National Portrait Gallery's 'Hide/Seek' visitors register their reactions

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:21 PM

The groundbreaking exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" elicited tears from some viewers, prompted anger at the Smithsonian Institution and drew admiration for the artists in the show.

Some reactions, captured in the visitors' log for a two-week period, were extremely personal. "Thank you for putting this together. Today is the day I'll finally come out to my mother. Happy Solstice!" signed one woman. Another visitor happened by the show after he witnessed President Obama sign the bill to reverse "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." "I just came from the bill signing of DADT repeal where I was embraced by the President and cried on his shoulder. To walk into this exhibit by 'accident' is an overwhelming treat. Thank you for the courage to exhibit this communities' unjust suffering, invaluable contributions, and unfolding VICTORY!"

The show at the National Portrait Gallery became a flashpoint for many cultural issues and was the loudest uproar at the Smithsonian in years. The show, the largest in the Portrait Gallery's history, also drew record crowds.

The exhibition, which closes Sunday, was the first major-museum show depicting how artists handle questions of sexual and gender identity. The artists ranged from Thomas Eakins, George Bellows and Georgia O'Keeffe to Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

In late November, hearing complaints from Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and conservative critics, the Smithsonian removed a video that critics labeled sacrilegious. The work in question was a short portion of "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz that contained a scene of a crucifix crawling with ants. That decision, made by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, set off demonstrations, panel discussions and Internet debates about the censorship at the Smithsonian, funding to Smithsonian shows and the role of gay artists.

The majority of entries in the museum's comment books deal sharply with the controversy.

"I wish the NPG had not caved into the demands of self-appointed censors and removed the video. We, the viewers, should have been allowed to see it and decide for ourselves."

"This exhibit was so refreshing - outing many famous artists in a sensitive way. Kudos to the Smithsonian and the curator for arranging this - BUT the response to the protest by conservative extremists was an affront to the vital message of this exhibit. What a shame!"

Another wrote: "Kudos for the fine exhibit. Shame for the short-sighted removal of Wojnarowicz's video. Good luck recovering from the mess."

One signer mixed his personal and political reaction. "I want to leave the exhibit reclaiming an identity the culture at large tries to take away from me. The museum was decidedly NOT brave, however, in capitulating to religions, right-wing paranoia. Deeply touched by the exhibit, deeply ashamed of the Smithsonian's cowardice."

Some noted their political leanings. "I am a 'conservative' who is happy to be here and to experience the true freedom of expression that our country stands for."

Some didn't like the material at all. "Trashy-inappropriate low class exhibit - you can do better." Or its approach. "More like a lecture than an exhibit."

Others thought they show featured too many male images. "Not enough girls in it," and "I loved this, but it seemed largely skewed towards gay men. What about the rest of the LGBTQ community?"

No matter the point of view, the show attracted thousands of visitors to the museum. The National Portrait Gallery shares a building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum at Gallery Place. It also shares visitor statistics. The entire building had 320,003 patrons from November 2010 to January 2011. American Art was hosting a successful Norman Rockwell show at the time. For the same period the year before, the two museums had 199,927 visitors.

The Rockwell show closed on Jan. 2. The January visitor numbers, released by the Portrait Gallery, show 85,656 visitors, compared with the January 2010 tally of 64,968.

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