At Smithsonian Forum, Hide/Seek Curators Fiercely Defend Controversial Exhibit

On Tuesday night, I sat in on the first session of the Smithsonian’s two-day forum on what it called “Flashpoints and Faultlines: Museum Curation and Controversy.” The forum, despite its somewhat vague title, centered on the particular controversy of curation that it was organized to respond to: the decision by Smithsonian top brass to remove a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit after the exhibit came under fire from right-wing culture warriors.

Tuesday night’s panels didn’t do much to reconcile those who opposed the Smithsonian’s decision to cut David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit and those who thought it was a necessary step to tamp down a damaging controversy. But it did provide an outlet those who had been caught up in the controversy to air their grievances – albeit too late to change any decisions.

The most passionate and interesting remarks came from the two co-curators of the Hide/Seek show, whose close-up view of the mechanics of a right-wing smear was fascinating, and led them to be unapologetically clear about what had happened to lead to the Smithsonian’s censorship of its own groundbreaking exhibit.

David Ward and Jeff Katz started working on the Hide/Seek exhibit in 2006, when Ward, as part of an exhibit on Walt Whitman, posted a photo of Whitman and his lover of eight years, labeling it as such. Katz approached ward and told him that his was the first major museum exhibit to mention Whitman’s long-term relationship with a man. Ward said he was “gobsmacked” by this revelation, and the two curators started working on an exhibition that would bring together the themes of sexual difference that had been “hiding in plain sight” in American art.

Both emphasized how remarkable it that their exhibit had been accepted by the Smithsonian at. “The rich museums with extraordinarily powerful boards were scared to take this exhibit,” Katz said, “That it was a national museum with the most to lose that took the exhibit should not be forgotten.”

In fact, Katz added, the very existence of the Hide/Seek exhibit broke a decades-long pattern of prominent museums refusing to take on exhibits dealing with gay and lesbian themes. The Robert Mapplethorpe scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s, Katz said, “set a pattern of blacklisting gay and lesbian themes in art exhibitions, which with the exception of Hide/Seek continues in the museum world today.” The Smithsonian’s censorship was remarkable in part because the museum had an exhibition to censor in the first place, Katz said, while “The passive acts of censorship have been the norm in the museum world for 24 years.”

While the curators praised the Smithsonian’s decision to take the Hide/Seek exhibit, they were unswerving in their criticism of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to remove the work that had become a lightning rod for right-wing critics. Katz said, “This scandal was ostensibly about religion. It was not. It was about politics.”

The Smithsonian, Katz said, had by giving in to the Catholic League-manufactured controversy about Hide/Seek had confirmed the legitimacy of anti-gay critics. Removing the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit, he said, “didn’t extricate the museum from [the culture war attacks], it implicated it.” Katz spoke of the hate mail he received after the Catholic League had distributed his personal contact information. He said he at first tried to respond personally to each of thousands of emails, but was invariably met with more hate. “I realized this is not a discussion, this is not a conversation,” he said.

Secretary Clough had opened the forum with a speech on explaining his decision to censor one work from Hide/Seek because, he said, “Above all, I wanted to keep the exhibition open.” I asked Katz and his co-panelists – a museum director and a Smithsonian curator– if it was ever appropriate or effective to remove one work of art from a show in order to save an exhibit or a museum or an entire institution. All answered “no.”

Thom Collins, a museum director who spoke of the numerous funding threats he had received in his work at publicly funded museums, said “As in any situation when you want to negotiate effectively, you have to be willing to walk away from the table.”

Katz added that removing a work from an exhibit in response to criticism “inherently aligns you with the censorious voices, and that’s a position a museum should never be in.” He added that in reacting so quickly to congressional Republicans’ threats of withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of Smithsonian funding, the Smithsonian was “selling itself short” – that if our national museums were stripped of their funding “the American people would not stand for it.”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss censorship of the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibit, featuring President Michael Keegan, artist AA Bronson, PFAW founder Norman Lear, critic Blake Gopnik, journalist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and art museum director Dennis Barrie.

Michael Keegan's suggestions of ten questions for the Smithsonian panelists can be viewed here.

PFAW