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Warhol Foundation threatens to cut Smithsonian funding over censored video

Local arts activists led a protest march from the Transformer art space at 14th and P streets NW to the National Portrait Gallery, where officials recently removed a work of video art depicting Christ with ants crawling over him after complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 6:56 PM

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the principal sponsors of "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," demanded Monday that the Smithsonian restore the David Wojnarowicz video or the foundation would not fund future projects.

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The Wojnarowicz work, "A Fire in My Belly," contains 11 seconds of an image of ants crawling on a crucifix and was removed after criticism from Capitol Hill and conservative groups. The Smithsonian said the uproar over the video from supporters of the artist's work and from opponents to his images was a distraction from the overall show of many masterpieces.

The Warhol Foundation is the first major funder to publicly voice outrage. "We strongly condemn the decision to remove David Wojnarowicz's video 'A Fire in My Belly' from the exhibition. Such blatant censorship is unconscionable. It is inimical to everything the Smithsonian Institution should stand for, and everything the Andy Warhol Foundation does stand for," Joel Wachs, the foundation's president, said in a letter Monday to Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough.

The fund's board voted unanimously Friday to condemn the Smithsonian action, Wachs said. The fund gave $100,000 to "Hide/Seek," one of the early donations that provided a catalyst for other fundraising. That donation is part of a total $375,000 given to the Smithsonian for recent shows.

"We cannot stand by and watch the Smithsonian bow to the demands of bigots who have attacked the exhibition out of ignorance, hatred and fear," said the letter.

Reached by telephone, Wachs said, "We felt serious about taking this action and decided to fight fire with fire."

Clough responded Monday in a statement: "While we regret the Foundation's action, the Smithsonian's decision to remove the video was a difficult one and we stand by it. The 104 works of the 'Hide/Seek' exhibition will remain on view at the National Portrait Gallery."

The exhibit is set to close Feb. 13.

Wachs, who attended the opening of the show in late October, said he found the exhibition, the largest in the gallery's history, to be "extraordinary. From a curatorial standpoint it was brilliant, revelatory and educational, I learned a lot from it. I went away wishing we had given them $200,000. To see it trivialized, it is really disheartening."

A forum on the controversy surrounding the show, including the removal of Wojnarowicz's video, will be the focus of a panel Wednesday night at the New York Public Library.


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