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Walker Stands with National Peers in Support of Artistic Freedom

Before I came to the Walker in 2008, I was a curator of contemporary art and ultimately director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Hirshhorn is one of the 19 museums and nine research centers that comprise the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It is a sister museum to the National Portrait Gallery […]

Before I came to the Walker in 2008, I was a curator of contemporary art and ultimately director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Hirshhorn is one of the 19 museums and nine research centers that comprise the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It is a sister museum to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which has been the site of controversy since December 1, when Smithsonian officials caved to political pressures and removed a film by the late artist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition Hide/Seek : Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

In response to this crisis, various versions of the film Fire in my Belly will be screened daily at the Walker Art Center later this week, pending arrangements with the artist’s estate. (Check website for further details.) This film, in which the artist has edited a montage of video footage shot in Mexico, captures his anger and struggle with the death of a lover and his own H.I.V. diagnosis. Since its making, this film has become an iconic art work of the 1980s and has had a visible place in AIDS activism in New York and the U.S. See Holland Cotter’s article from Saturday’s New York Times “As Ants Crawl over Crucifix, Dead Artist is Assailed Again” and Frank Rich’s New York Times editorial “Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian” for more detailed descriptions and analysis of the work.

In addition, on December 16 the Walker opens 50/50: Audience and Experts Curate the Paper Collection in which Wojnarowicz’s Four Elements, a work in the Walker’s permanent collection, is one of over 50 objects the public selected for inclusion in this new collaborative exhibition.


David Wojnarowicz
Four Elements
1990
lithograph on paper
T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1991

It is from my perspective both as director of the Walker, an institution devoted to supporting the most adventurous art and artists of our time, and my position as a former curator and director of a Smithsonian museum, that I write this statement. I do so after traveling yesterday to Washington to see the exhibition firsthand, a step I would encourage anyone taking a public position on this exhibition to take.

Hide/Seek was organized by the NPG to “show how art has reflected changing attitudes toward sexual identity.” As a museum dedicated to presenting the lives of individuals who have made significant impact on American life and culture over the course of U.S. history, the exhibition boldly tackles and in many ways admirably achieves this goal. Through the lens of over 100 artists, curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz frankly elucidate the lives of the individuals represented as well as the social history and sexual politics that attend over a century of art making. This history unquestionably shaped the lives of many of the century’s key makers as well as their creative output, influencing further developments in 20th and 21st century art.

Incredibly thoughtful, well researched, and comprehensive wall labels accompany each art work. Indeed the wall texts are central components of the exhibition in an installation conceived to reveal a social history of silence and oppression rather than trace any specific aesthetic impulses, artistic developments, or concerns. In this regard, it is important to acknowledge that Hide/Seek is not a traditional art exhibition nor is the NPG a conventional art museum. The NPG is a museum of American history that presents art (portraiture exclusively) as an artifact by which to understand and interpret American life and culture.

In every regard, the NPG should be applauded for organizing, mounting, and presenting this groundbreaking, scholarly exhibition and supporting the curators’ well argued thesis that a powerful artistic and cultural legacy has been “hidden in plain sight for more than a century.” Yet the NPG’s and Smithsonian’s surprising decision to remove a key work from the exhibition a month after its opening undermines this thesis as well as the premise and curatorial integrity of the exhibition in alarming ways. Indeed this action serves to sublimate or “hide” the very thing the exhibition attempts to make visible.


David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (face in dirt), c. 1990

During my tenure at the Smithsonian, I had the pleasure and privilege with my colleagues there to bring some of the most compelling and often challenging modern and contemporary art to the nation’s capital, including works by many of the artists presented in Hide/Seek. While I would say that any artist, curator, and administrator making an exhibition in Washington is keenly aware of what it means to present contemporary art in the nation’s capital and to reach a very broad general audience, I always felt that my curatorial choices founded on well grounded research, expertise and knowledge were supported by Smithsonian administration. This was true even if the content was potentially controversial so long as the museum took reasonable steps to inform the public and provide contextualizing material when such content might be present so that viewers could make their own choices.

