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Smithsonian deals with fallout over David Wojnarowicz video controversy

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 8:14 PM

Senior Smithsonian officials are meeting with concerned museum staff over fears that removing a video from the National Portrait Gallery sets an unwelcome precedent. The action has generated protests, thousands of e-mails and an advisory board member's resignation.

The staff at the National Museum of American History met Monday with Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for art, history and culture, and a member of the senior staff who decided that the excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's video was what the Smithsonian called a "distraction" to an overall groundbreaking show.

One participant at the meeting said Kurin explained that Smithsonian officials moved fast because criticism from Capitol Hill and other critics was coming so quickly. "The secretary had to move quickly because the news cycle moves so fast now," said the longtime employee. "He also said the video wasn't an essential part of the show and had been added late."

Because the objections on Capitol Hill came initially from two powerful Republicans, Reps. John Boehner (Ohio) and Eric Cantor (Va.), and Congress controls 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget, employees said they feared to go public with their viewpoints.

"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" opened Oct. 30 and is the first major museum show to explore same-sex intimacy. The Smithsonian has said repeatedly the institution stands behind the show, which continues through Feb. 13.

Since removing the video, which contained an 11- second segment that showed ants crawling over a crucifix, the Smithsonian has taken steps to control the damage. The action has also been criticized by artists, who staged a protest outside the Portrait Gallery last week, and by the Association of Art Museum Directors, an influential group.

Last week, James T. Bartlett resigned from the gallery's advisory panel in protest. "I believe it is a fundamental right of museums and their curatorial staffs to make such decisions [about exhibition content], even if some art is deemed objectionable by external critics," Bartlett said in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. "I choose firmly and resolutely not to be part of an institution that is and can be put ad infinitum in this position."

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and Kurin attended meetings of the Portrait Gallery commission on Sunday and Monday.

Before a staff meeting at the Portrait Gallery on Wednesday, the museum's director, Martin Sullivan, released an e-mail with the details of a reply he is sending to "the thousands of e-mails and phone calls" that have come to the museum.

Noting the spectrum of opinions the museum had received, "I want to assure you that your message has come through.

"As you know, more than 100 artworks are on view in the overall exhibition. More than a dozen works specifically address the tragic impact of AIDS. The exhibition continues to include two important works by David Wojnarowicz as well as a portrait of him by Peter Hujar. The art was assembled from the Portrait Gallery's permanent collection and from many other sources. It is presented together for the first time ever, thanks to generous lenders and private financial supporters.''

The controversy has gained national attention, even meriting a commentary on Stephen Colbert's show. The New York Public Library had invited the curators to a forum next week before the exhibition became Topic A in the art blogosphere. The panel is still scheduled. David C. Ward, the historian at the Portrait Gallery and co-curator of "Hide/Seek," Jonathan D. Katz, director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the show's co-curator, are expected to speak, along with Sullivan, at Wednesday's forum.

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