Last Wednesday the Catholic League’s William Donohue told The Washington Post that, “You have to know when to step on the gas and when to step on the brake.” Ironically, he was speaking about his own turn to step on the brake, having given the gas already to his thrust to remove David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s current Hide/Seek exhibit. But even as he spoke, activists, fellow artists, local galleries, The Andy Warhol Foundation, and Smithsonian curators were stepping on the gas.
Mr. Donohue was telling reporters that his work was done and he would not be attending a dialog at the New York Public Library that night, where Hide/Seek curators Johathan Katz and David C. Ward were scheduled to speak.
Katz and Ward, who have organized what the Post called “perhaps the highest-profile and most canonically scholarly exhibition of gay and lesbian art ever mounted in a major museum” were in danger of having months of careful work upstaged by the controversy surrounding the Wojnarowicz yoink. They gave a scholarly lecture, holding their grievances at bay until the question and answer period. Reluctant as they were to vilify the Smithsonian during a time when cultural institutions should be presenting a united front against what Katz calls “an American Taliban,” they did express disapproval of the hasty decision to edit Hide/Seek without even, as Ward puts it, “a fighting retreat.”
Meantime, artist AA Bronson had asked that very day, that his portrait, Felix, be removed from the NPG as a protest: “To edit queer history in this way is hurtful and disrespectful,” he wrote in his letter to the National Gallery of Canada (current owners of the work). Though they respect Mr. Bronson’s decision, whether or not the gallery has the legal right to remove the work remains to be seen.
While the Smithsonian’s thumping continues apace, New York activists are preparing to mirror the last week’s protest marches in Washington, as they spread word of a march this Sunday that will proceed from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to The Cooper-Hewitt/Smithsonian at 91st Street.
DATE: Sunday, 12/19
TIME: At: 1:00 pm
Protest against the Smithsonian
A march to protest the Smithsonian’s Censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s current Hide/Seek exhibit
March begins at: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From there it will proceed to The Cooper-Hewitt/Smithsonian at 91st Street.
Via NewsGrist blog, This latest correspondance from artist, AA Bronson, to Martin Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Apparently Sullivan phoned Bronson to tell him that The National Gallery of Canada could not cancel the loan of Bronson’s work, Felix, due to the nature of their loan agreement. Mr Bronson responds below.
Date: December 17, 2010
To: Martin Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery
From: AA Bronson
Dear Martin Sullivan,
Thanks for telephoning me and I am writing to confirm our conversation.
You began by offering to bring me to Washington to see the exhibition, at the Museum’s expense.
You reported that the National Gallery of Canada was unable to cancel the loan because of the loan agreement, but that Marc Meyer, the Director, urged you to cooperate with me. (My understanding from Marc is that they CAN terminate the loan, but they would rather not do so on political grounds. Marc, maybe you can clarify).
You described my work “Felix, June 5, 1994” as one of three works given a major amount of space in the exhibition. It was because of that space that the museum was unable to give as much space to the videos in the exhibition as they really needed. You withdrew the David Wojnarowicz video because you felt it wasn’t being given “proper respect” because of the lack of space. I am not positive that I got this right, but I think you said that this was done BEFORE the Catholic League published a statement about the work, and you claim that a journalist goaded the politicians into making their statements. Please don’t take offense if I say that this all sounds exceedingly convenient. Not to say that it isn’t true but it is not convincing.
My proposal is that you reinstate the video, but in its complete form, as the artist intended (you were showing only a clip before, I understand, which already constitutes a prior censorship of the work).
If that means removing my work in order to make an appropriate space for the video, in its full form, I give my permission to do just that.
Begging the question of whether it’s still “street art” if you commission it for a Museum, Jeffrey Deitch, director of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, had a freshly completed mural by Italian street artist, Blu, immediately white washed.
Looks like street art to me!
The rather heavy-handed mural depicting military coffins draped with out-sized dollar bills instead of flags (get it?), graced the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary Building for only the time it took to document it as part of the exhibit for the show’s catalog.
MOCA’s official statement says that the mural was “inappropriate” and pointed out that The Geffen Contemporary building’s north wall sits directly in front of the Go For Broke Monument that commemorates Japanese American soldiers and is very near the Veterans Affairs building.
Deitch told reporters that the issue is not censorship but timing: “Blu was supposed to fly out the second-to-last week in November, so we could have conversations about it in advance,. But he said he had to change his flights, so he ended up working in isolation without any input.”
Immediate comparisons to the Smithsonian/Wojnarowicz debacle show just how sensitive the creative community is these days to any hint of censorship.
But, Deitch dismisses any similarity in the cases:
“Look at my gallery website — I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country. But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community.”
Deitch also claims that he and the artist are “on friendly terms, ” but Blu’s blog features a photo of the naked wall with the capton, “A really nice, big wall, in downtown L.A.”
ADDENDUM: Via Hyperallergic: Blu claims that Deitch’s mural kill is indeed “censorship”; airs e-mail exchanges that challenge Deitch’s statements. This, likely, will turn into a fine back and forth. And in this hypersensitive atmosphere where artists, arts institutions, and pressure groups feel they are at war, issues like this one are bound to escalate. It is my own opinion that MOCA may not have dealt honestly with the artist and the public, but that the removal of the mural was not censorship. The commission was a blunder and the PR has been less than honest: period.
