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Video outcry flares anew
"People from the left side of the aisle are enforcing ideological purity on us," said Ward, who added that he is "now concerned with the existential threat to the museum." He compared the situation to the cultural politics of Weimar Germany, when the right was radical and zealous, the left fratricidal and the center exhausted and cynical.
But not everyone in the audience wanted to accept the nuanced message of the curators, which was: See the show, give the National Portrait Gallery its due for mounting it and regret a stupid decision without nuking the Smithsonian.
One man asked whether the Portrait Gallery's director, Martin Sullivan, was in the audience. He was.
"I'd like to send a direct message to you to put the video back," said Bill Dobbs, who was organizing a protest march for Sunday that is scheduled to begin at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and end at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, a Manhattan outpost of the Smithsonian.
There was loud applause and a brief effort at chanting.
"Yeah, I know," said Sullivan, responding directly to Dobbs. "And I know a lot of people are angry." He said the decision was complicated by the architecture of the exhibition. If the curators had a separate video theater, they might have been able to segregate the video for viewers squeamish about Wojnarowicz's imagery, which included an 11-second scene of ants crawling on a crucifix.
"The specific decision was the secretary's," he said. "We have a parent institution."
Sullivan looked exhausted, and despite Ward and Katz's efforts to praise the Portrait Gallery, it wasn't a friendly room. "Sometimes you don't get what you want," Sullivan said.
"He's talking out of both sides of his mouth," Dobbs said of Sullivan after the event.
Clough, who used his annual Christmas message to Smithsonian employees to defend his decision to remove the video, wasn't in the audience. And somewhere in New York, Donohue, who helped fan the flames of the controversy, was having a brew.