Three years after my departure, I am saddened to find a very different Washington, one informed by fear, intolerance, and silence, and a different Smithsonian, one that has perhaps lost touch with some of the core principles and spirit of its establishment. Founded in 1846 to increase and diffuse knowledge, the Smithsonian was created by the U.S. Congress as a trust instrumentality of the nation to be administered by an independent governing body and leader. This structure was created in part to prevent an institution envisioned as a beacon for research, debate, and the advancement of knowledge from being subject to the winds of political change, partisanship, and special interest. So important was this value that the Congress debated for nearly a decade prior to the Smithsonian’s establishment how to best ensure scholarly objectivity.

I am, of course, deeply disheartened by the Smithsonian’s recent actions and join my colleagues at the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Warhol Foundation, on whose boards I also serve, in their statements of disapproval and condemnation. Since time immemorial, artists have questioned the predominant modes of thought in our society and pushed the bounds of conventional thinking to inspire reflection, debate, and ultimately advance culture.  As stewards and supporters of our cultural legacy, it is essential for institutions like the Walker and, indeed all citizens, to support the independent voices of artists and the value of creative and artistic freedom. It has never been more important to speak out and openly for the freedom of expression.

  • Marvin J. Taylor says:

    Thank you for your well-considered statement.

    Marvin J. Taylor
    Director, Fales Library
    New York University

  • Erik Randall says:

    I applaud this move. However: honest question looking for an honest answer: Would the Walker screen a video evoking equally negative images of Muhammed, that were found to be offensive by adherents of the Islamic faith? (and no I’m not some right-wing nut. I’m skeptical of all religions equally). I’m not trying to throw flames. I’m honestly wondering what would happen if the Walker were faced with a chance to oppose attempts at censorship by other, more ‘vehement’ censors.

  • Robert says:

    @Erik, the Walker has presented and supported the work of Shirin Neshat. While her imagery isn’t as specific as the example you cite, her work is a feminist critique of Islamic culture. In some Islamic sects, her work registers as incredibly sacrilegious. In essence, the Walker has already done what you have suggested, it’s just that the transgression doesn’t register to those unfamiliar with the culture she is operating within.

  • Thank you for speaking.

  • Thank you so much for speaking up. As always. Yours, James

  • awesome. Thank you for joining the voices.

    Yours, James Alefantis, Transformer, Washington, DC

  • Thank you for joining the voices.

    -James Alefantis, Transformer, Washington, DC

  • Jennifer says:

    I’m disheartened that the same essay can rightfully praise the Portrait Gallery for its groundbreaking exhibition (which of course is still up and full, as you know, of tremendously provocative work), and end by characterizing the Smithsonian as a place that has lost touch with its core principles in a city governed by fear and silence. As a resident of Washington and an ardent fan of the Smithsonian, I find this unfair and insulting. Marginalizing the Portrait Gallery’s courage in bringing this important issue to a national stage (as Blake Gopnik marveled in the Washington Post, “amazingly, this is the first major museum show to tackle the topic”), and ignoring how many will now become aware of its important thesis and scholarship, it seems easier for the museum world to join the chorus of holier-than-thou condemnation. It’s not about the exhibition’s bold approach or quality of art work anymore, it’s only about that 4-minute video. Since the only issue worth addressing is now censorship, I trust that you are also sending thoughtful and impassioned letters of outrage to Representatives Boehner and Cantor, urging them, as citizens like the rest of us, to fully support the value of creative freedom, especially at the Smithsonian.

  • Rodney Ailes says:

    I am a 60yr. old blk. American who learned to appreciate the arts., by going to a intercity Art High school in Newark, N.J. (the first in the country-1930) I do not have Aids, although as a retired 23 yr. flight attendent many times my heart was broken by other friends, who have died along the way, of aids. I also have had as part of my life. a very religious christian background. I say this so that people will see, I am not a angry gay person, (although I understand the anger.) This exhibit should be seen by every free person in every free society in the world. For the world to judge individually, and not for any religious organization to say this is not for public eyes. I would want my sons to see this and express to me their feelings. Good or Bad. When Mel Gibson did such a beautiful job of showing what Jesus might have gone through during his crucifixion,(The Passion). Catholic and “Born again” conservatives, flocked in buses and filled the theaters. Do we think that their were no ants, spiders, etc. not crawling over Jesus body during those three days in the grave. Jesus was still a man until the third day. (if you take the Bible literally) On the Oprah Winfry
    show 200 men stood up and talked about their sexual abuse, some by Catholic Priest. I wondered how many of those men now have Aids. If some people feel it’s their right to carry a gun on their hip to a park filled with children, to show their political views. Why can’t I have the right to see and judge for myself, what is art. I would rather pay my tax dollars any day to see Wojnarowicz’s works. Thank you Ms. Viso. for your courage. God Bless

