In attempting to avoid controversies over content, a Smithsonian panel might be setting the stage for even more.
“In the absence of actual error, changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens without meaningful consultation with the curator, director, Secretary, and the leadership of the Board of Regents.”
This directive was the closest that the Smithsonian Institution’s leadership came to chastising its secretary, G. Wayne Clough, for his widely criticized decision late last year to remove a David Wojnarowicz clip from a show that had been up for a month at the National Portrait Gallery. It was not presented as an official critique by the board of regents, which reaffirmed its support of its embattled secretary. Rather, the words came from a report by a panel convened by the regents to review Smithsonian exhibition-planning policies going forward “as they relate to potentially sensitive and controversial themes and content.”
The panel was chaired by board of regents member John McCarter; it also included Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, as well as David Gergen, Harvard professor, CNN analyst, and former White House adviser. It met six weeks after Clough removed A Fire in My Belly from “Hide/Seek,” a show about gay and lesbian identity in modern and contemporary art, immediately after right-wing groups and politicians had denounced “anti-Catholic” imagery in the piece, particularly a brief scene showing ants crawling over a crucifix. Though his decision was presented as driven by political expediency—a move to sidestep threats to slash federal funding of the Smithsonian—it was denounced by many as an ill-considered act of censorship. (In the ensuing weeks, art spaces across the country exhibited the piece in a gesture of solidarity; it is on view through May 9 at the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired it.)
The report stated that avoiding controversy was neither possible nor desirable. It reaffirmed the Smithsonian’s mandate to “encourage and provide a forum for dialogue on the important issues of the day,” including immigration, race and ethnicity, religion, climate change, and sexual identity. The institution’s role “is to elevate and lead discourse by contributing objective scholarship and a multidisciplinary perspective on potentially ‘flashpoint’ issues,” the document said.
It also offered a number of practical strategies for anticipating and handling controversy more effectively. Some seemed to have been prompted by the Wojnarowicz case: that Smithsonian build long-term relationships with members of Congress, for example, or that leaders seek input from appropriate advisers, including fellow museum directors and professional museum organizations, in times of crisis.
Other recommendations were less practical. The report suggested that the board of regents, through its Strategic Planning and Programs Committee, review the three?year exhibition calendar to identify potential controversies.
And it suggested that the Smithsonian provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in at “pre-decisional exhibit planning phases.”
It’s not clear how this could work. As veterans of the very controversies the report cites will attest, predicting which works will spark political or public uproar is not so easy. Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary became a cause célíbre when the show “Sensation” arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999—but when that exhibition had opened in London, Marcus Harvey’s painting of a child killer was the target of outrage. If “Hide/Seek” had been put to such a test, any number of works might have been red-flagged. The exhibition would have been over before it started.
Indeed, a policy of inviting the public into the “pre-decisional” process directly contradicts the panel’s assertion that “curatorial freedom of expression, expertise, and authority” are vital. It would turn the Smithsonian into a sitting duck for all manner of groups that want to implement an agenda. Opening exhibition preparation to crowdsourcing is not a way to anticipate controversy—it’s a way to assure it.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.