After an Age of Rage, Museums Master the Display of Commotional Restraint

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

At the height of the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" scandal in 1999, Arnold Lehman wore a bulletproof vest. The museum director also avoided taking the subway, regularly changed his route to and from work, and avoided appearing at rallies in support of the controversial exhibition of contemporary art. Because of public and media outrage at a handful of paintings, including one of the Virgin Mary that some Catholics thought was offensive, Lehman had been advised that his life was in danger.

With New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deeply engaged in the conflict and doing everything he could to withdraw the museum's city funding, with the Catholic League organizing demonstrations, and the tabloid media spurring on the frenzy, it was one of the most contentious chapters in the culture wars that had roiled the museum world for more than a decade. And it seemed to many observers like those wars would continue indefinitely.

"All is not quiet on the cultural front," wrote Stephen Dubin in "Displays of Power," his 1999 survey of museum controversies. "As Americans begin a new century, they can expect to witness more of these struggles over representation."

But a funny thing happened. Over the past decade, small controversies occasionally unsettled the museum world, but they went away quickly, and few gained enough traction to become national issues. After almost a half a century of polarizing and contentious debate -- dating back at least 40 years to a show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art called "Harlem on My Mind," which ignited the modern era of museum conflict -- a strange quiet has settled over the museum world.

Nothing in Washington has risen to the level of angst felt by the Corcoran Gallery in 1989, when it canceled an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. And old wounds seemed have healed: The Enola Gay, the center of a bitter 1995 controversy about the atomic bomb, went on display permanently at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in 2003 with very little protest. Even the National Endowment for the Arts, which had its budget slashed during the late 1990s, slowly began to reconstitute itself and stayed out the limelight of controversy.

What happened? Was it a cultural or historic change? Self-censorship or a more subtle shift in what museums were exhibiting? Did audiences grow up, or were they just inured to radical art and provocative historical revision?

Dubin agrees that the landscape has shifted since he published his book a decade ago.

One factor: "From 1989 to 2001, we had no external enemy," he says. The country could turn in on itself, fight internal battles and wrestle with the telling of history. It could dissect privilege and exclusion, look for scapegoats and pass around the mantle of victimhood. But the appeal of what Dubin calls "symbolic" politics diminished as the country reengaged with what seemed to be the life-and-death politics of terrorism and threats from abroad.

There is widespread acknowledgment among museum professionals that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had something to do with the change. But many (including Dubin) see a broader cause: Museums have changed the way they do business -- and audiences have become less sensitive.

Even William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, one of the main actors stirring the controversy over "Sensation," agrees with part of this assessment.

"I don't know that there as been a change of heart in the artistic community, but our society has become so coarse that it doesn't leap out at us anymore," he says.

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