A discussion of the fallout from the “Hide/Seek” show at the Smithsonian Institution showed once again that art curators and museum directors are a very passionate bunch.
The controversy, after Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough pulled a video from gay artist David Wojnarowicz, which depicted ants crawling on a crucifix, was “not about religion but politics.” That was the initial reaction co-curator Jonathan Katz had back when the video was banned in late November. Objections to the video were raised by conservative Republicans, among others.
Months later, Katz told a panel organized by the Smithsonian last night at the Freer Gallery of Art, he still holds the view. And the politics around gay art “is getting tiresome,” he said. The Smithsonian should have known better and acted differently, Katz argued, while praising the National Portrait Gallery for even planning the show and displaying the art.
Controversy is part of the curator’s resume, Thom Collins, now director of the Miami Art Museum. He listed the groups that went after him when he worked in Cincinnati: the vice-squad, the county sheriff, Fox News, the Amish community, Peta, fellow curators and his museum board.
“I am sympathetic to the Secretary and the pressures,” said Collins. He added he regretted the removal of the video
Twice Secretary Clough supported his decision. “Our scholars and curators created 100 shows. One created controversy,” Clough said. He said he removed the video so the show could continue. ”I believe my decision was right. I am the first to admit there is much to learn from “Hide/Seek.” Later, in response to question from Michael Blasenstein, who showed the banned video in a truck outside the museum, Clough said “I had great respect for the exhibition and it stayed up...My decision had to do with maintaining the exhibition and the vitality of the Smithsonian.”
However, in the aftermath of “Hide/Seek,” the Smithsonian decided to cast a wide net in getting advice from more curators, the advisory boards and others about whether a line was being crossed with subject matter in a publicly funded museum. David Ward, the Portrait Gallery’s historian and the “Hide/Seek” co-curator, bristled at the concept of citizen curators. The effect might be, he said, “a watered down populism.” He urged “free play of imagination by the curators with an understanding of the world.”
Sometimes curators have to make their world comfortable for the public. Karen Milbourne, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, discussed the concerns about the Yinka Shonibare retrospective. His work has many sexually suggestive forms. “We put part behind a low wall and the guards were given an option to work in another gallery if they felt uncomfortable,” Milbourne said. “A museum must provide space to show the unknown, the unexpected.”
Twenty years ago the Smithsonian developed an Experimental Gallery, which courted provocative shows. Kimberly Camp was the curator. “Our responsibility as curators is to present the facts,” she said. And there was no dissent from that.