When the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s board of trustees met on June 12, 1989, the first order of business was a 1770 painting by John Singleton Copley. Its condition was fine, its cost was appropriate ($1.6 million) and its acquisition would fill a hole in the museum’s collection, according to the meeting minutes. Resolved: The portrait of a Boston distillery owner would come to the Corcoran.
Under “Other Business” was a final agenda item, concerning the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The museum’s director, Christina Orr-Cahall, told the board that she had decided to withdraw the Corcoran from hosting a touring retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. His portraits and photographs, some of which explore homoeroticism as visual themes, had drawn the ire of Jesse Helms, the powerful Republican senator from North Carolina. “An extensive discussion ensued,” read the minutes, with none of the details that trailed the Copley decision. “Following this discussion, the Trustees present expressed, by voice vote, their support for her decision.”
The next day, a news release announced the cancellation of “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.” A perfect storm ensued, marked by regrets, recriminations and resignations on all sides. In fact, one of the very first outraged phone calls that Orr-Cahall received was from Helms’s office. The senator was displeased that he would not have the opportunity to stump on a show that he considered to be liberal obscenity.
“ ‘This isn’t going to stop us. Your cancellation isn’t going to stop us,’ ” Orr-Cahall says now, recalling what a Helms aide told her. “Looking back, the Helms call, it was clearly the start of the culture wars.”
In an effort to head off a conflict with Congress, the Corcoran had instead set off a crisis that would consume the museum. In the parlance of today, the Corcoran was canceled.
Thirty years later, the Corcoran is finally owning up to the criticism with a new exhibition at what is now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. And although the Corcoran is no longer a museum, the show raises a question that is relevant for arts organizations under fire today: How do museums as institutions navigate their own charged politics?
The show, titled “6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition,” features several fateful documents from the Corcoran among the artifacts on display: the June 13 news release, passionate letters from incandescent artists and harried staff memos trying to contain the fallout.
As an archival exhibition, “6.13.89” details an early skirmish in the political battles over art, and over AIDS, in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Today, the context for this conflict is much changed. Protests and activism around museums reveal that the front in the battleground over art has migrated to the ideological left. But museums still have just as hard a time saying sorry as they did 30 years ago.
“You want to think of it as 30 years ago, but it’s not just 30 years ago. It’s yesterday,” says Sanjit Sethi, the outgoing director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, which is now part of George Washington University.
Sethi frames the show as a teaching moment in the context of divisive debates over identity, immigration and religion. Yet the controversy is specifically resonant for the former Corcoran Gallery of Art, which dissolved as a museum in 2014, a still-painful topic for alumni and former staffers. (Copley’s “Thomas Amory II” portrait, along with much of the former museum’s collection, now belongs to the National Gallery of Art.)
The new Corcoran show includes an arresting photo from the grass-roots protest that erupted in response to the Mapplethorpe cancellation (not to Mapplethorpe’s photos themselves). Local artists and advocates, among them organizer William Wooby and curator Andrea Pollan, mounted a projection of Mapplethorpe’s work onto the facade of the Corcoran’s Beaux-Arts building late in June 1989. One photo, by Frank Herrera, landed on the cover of Artforum. By staging the photo inside the building, “6.13.89” will try to bring the protest full circle.
Elsewhere, one prominent museum is trying a similar tack. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has endured weeks of protests over Warren Kanders, the vice chairman of the museum’s board and founding chief executive of the defense company Safariland Group, which makes tear gas alleged to have been used against asylum seekers at the southern border. In the run-up to the recently opened Whitney Biennial — a high-profile survey of contemporary art in America — the Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz pulled out in protest of the museum’s connection to the weapons manufacturer.
But the Whitney isn’t retreating from the controversy. Kanders, who denies being complicit in the decision to use tear gas, is front and center in the biennial. The show includes an investigative documentary (by the group Forensic Architecture) that used innovative computer-learning technology to track the global use of tear-gas grenades manufactured by a Safariland subsidiary. The gesture has earned praise from critics, but its inclusion in the show also co-opts the protest, since the video is presented as an artwork — even as it serves as a form of crisis communications.
Another institution, Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, recently resurfaced an off-putting artwork as a way of confronting a problematic history. John Kacere’s provocative 1971 painting “Light Purple Panties, Zippered Slip” depicts a woman’s backside in an unzipped sheath (a theme in his work). In his lifetime, Kacere made few apologies for the male gaze in his paintings, blaming the feminist movement for any discomfort women felt about them. And for years, the Speed Art Museum had no qualms about reproducing the image on postcards, magnets and other merchandise.