  • DAVID SHELBY says:

    Thank you for speaking out in favor of artistic freedom.
    However, when I was an graduate art student, I was told right to my face by a tenured feminist professor that I didn’t have freedom of speech anymore and that she demanded that I change the “content” of my work. I refused and paid the price.
    It is well known that the Walker has long supported this activity: the guerilla girls, Judy Chicago…..on and on.
    Freedom of speech is for everyone. It is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. It provides people without much power to speak out against abuse by those in power.
    I’ve grown tired of political art. There’s an old word for that activity, “propaganda”.

  • Every artwork is political, in the sense that every artwork is offensive to someone. Every book is political, in the sense that every book is offensive to someone. Every idea is political, in the sense that every idea is offensive to someone.

    The answer to this conundrum is not to remove artworks from museums or to remove books from libraries. The answer to this conundrum is to recognize that the price we pay for living in a democratic, pluralistic society is that each one of us will be offended by various ideas and expressions at various times in our lives, perhaps every day of our lives. It is difficult and it is painful to be offended, but it is a price that is worth paying for the privilege of being part of an open society.

    That does not mean that we should not disagree or debate — the disagreements and the debates are part of that larger discourse that defines the free exchange of ideas in a democracy.

    Thank you, Olga Viso and thank you, Walker Art Center.

    Howard Oransky, co-owner, Form+Content Gallery, Minneapolis

  • Kerry says:

    Perhaps you believe you are still the brave outsiders taking on the effete French Academy who still refuse to give gallery space to Monet and Gauguin (sp.?). In reality you have become the effete French Academy and don’t even know it. It simply is not possible for everything to be groundbreaking, profound, daring and whatever other labels you self proclaim with whatever weasel language now strides about. I dare you to show a painting of the Prez being lynched by a mob or burka clad crazies carrying Hilary Clinton posters, or Warhol like repetitive posters of Moo-ham-ed brand bacon, sausage and hams, the logo on the label being the pederast founder of the world’s most bloodthirsty …anyway, be bold, eh?

  • Sophie Breer says:

    David is still being forced to take a stand – Thanks for helping!

  • Roslye Ultan says:

    Protecting and speaking out in support of artistic freedom and creative imagination is quintessential in democratic societies be it at the Walker Art Center in MPLS, MN, or at the nation’s Smithsonian Institution where I too spent several years as a Graduate Fellow and found the institution to be a source for research, reflection, forward looking in discovering and showcasing art of great value. Obviously, in these more conservative times it becomes essential that these freedoms of expression be protected in order to preserve the integrity of the artistic domain to explore ideas where no other field can safely go. The arts, like it/or what is expressed or not, affer the opportunity for the spectator, the general public, the interested student, and other creative individuals to question in a safe environment some of the most critical issues of the culture. We join in speaking out to assure that the aesthetics of artistic freedom remain uncensored.

  • Roslye Ultan says:

    Protecting and speaking out in support of artistic freedom and creative imagination is quintessential in democratic societies be it at the Walker Art Center in MPLS, MN, or at the nation’s Smithsonian Institution where I too spent several years as a Graduate Fellow and found the institution to be a source for research, reflection, forward looking in discovering and showcasing art of great value. Obviously, in these more conservative times it becomes essential that these freedoms of expression be protected in order to preserve the integrity of the artistic domain to explore ideas where no other field can safely go. The arts, like it/or what is expressed or not, offer the opportunity for the spectator, the general public, the interested student, and other creative individuals to question in a safe environment some of the most critical issues of the culture. We join in speaking out to assure that the aesthetics of artistic freedom remain uncensored.

  • Chuck says:

    Hey Olgo, I look forward to a showing of the Danish Mohammad cartoons. Or better yet, how about we host burn-a-koran day at the Walker. What do you say, Olga? Wouldn’t that be edgy and progressive?