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Smithsonian regents support secretary's censorship decision

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; C01

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, the point man in the controversy that has rocked the Smithsonian Institution for the past two months, received enthusiastic support from his board.

At Monday's meeting of the Board of Regents, the Smithsonian's governing board, the regents reviewed the actions surrounding Clough's decision to remove a controversial video from an exhibit and said his broader accomplishments in running the 19 museums and research complex outweighed the uproar over the episode.

"The secretary has enormous support from the regents," said John W. McCarter, a regent and president of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, Patty Stonesifer, the regents' chairwoman, said the panel reviewed the video. "We have stood by our decision to support the secretary," Stonesifer said. She praised Clough's leadership in strengthening the Smithsonian, which she said was "doing better than before he got here."

McCarter said including the video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz, which had a few seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix, "was not a mistake." The mistake was not having enough time to explain the iconography of the art itself and its meaning at the onset of the AIDS crisis.

However, the regents had asked for guidance on how to handle controversies in the future. The reaction to removing a work from "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," seemed to catch everyone off guard, even though the video was a part of this groundbreaking show about gender identity and sexuality, the first for a national museum. The Smithsonian shows are often under intense public scrutiny, particularly from the political sector, which pays 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget.

In this case, after complaints from conservative politicians and groups that a video in the show was sacrilegious, Clough ordered the video, "A Fire in My Belly," removed. After weeks of debate, Clough stood by his decision but said he may have acted too quickly.

While the regents were meeting, about 30 protesters rallied outside the Smithsonian Castle in a call for the institution to redress what some have characterized as its biggest blunder since controversies over the lavish spending of previous secretary Lawrence M. Small and the uproar over the display of the Enola Gay bomber.

The protests, organized by ART+, a New York City-based group that fights censorship and homophobia, drew loud cries for Clough's resignation.

The report from the advisory panel suggested more experts need to be consulted prior to an exhibition's completion, especially if the topic is a hot-button issue.

"The Smithsonian must encourage and provide a forum for dialogue on the important issues of the day. This mandate carries the obligation to produce exhibitions that may be controversial. Topics such as immigration, race and ethnicity, religion, climate change, and sexual identity are within the scope of the curriculum and should lead to informed civic discourse," said the report. In addition to McCarter, Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, and political strategist David Gergen led what they called "a forward-looking review."

The regents emphasized that the Smithsonian showcases about 85 new exhibitions each year, and it is not unexpected that one might blow up. "Had we wished it hadn't happened. Certainly," said Stonesifer, adding that the consultations with many stakeholders, such as funders, scholars and politicians, were not an opening to self-censorship. "We don't want the curators and directors to avoid controversy," she said.

Yet, inside the sprawling Smithsonian, some curators and directors have worried if there would be a chilling effect. In an unusual act on Friday, the board of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden issued an open letter, saying they were "deeply troubled by the precedent" of the November decision.

Asked about that stand, Clough said Monday he had reached out to hundreds of people, including the Hirshhorn board.

"I am a little wiser than I was six months ago," Clough said.

People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, said Clough had given into the right-wing voices and should step down.

"In making the decision to remove a controversial work of art from one of the Smithsonian's museums, and bungling the institution's response since its removal, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has shown that he cannot adequately uphold the mission and the legacy of this American institution," the group's statement said.

The group also praised the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery for its decision to present "Hide/Seek" in the first place.

The video by the late Wojnarowicz was created in 1987 to show the pain and sorrow that the AIDS epidemic was creating, especially in the gay community. The segment the museum showed had a short portion showing ants crawling on a crucifix.

In interviews, Clough said he stood by his decision but that he probably acted too quickly. He announced that the Smithsonian would have a public forum in the spring to review the episode. People for the American Way called that answer "a woefully inadequate response."

A number of galleries and museums decided to show the video, and the Museum of Modern Art, an important repository for film and video, acquired the entire film for its collection.

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