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 Dec. 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 our 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 column, “Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian,” for more detailed descriptions and analysis of the work.
In addition, on Thursday the Walker will open 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.
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 on Sunday to Washington to see the exhibition firsthand, a step I would encourage anyone taking a public position on this exhibition to take.
Goal of the exhibition
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.
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.
A very different Washington
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.
Olga Viso is the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. This article originally appeared on the Walker’s website.