- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

A photographer's lecture and slide show that included sexually graphic images has the publicly funded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in trouble with Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

After learning of the show's content, which included photos of oral sex and pubescent girls urinating, the governor wrote a letter Thursday to the museum's interim director, Richard Woodward, demanding he create a policy to prevent such an exhibition in the future.

Mr. Woodward said in a response Thursday afternoon that museum staffers will immediately clarify its guidelines.

The museum billed the May 10 lecture as photographer Sally Mann discussing "her life and career, as well as some of the controversy surrounding her innovative photographs." Ms. Mann's work some of which shows her young daughters in the nude is acclaimed by artists and art critics, but has met with opposition in several regions.

The Virginia museum is publicly funded, but Ms. Mann's lecture was sponsored by a private party, museum officials said. In the two-year budget the General Assembly passed this year, the museum receives just under than $30 million in funds.

An anonymous letter to the governor and the Department of Education, which oversees the state's five museums, informed them of the images.

The letter writer described six photographs, including "a man performing [oral sex]," "a man shaving off a woman's pubic hairs" and "a woman and two pubescent girls, all naked, standing on a rock and all urinating."

Even though the museum itself billed the lecture as a discussion of Ms. Mann's controversial art, officials only reviewed part of her presentation beforehand, a spokeswoman said. Ms. Mann added an extra carousel of slides at the end that's when she showed the images in question, museum officials said.

Mr. Woodward didn't return phone calls Thursday, and it was not clear whether Ms. Mann's presentation would be prevented under the stricter review process he has promised. He did not offer specifics on the new process.

Ms. Mann, a Virginia resident, also could not be reached for comment. She was born and still lives in Lexington, about two hours west of Richmond, but her phone number is unlisted and other attempts to contact her failed.

But in an e-mail to the Associated Press, Ms. Mann said the controversy is "absurd" and that no one has ever objected to the pictures in question.

According to the anonymous tipster, the auditorium which seats about 375 was full for the lecture, and the majority of those in attendance were students. The letter did not specify the students' grade level, but museum officials said the audience was "mature," and mostly photography students. Attendees each paid $6 for the presentation.

The writer, who signed the letter "a citizen," wrote: "These images might be considered 'art' in some quarters, but I for one object to them and do not think this sort of thing should be promoted and supported by the Virginia Museum. There were several museum officials present, but no one made a move to curtail the show."

Cheri Yecke, deputy education secretary, called the lecture disappointing and said as stewards of taxpayer money, the museum should have been on its toes. But she said the museum has never had a problem like this before.

"They are good folks but they were blindsided," she said.

In his letter, the governor told the museum he doesn't want a repeat performance.

"As stewards of the taxpayers' money, you and your staff must be cognizant of your responsibility to uphold community standards of decency in all of your endeavors. Outrageous displays that push the envelope of decency and challenge the values of our society are simply unacceptable, regardless of the stature of the artist," Mr. Gilmore wrote.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union disagreed.

Kent Willis, the executive director, said he is familiar with Ms. Mann's work. The governor never calls the art obscene in his letter, Mr. Willis said, and Ms. Mann's photography is accepted by the artistic community, and thus by definition can't be considered obscene.

The controversy is reminiscent of New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's decision in October to withhold city funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibit that featured a portrait of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. A court overruled the mayor.

Mr. Willis cited the case Thursday, saying Mr. Gilmore has no right to tell the museum what to show. Just as a court ruled Mr. Giuliani couldn't pull city funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Mr. Willis said Mr. Gilmore can't stop the Virginia museum's funding based on content.

The photos were shown as part of an evening lecture and aren't on permanent display, although there is an exhibit of Ms. Mann's landscapes the new direction she has taken in her art at another Richmond gallery.

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