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During last night’s panel at the Washington Jewish Community Center, National Portrait Gallery historian and “Hide/Seek” curator David Ward said that removing an important artwork from the show threatened to undermine the entire exhibit. He said that the work represented a fine example of the themes that the show’s critics don’t want to discuss. He called for nuance in considering the roles of the Smithsonian. “Criticize the Smithsonian, praise the Smithsonian,” he said.
You might be thinking Ward was talking about David Wojnarowicz and the Smithsonian’s decision to strip his video work, the now-notorious A Fire in My Belly, from the National Portrait Gallery at the beginning of December. You would be mistaken. Ward was defending the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to keep A.A. Bronson‘s piece, Felix, June 5, 1994, in “Hide/Seek,” despite the artist’s fervent requests that the piece be taken down. As Arts Desk reported earlier, the National Gallery of Canada (which loaned the piece to the National Portrait Gallery) has “informally” requested that the piece be withdrawn but has stopped short of formally appealing the legal terms of the loan.
And so Ward stood in as the awkward face for the Smithsonian Institution, both criticizing and praising its decisions—and leaving the full-capacity crowd drawing blanks afterward. Ward’s balancing act highlighted the glaring unprofessionalism of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough, who ultimately carries the responsibility for the decision and who refuses to answer viewers and taxpayers.
Ward dominated last night’s JCC panel, proffering answers to nearly every question put forward by either the moderator or the audience. Reasonably so: Many of the questions were directed his way, since Ward could speak to internal Smithsonian communications in a way that Transformer director Victoria Reis, columnist Tyler Green, and artist Dafna Steinberg could not.
Ward’s take represents a position that no curator should have to occupy—and one no Smithsonian viewer should be satisfied with.
For instance, Ward defended the Smithsonian’s decision to resist Bronson’s request for the return of his work. He said that the piece was one of several crucial works representing the suffering and silence of AIDS victims. Wojnarowicz’s video work can be read in the same light. While a political judgment may hold that removing one work about AIDS would prevent “distraction” while removing another work would undermine the coherency of the show, that judgment does not pass muster as a curatorial consideration of the group exhibition as one whole statement. But for this panel, Ward was asked to weigh politics and aesthetics.
Consider Ward’s defense of the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to adhere to the legal text of the loan agreement. It might very well adhere to the letter of the law. A registrar or executive from the Castle would surely read such an agreement this way. But Bronson [or rather, the National Gallery of Canada, in his proxy] agreed to lend the work to “Hide/Seek” under the implicit understanding that the Smithsonian would not censor its presentation of GLBT or AIDS-afflicted artists—especially not on the say-so of fringe political organizations like Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center or the affiliated Catholic League. Consider the agreement from a curatorial perspective, especially one so sensitive to GLBT history as to consider such questions as whether to constrain the show’s purview to a period between Gay Liberation and the outbreak of AIDS understands or to go broad. (The National Portrait Gallery went broad.) From the curatorial perspective, holding to the spirit of the law, the institutional decision to censor Wojnarowicz’s work undermines the consent under which Bronson agreed to lend his work.
Ward, then, faced with the unenviable task of appreciating the Smithsonian’s mistake while also defending the National Portrait Gallery’s show, attempted a tight-rope act. His copanelists’ views remain less clear, as few were given equal time to answer questions. At one point during the panel, it appeared that all the panelists, perhaps with the exception of Reis, agreed that the Warhol Foundation’s decision to refuse all future funding opportunities to the Smithsonian Institution was a mistake—or, at least, that it was unhelpful.
Readers can easily find Green’s take on the Warhol gambit. The art blogger criticized the foundation’s fiery ultimatum, suggesting Warhol’s decision was “all about principle and not at all about process.”
As Green notes (and as Arts Desk reported), the Warhol Foundation’s approach was bound to fail if the goal was to move the Smithsonian. An ultimatum gives the Smithsonian no leeway to admit its mistake. Unlike President Barack Obama, the Smithsonian apparently cannot be seen to be negotiating with hostage-takers.
Yet that understands Secretary Clough to be a culture minister who can afford to be motivated by pride. Is that a reasonable understanding of this public servant’s role? While Secretary Clough holds a powerful role in the administration of American culture, he answers ultimately to U.S. taxpayers. Whether it is difficult or profitable for Secretary Clough personally to admit to a mistake is not really something taxpayers care about.
Indeed, whether or not Secretary Clough truly desires to answer to a calling of angry taxpayers nationwide, he is obligated to answer. As the Smithsonian was quick to point out to reporters, the funding provided by the Warhol Foundation is insignificant compared to the purse the Smithsonian commands. Not even pennies on the dollar! This makes Secretary Clough’s silence all the more uncomfortable: It is the taxpayers’ money that puts Secretary Clough beyond the reach of the Warhol Foundation and his other critics.
During the panel, Ward lamented the “circular firing squad” that takes place on “the left” when liberals face an ideological challenge. Indeed, this paper has reported that there was no controversy, no serious disagreement among viewers. Based on the say-so of a conservative-activist organization known for its prowess in mounting call-in complaint campaigns—and with the support of flacks for House Republican leaders who were spoon-fed the ants-on-the-cross outrage and have long since forgotten it (if they were ever made very aware)—organized, professional, political activists dictated to the National Portrait Gallery what it will and will not show. That’s not organic disagreement between viewers who disagree about art. I asked last night, and I ask again: Where was the controversy?
It was in the context of the circular firing squad that Ward condemned every form that criticism of the Smithsonian has taken. Artists pulling works from the show is no good, since that compromises the exhibit. Foundations threatening support for the Smithsonian is no good, since that threatens the good work the Smithsonian often does. Indeed, Ward and panel host (and “Hide/Seek” donor) Catherine Dawson suggested the best way to send a message would be to purchase a copy of the exhibit catalog. Certainly a contrarian form of protest.
Ward even addressed the Smithsonian’s conservative critics (were any in attendance?) to say that anyone who would pull National Portrait Gallery funding for “Hide/Seek” should look at the presidential portraits hall and ask whether they want to pull funding for that as well. Perhaps it was an inadvertent expression, but Ward seemed to be saying, “You have to take the bad with the good.” As he is the co-curator of the “Hide/Seek” exhibit, there is zero reason to believe that Ward sees GLBT Americans and their narrative as somehow subordinate to the majoritarian, white, straight male narrative on display in the presidential portraits hall (or in the neighboring Norman Rockwell exhibit, for that matter). But his unfortunate choice of framework perhaps suggests that Ward, a curator and historian, is not the best candidate to defend his work and also defend the institution’s handling of his work.
For that we would look to Secretary Clough. After all, Ward did not want to make this decision, and he should not have to speak for it. But Secretary Clough will not speak about it. As a result, Smithsonian critics who might prefer détente are pushed to more extreme positions to ensure that the Smithsonian is not in fact free to ignore them.
And who can blame them? Much of last night’s panel focused on the question of how viewers could prevent conservatives in Congress from docking the Smithsonian’s budget. Surely there is room to ask whether liberals in Congress should reward the Smithsonian’s silence?