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Smithsonian Secretary Clough stands by decision to pull 'Fire in My Belly' 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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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:00 AM

In his first interview since removing a controversial video, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough stands by his decision but admits it might have been made too quickly.

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The Smithsonian Institution has been at the center of debate about artistic expression, censorship and political influence since Nov. 30, when the video was banned.

"We had to act rather quickly because of the world we live in of quick news cycles," Clough said. "But looking back, sure, I wish I had taken more time. We have a lot of friends who felt left out. We needed to spend more time letting our friends know where this was going. I regret that."

"A Fire in My Belly," a video by David Wojnarowicz, which contained a few seconds of a crucifix crawling with ants, had been part of the "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition, a major show on sexual identity in portraits. It opened at the National Portrait Gallery in late October. A review on the conservative Web site CNSNews.com in November stirred up objections on Capitol Hill.

After receiving criticism from then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and with the possibility of reduced federal funding, Clough decided to remove the video within 24 hours.

Clough said that he never felt the criticism carried over to the entire Smithsonian Institution, reminding himself and others of the work and exhibitions going on at the museums. "No, no," he said, when asked if he ever felt the Smithsonian was under siege. He also never considered resigning.

"This institution is a big place. . . . It continues to do its work. This is a controversy that happens," Clough said.

The Smithsonian's mandate is to be at the forefront of social issues, he said. "As long as we do our job and as long as we continue to address these critical issues that stand at places where transitions are occurring, which we need to do, we are going to cause some controversies," he said. "We are not here to cause controversy. We are here to help people understand these issues that are important to our growth as a society."

Clough has been head of the Smithsonian since July 2008. An engineer by training, he is very measured as he talks. He is also an experienced administrator, who survived fights over freedom of expression as president at the Georgia Institute of Technology. One conflict involved a group of conservative students who sued the school, the students claimed they were discriminated against because of their anti-gay views. Clough changed the student code to discipline only protests involving physical harm.

As the debate over the video escalated online, Clough said continued financial support from Congress was a factor in his decision. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from the federal government and relies heavily on private fundraising, and its income-generating businesses, to support exhibitions and special research efforts.

"That is a big 'What if?,' but sure, that was a concern. We are going into a period which I would describe as probably the most difficult period for funding for federal agencies in our lifetime," Clough said.

The task of repairing any rifts with the Congressional leadership is being handled by the six members of Congress, representing both political parties, who sit on the Smithsonian's board of regents. "We are communicating through back channels," Clough said. And the message, he said, is that the Smithsonian mounted 100 exhibitions last year, "not just the one people are talking about."

While Clough has been criticized for not being visible in the debate, Martin E. Sullivan, director of the portrait gallery has been its institutional voice, Clough said, adding that he has been working behind the scenes. "I have talked to at least 100 people," he said, noting he didn't keep count of the e-mails.

Clough also talked with funders, who disagreed with the decision. Both the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation said they would withdraw funds if the video wasn't reinstated. "The funders and people who were upset by the decision, and I respect that, still have an appreciation that this exhibition is up. We were willing to take this topic on when others were not, and people appreciate that," Clough said.

Clough has decided to hold a public forum in April to discuss all the issues that have been raised. "I know we have to continue a dialogue," he said. Some of the issues to be discussed are the difference between publicly funded and private museums, their approaches to exhibitions and the role of the Smithsonian as a national leader.

"I don't want to see this one episode cause us to step back from our mission," Clough said. "In order to do that, we have got to be thoughtful, we have got to be wise and we've got to learn to communicate better. We probably have to have a little more laser-like focus when we design our exhibitions."


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