CINCINNATI — Twenty-five years ago this month, a decision about a few photographs drew the national spotlight to Cincinnati.
“The Perfect Moment,” a collection of 175 Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, had just opened at the city’s Contemporary Arts Center. The retrospective included classical nudes, sensual flowers, two portraits of nude children and five explicit images of gay S&M culture.
The exhibit’s reputation preceded it: The Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled its showing along the tour amid protests, and its director resigned. When the exhibit opened in April 1990, Hamilton County prosecutors charged CAC director Dennis Barrie and the museum itself with obscenity, the first time criminal charges had been levied against a museum in the United States.
At the time, America was embroiled in a culture war, fear of AIDS raged and the future of the National Endowment for the Arts was at stake. News outlets from the coasts portrayed Cincinnati as a cultural backwater that would rather lock up a museum director than be confronted with difficult art.
The eight-person jury in the county eventually found the defendants not guilty of all charges. Now, 25 years after Mapplethorpe, Cincinnati’s conservative reputation no longer seems warranted as the city keeps finding itself at the center of the LGBT movement.
At the start of 1990, Barrie knew he risked controversy by bringing the Mapplethorpe exhibit to Cincinnati. The artist, who had AIDS, had died just months after Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art put together “The Perfect Moment,” and his homosexuality was a focal point for Republican senators who were taking the NEA to task for funding art they considered obscene.
Hamilton County prosecutor Simon Leis — who later was sheriff during the Mapplethorpe events — had famously prosecuted Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in the 1970s, and there was a strong anti-pornography movement in the area led by the Christian organization Citizens for Community Values. Knowing the heat the Corcoran had faced for “The Perfect Moment,” Barrie preemptively enlisted lawyer H. Louis Sirkin, who specializes in First Amendment defense cases.
Aware that charges could arise, Sirkin filed an action of declaratory judgment in local court, arguing that under Ohio law, a legitimate museum such as the CAC could not be charged with obscenity. But the motion was dismissed the night before the show’s opening, which attracted 4,000 people, four times the usual turnout. “We were generally prepared that something was going to happen,” Sirkin says.
The next day, sheriff’s deputies came back with papers to serve. Sirkin and Barrie’s defense focused on convincing the jury that Mapplethorpe’s work was art; the prosecution countered that it was pornography.
The defense brought in art experts from across the country to testify about Mapplethorpe’s technique. “He was a classical photographer most of the time, all about lighting and position of the model. He wasn’t radical in that sense,” Barrie says. “The flowers were a lot more sexy than the X Portfolio,” which contained the S&M photos.
The prosecution said the pictures would speak for themselves, but “there were no experts in the art world saying this was pornography,” said Richard Meyer, an art history professor at Stanford University and the author of “Outlaw Representation.“ The jury deliberated for less than an hour before acquitting Barrie and the CAC.
The trial was “a PR disaster,” says Vice Mayor David Mann, who was a City Council member at the time. “It kind of made us the laughing stock of sophisticated communities.”
Things got worse before they got better. A 1993 city charter amendment made Cincinnati the only U.S. city to ban enactment or enforcement of gay rights laws until 2004.
“We didn’t know it then, but [the Mapplethorpe case] was the last stand of the organized West Side Catholics, led by Marine veteran and Sheriff Simon Leis, against the inevitable transition from a city with a Roman Catholic ascendancy to a city where power was up for grabs. Still is,” says Albert Pyle, who was a staff writer for Cincinnati Magazine at the time of the Mapplethorpe case. “The West Siders were shocked that the city wasn’t ashamed of itself. The non-Catholic whites were embarrassed for the city to take a hit in the national press. Black Cincinnati, who had no stake in the CAC but who were social conservatives, thought it was a lot of white nonsense.”
Source Cincinnati Executive Director Julie Calvert describes it as a “slow drumbeat of negativity. Any time people heard the name of Cincinnati, there was always something negative,” she says. The conservative reputation stuck around “because we weren’t doing anything to convince people that we weren’t.”
The Contemporary Arts Center’s current director, Raphaela Platow, says, “The majority of people decided it was really important to show works of art even if they challenge a certain percentage of the population.” Mapplethorpe’s work “is beautiful but can potentially be difficult to look at. This is where I personally love art because it challenges me and makes me consider other people’s point of view.”
When Chris Seelbach became Cincinnati’s first openly gay City Council member in 2011, he made improving the city’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents a priority, including offering equal partner benefits to city employees, creating a domestic partnership registry, hiring LGBT liaisons for the police and fire departments and the mayor’s office, and extending transgender-inclusive health benefits to city employees. When he was elected, Cincinnati’s score on the Human Rights Council’s Municipal Equality Index, which evaluates cities on support for LGBT populations, was 68. As of 2014, it was a perfect 100. And Cincinnati son Jim Obergefell was at the center of the landmark Supreme Court decision this year to legalize gay marriage.
Seelbach grew up in nearby Louisville but came to Cincinnati for college in 1998, when “we were arguably the most anti-gay city in the country.” Now, “for the first time in 60 years, our population is growing, people are coming back to the city,” he says.
Museums are revisiting Mapplethorpe’s work for the first major retrospective in 25 years: “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium” runs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from March 15 to July 31. Meyer says Mapplethorpe’s work has rarely been seen by the American public since “The Perfect Moment,” and he wonders, “Is this going to be shocking any longer, or has he been tamed in the past 25 years?”
In addition to an exhibit of photographers influenced by Mapplethorpe that opens Nov. 6, the Contemporary Arts Center hosted a two-day symposium on Mapplethorpe’s work and censorship Oct. 23 and 24 in Cincinnati. Only one panel discussion focused on the trial. “The moment of censorship happened, but it’s one moment on a pretty long continuum of somebody who’s made a major contribution to the art world,” Platow says.
“I’m absolutely convinced that if we lost that case in Cincinnati, the NEA would have been gone,” Sirkin says, a sentiment echoed by Meyer, though Meyer notes that decency clauses and funding cuts lessened the NEA’s influence.
“What Mapplethorpe understood is that you’ll never get rid of censorship altogether, but when censorship of art happens, it’s used as an opportunity or forum for public dialogue about why art matters in a democratic culture,” Meyer says.
Dobush is a freelance writer.