James T. Bartlett has resigned as National Portrait Gallery commissioner, in protest of the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition.
Since its decision to withdraw the Wojnarowicz piece in deference to complaints from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who dubbed it “hate speech” and to pressure from certain members of congress, the Smithsonian has been bombarded with criticism from other members of congress, supporters of free speech and the arts, friends and supporters of the artist, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and many of it’s own members, including Bartlett.
Created by the artist in response to a diagnosis of AIDS, and in a signature religion-probing gothic style, the video was removed from the (now ironically named) Hide/Seek, an exhibition of gay portraiture, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on November 30th.
The yanking of Fire in My Belly followed threats from Republican leader, Representative John Boehner of Ohio and Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, who threatened the Smithsonian by claiming that the venerable institution was misusing taxpayer funds and they could look forward to losing funding in future.
Though the exhibit was privately funded, the Smithsonian does receive some public funding. But National Portrait Gallery officials have stated that their quick response was prompted by a fear that a swift news cycle was quickly burying the exhibit in distractions and that they were forced to stay ahead of it.
Initial reports of the work’s withdrawal brought on immediate protest and have resulted in a veritable avalanche of bad press.
On Wednesday, December 1st, upon hearing of the Smithsonian’s cave-in, Victoria Reis, co-founder, Executive & Artistic Director of the nearby Transformer gallery, ordered an immediate, 48 hour screening of a 4 minute clip of the work (similar to what was included in Hide/Seek). This version of Fire in My Belly was shown in the storefront window facing outward to the public.
Protests spread out from the small non-profit gallery on December 2nd as a march proceeded from Transformer, at 14th and P streets NW to the National Portrait Gallery to picket in front of it.
By December 3rd Transformer obtained from the Wojnarowicz Estate (represented by PPOW gallery) & the Fales Library, an original 13 minute version of the “film in progress” plus 7 minutes of excerpts, and began to show those inside the gallery. But that screening, ending on the 4th, proved to be a spur to further protest.
Frustrated that the screening was to end that Saturday, two men began showing an iPad video of the the work at the NPG, inside the entrance to the Hide/Seek exhibit. They were detained and banned from the Smithsonian for life.
In a letter co-written by Reis and Board President, James Alefantis, repudiated the NPG’s failure to uphold its own claims that “it is committed to the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in the American promise of equality inclusion and social dignity.”
The letter goes on to quote Rep. James P. Moran, chairman of the subcommittee that provides funding for the country’s major art institutions who, in response to the Wojnarowitcz controversy said, “The whole point is that we should not be censoring we should be discussing.”
In a statement reacting to the Smithsonian’s decision, P.P.O.W Gallery and The Estate of David Wojnarowicz said, “In 1990 the artist won a historic Supreme Court case, David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association. The courts sided with Wojnarowicz after he filed suit against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, who copied, distorted and disseminated the artist’s images in a pamphlet to speak out against the NEA’s funding of exhibits that included art works of Wojnarowicz and other artists. We are deeply troubled that the remarks, which led to the removal of David’s work from Hide/Seek, so closely resemble those of the past. Wojnarowicz’s fight for freedom of artistic expression, once supported by the highest court, is now challenged again. In his absence, we know that his community, his supporters, and the many who believe in his work will carry his convictions forward.”
Meanwhile, silent protest marches continue to plague the Smithsonian with picketers carrying the iconic photo of Wojnarowicz with his mouth sewn shut. Some protesters have even projected the censored video onto the side of the building, apparently unhindered by police.
Even Stephen Colbert has joined in the fray, saying of Eric Cantor’s threats, “This defunding threat isn’t some cheap exercise in mindless censorship. It’s an anti-paradigmatic revolutionary work of conceptual art banning. Cantor’s art is about the art that isn’t there, making the inaccessible literally inaccessible.”
This evening, in an unprecedented admonition to any of it’s previous benefactors, The Andy Warhol Foundation threatened to cease funding to ALL Smithsonian Institution exhibitions if they will not reinstate the Wojnarowicz piece.
Transformer plans to display a sign in its window until the work is reinstated. Commemorating the Smithsonian’s shame, the sign reads:
A Fire in My Belly
Video by David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992)
Created in 1987, Censored by the Smithsonian Institution 2010
Christie’s recent top management shuffle has inspired a good deal of speculation regarding the strategic intentions of owners, François Pinault and his investment firm, Groupe Artemis SA. Does Artemis, which acquired the auction house in 1999 for $1.2 billion have secret plans to sell in the near future?
Sprung upon with announcements of a new CEO, Steven Pleshette Murphy, formerly president and CEO of Rodale publishing, and the promotion of former CEO, Edward Doleman to chairman, Christie’s execs can’t help but wonder what to expect next.
Kept secret until its announcement via a Sept. 20th e-mail to worldwide staff, the news apparently caused quite a shake up, not only because it was so sudden and unanticipated, but also because Murphy was chosen over seemingly more likely candidates like Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s America, and François Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia.
Artemis, meantime, denies all rumors of an impending sale, claiming it holds long-term plans for Christie’s which is, they say, one of their “strategic assets,” producing sales of $2.3 billion in the first half of 2010.
However, asked by ArtInfo’s Judd Tully about whether Christie’s has any more surprises in store, Murphy, Christie’s very first American born CEO, said, “There will be more to say in a few months.”