Last year, the museum’s contemporary curator, Miranda Lash, brought that painting out of storage for “Breaking the Mold: Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum,” which cast a critical eye on Kacere’s hypersexualized painting and on the museum’s role in promoting it.
In 2005, Eleanor Browning Coke, the painting’s model, sued the estate of her father, photographer Van Deren Coke, whom she alleged had exploited her by exhibiting photographs of her and making her pose nude as a child. The Speed did not conceal the troubling implication that Van Deren Coke and Kacere were friends. In fact, the museum publicized the claims of emotional distress described in Coke’s lawsuit.
“Once people understand there might be the possibility of coercion [behind the painting], they see the artwork differently,” Lash says. “However we talk about this painting should set the tone for how we talk about paintings even centuries prior.”
Thirty years ago, art museums lacked an edge that cultural institutions rely on today: simple wall text. Assembling a museum survey meant hanging pictures on the wall, often without notes on any contested histories in art, according to Elaine Heumann Gurian, a museum consultant and veteran of the Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. A traveling show on Mapplethorpe, with pristine still lifes alongside images of bondage and discipline, would not have come to Washington with contextual guides about queer culture, or the frightening disease that claimed Mapplethorpe’s life in March 1989, or even the affinities between formal photographs and X-rated snapshots.
“What explanatory text is, how you help novice learners, what ways you prepare people for difficult material — all of that was less frequent than what you find today,” Gurian says.
Not that sensitive text has always helped. The Smithsonian earned its own censorship merit badge in 2010, when former secretary Wayne Clough pulled a video — David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” (1986-87) — from “Hide/Seek,” a show at the National Portrait Gallery devoted to LGBT themes in portraiture. (A conservative activist associated with Brent Bozell, the founder of the Parents Television Council, objected to a scene that showed ants crawling on a crucifix.)
An example of a museum embracing transformative change came in an unlikely collaboration in Baltimore in 1992. The staid Maryland Historical Society joined forces with The Contemporary, an edgier operation, for “Mining the Museum,” in which conceptual artist Fred Wilson built an exhibition from the collection that highlighted the state’s history with slavery. Wilson brought to the fore rarely seen objects that explored the experience of African Americans and Native Americans — a damning critique of the exhibits typically offered by the museum.
“Mining the Museum” was a shock, but also a hit. Attendance surged. Curators drafted a handout with simple but challenging prompts, among them: For whom was it created? For whom does it exist? Who is represented? How are they represented? Yet despite the positive reception, the historical society’s director, Charles Lyle, resigned the following year; the Baltimore Sun described his resignation as “unexpected,” leading to “speculation that the director was forced out by the board’s executive committee.”
In a public discussion marking the 25th anniversary of the show, Wilson said the museum fired the director “not because they were mad about the show as it was, but because it was so popular, which meant they had to change.”
Museums still struggle with the same questions that Wilson forced Maryland historians to confront. The culture wars are hot again, but in this era, liberals are the ones carrying the protest signs, demanding inclusivity, representation and immediate change.
Such grass-roots groups as the Guerrilla Girls and Radical Matriarchy have staged protests over women’s representation in historic museums, and the pressure may be working: Museums with collections once considered encyclopedic are rushing to fill embarrassing gaps. The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, sold seven works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg — modern masters, white men — to make way for such underrepresented artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Amy Sherald (who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait).
Activists also have targeted museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington for taking donations from oil and pharmaceutical companies, a corporate practice these critics decry as “art-washing.”
As for “6.13.89,” Sethi says the Corcoran school is not looking to cast blame for what happened decades ago, adding that he hopes the effort at transparency and accountability will serve the future as much as the people who were there.
“You see an institution in an incredible degree of pain and distress, and a community in a similar degree of pain and distress,” he says. “How do you come to terms with a significant ghost from your past?”
For her part, Orr-Cahall is not willing to speak at length about her decision to cancel “The Perfect Moment.” But she says she is happy to hear that “6.13.89” is happening — even though it showcases a letter, dated Oct. 4, 1989, from April Gornik, who was disappointed with her handling of the crisis. “I continue to be bewildered and angry at your apparent inability to see the gravity of the situation you have abetted, and act on it,” the letter reads.
“I don’t think any of us thought this would continue on,” Orr-Cahall says, “or continue on 30 years later.”
6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition Friday to Oct. 6 at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. corcoran.gwu.edu.