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G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, would no doubt like to leave much of 2010 behind him. He’s unlikely to get his wish. The crisis that followed his decision to yank the National Portrait Gallery’s display of David Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in My Belly” video will cast a shadow over the run of the “Hide/Seek” exhibition through February 2011—and beyond.
If his silence is any indication, Clough will spend much of the new year irritated by his critics, who are unlikely to let the matter drop. The Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation both announced this month that they’d refuse to fund future Smithsonian exhibitions unless and until the video was restored. The Smithsonian told reporters that their contributions would not be missed—a gesture that read as ungrateful. One “Hide/Seek” artist, AA Bronson, even asked the museum to pull his work from the show. The National Portrait Gallery refused, a decision that is within its legal rights but a dubious posture for a museum accused of siding with bullies.
But if the shameful final two months of 2010 remain Subject A as we head into 2011, that’s not all bad. As the ongoing controversy has shifted from Wojnarowicz’s work to Clough’s response, it’s actually highlighted some positive changes in Washington. Really.
In 1989, as any student of the culture wars can tell you, the pressure on the Corcoran Gallery of Art to cancel a show of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe was ginned up by Sen. Jesse Helms. In explicitly bigoted terms, Helms accused Mapplethorpe of peddling pornography and pedophilia. This year’s howls, meanwhile, began with the conservative Media Research Center. In contrast to Helms, the initial salvo eschewed outright bigotry: The group instead slammed “Hide/Seek” as anti-Christmas. Though right-wing critics quickly backpedaled into outright homophobia, the fact that the first instinct was to take a different tack represents a tacit acknowledgement that gay artists have a reasonable place in art museums in 2010. As punk artist Patti Smith pointed out in a talk at the gallery, “Hide/Seek” represents progress.
Ditto the city’s response to the yanking of the video. Washington reporters, including ARTINFO’s Tyler Green, TBD.com’s Maura Judkis, and The Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik, led the national media’s investigation into the Smithsonian’s decision. But it was Transformer, the upstart D.C. nonprofit, who led the effort to put Wojnarowicz’s video in front of viewers. Transformer director Victoria Reis and board chair James Alefantis showed nimble decisionmaking, quickly airing the video in the gallery’s storefront in a show of solidarity that would be echoed by the New Museum and other prominent contemporary art institutions.
Of course, most anyone who reads a tweet about the matter can summon up the video on a smartphone. This was hardly the case in 1989, when Mapplethorpe’s supporters mounted a campaign to project his works onto the Corcoran for a one-night demonstration. In today’s controversy, the medium is portable and the work is viral, two qualities that would seem to make demonstrations less urgent. Everyone who cares has seen the work by now, so who needs the Corcoran or the New Museum or anyone else to show it? But what would seem to be the intuitive economic response to the nature of video hasn’t proven true at all. Not only are hundreds of institutions now displaying the work, but so are protesters: Michael Blasenstein and Michael Iacovone mounted a guerrilla campaign to show “A Fire in My Belly” on an iPad in early December. They, and others who have discussed similar designs, seek to continue demonstrations in the new year.
The Mapplethorpe crisis carved a deep trench between the museum and its critics back in 1989. Nowadays, the critics are all perfectly eligible for membership in the local art establishment. Even as it took on the Smithsonian in 2010, Transformer also announced a more flattering forthcoming interaction with the institution: a May 2011 collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian to show emerging indigenous artists from Hawaii. In fact, that museum has represented something of a beachhead for complicated contemporary art at the staid Smithsonian. The Hawaii program follows a solo exhibition by Brian Jungen, “Strange Comfort,” as well as “Vantage Point,” an ongoing installation of the museum’s contemporary native art collection.
Washington contemporary art fans must insist that Clough’s decision doesn’t set back the cause of contemporary art on the National Mall. Before November, you could have argued that 2010 was a banner year on that front. The National Museum of African Art, for instance, showed a crucial mid-career exhibition of works by Yinka Shonibare. And the Hirshhorn Museum, a more familiar spot for contemporary art, also pulled off a masterstroke with “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” a gracious, thorough, and much-deserved examination of a frequently overlooked modernist.
Still, the Hirshhorn hasn’t filled the void left by curator Kristen Hileman, who left the museum in July 2009 and now the curates contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Hileman served as an unofficial liaison between the National Mall and Washington galleries, frequently sitting on panels and juries for shows around town. But the fact that there’s even a relationship worth missing between established organizations and contemporary galleries is telling.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, happy to be nowhere near a censorship scandal, debuted its new “NOW” art program this year with an engaging but cramped show by multimedia artist Spencer Finch. Along with a new exhibit of the old Washington Color School artists, the Corcoran’s permanent installation includes a mini-exhibition of D.C. contemporary artists like Jefferson Pinder and Jim Sanborn. Official Washington is reaching out to real-world Washington in small but appreciable ways—ways that won’t necessarily end just because contemporary artists were bullied at the Portrait Gallery.
So when they’re not busy beating up on Clough, Washington artists have much to look forward to in 2011. This past year saw green shoots around town, including new gallery openings near Mount Vernon Square and along the H Street NE corridor. But the best news yet came this December, when a number of Washington art dealers reported strong sales at the art fairs in Miami, far from the sting of censorship and winter. It’s a shame that Clough’s unforced error will be what people remember about 2010. But he may wind up being one of the few cultural workers in Washington’s visual art scene who spends 2011 looking back.