutgers University Business School’s Institute for Ethical Leadership.

I’ll update here with the link or I’ll embed the video, if and when it’s available.

UPDATE
: The full video is embedded here.

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