- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Smithsonian Institution’s governing board on Monday called for changes in how potentially objectionable exhibits are handled while also standing behind the head of the museum complex amid accusations of censorship.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough came under fire after deciding a couple months ago to remove a gay artist’s video that depicted ants crawling on a crucifix in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The scene angered some in Congress and a Catholic group that called it sacrilegious.

The board said it must be prepared to handle museum disputes and guard freedom of curators in the face of political pressure from Congress or other groups.

“We’re in the business of often doing exhibits that are about flash points in American history, flash points in American culture, and we have to accept that with that responsibility comes some controversy,” said Patricia Stonesifer, chairwoman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “We don’t want curators or directors or others to think that ‘above all, avoid controversy.’”

The video in question, “A Fire in My Belly,” by the late David Wojnarowicz, explored the subject of AIDS. The artist later died of the disease at age 37 in 1992. The Catholic League called the video sacrilegious.

It was among more than 100 pieces in the first major exhibit to explore gay themes in art history. Other contributing artists are Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz.

A panel convened to review the handling of the exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” included Harvard University professor David Gergen, National Gallery of Art Director Earl A. Powell and Smithsonian regent John McCarter of Chicago’s Field Museum.

The panel’s key finding was that unless there is an error, changes should not be made to future exhibits once they are opened without curators, museum directors and leaders from the Smithsonian’s governing board consulting. It also recommended that the Smithsonian seek public input during the planning of potentially objectionable exhibits and engage Congress as well.

“There are a number of things that with 20/20 hindsight probably could have been done differently,” McCarter said. He added that he did not believe including the Wojnarowicz video was a mistake, though with more time to explain the context of the crucifix image to critics, “we might have worked through this.”

“Representation of the crucifix and the ants had an interpretation to it, I believe in his mind that was not sacrilegious,” McCarter said, noting that the artist was working at the time in Mexico where Christian iconography is often represented in art. “Alternatively, it might have been very deeply religious.”

Earlier Monday, about 30 protesters, many from the New York-based group Art Positive, picketed outside the Smithsonian board’s meeting and called for Clough to step down. They chanted “No more censorship _ Clough must go.”

Stuart Wilber, 72, said he traveled from Seattle to see the exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” and joined the protest.

“I think censorship in any form is stifling to creativity,” Wilber said. “Museums should be bastions of free speech and not subject to political whims.”

Arts groups have objected to the Smithsonian’s reaction, including the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Andy Warhol Foundation and more recently the Smithsonian’s own Hirshhorn Museum board, which wrote last week that bowing to pressure harms the Smithsonian’s integrity.

Clough said he respects those who disagree with his decision and said he would respond differently in the future. He said he wants the Smithsonian to be ahead of sensitive topics to handle them more clearly.

“I’d like to think I’m a little wiser than I was six months ago or three months ago,” he said.

Bill Dobbs, an organizer with the group Art Positive said he wasn’t satisfied with the board’s response.

“They may not comprehend the scope of the damage,” he said, adding that the Smithsonian had created a “heckler’s veto” as a precedent for future exhibits.

Stonesifer said the board had been divided in its reaction to the Wojnarowicz video but didn’t vote on whether it should have been included or removed. She said Wojnarowicz had been a significant leader in the art world at a time when little attention was paid to the AIDS epidemic and many of those affected felt political and religious institutions had failed them.

Stonesifer noted other Wojnarowicz works remain in the exhibit. She declined to speculate whether the Smithsonian was damaged more by including his work or by removing the video.

“Would we wish the whole incident hadn’t happened? Certainly,” she said.

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