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Posted at 7:00 PM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Board member resigns over crucifix controversy

By Jacqueline Trescott
Smithsonian controversy

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Senior Smithsonian officials are meeting with concerned museum staff over fears that removing a video from the National Portrait Gallery sets an unwelcome precedent. The action has generated protests, thousands of emails and an advisory board member's resignation.

The staff at the National Museum of American History met Monday with Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for art, history and culture, and a member of the senior staff who decided the excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's video was what the Smithsonian called a "distraction" to the overall groundbreaking show.

One participant at the meeting said Kurin explained Smithsonian officials moved fast because criticism from Capitol Hill and other critics was coming so quickly.

"The Secretary had to move quickly because the news cycle moves so fast now," said the long-time employee. "He also said the video wasn't an essential part of the show and had been added late."

Because the objections on Capitol Hill came initially from two powerful Republicans, John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and the Congress controls 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget, employees said they feared to go public with their viewpoints.

"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" opened Oct. 30 and is the first show to explore same-sex intimacy at a major musuem. The Smithsonian has said repeatedly the institution stands behind the show, which runs through Feb. 13.

Since removing the video, which contained an 11-second segment that showed ants crawling over a crucifix, the Smithsonian has taken steps to control the damage. The action has also been criticized by artists, who staged a protest outside the Portrait Gallery last week, and by the Association of Art Museum Directors, an influential group.

Last week commissioner James T. Bartlett resigned from the advisory panel in protest. "I believe it is a fundamental right of museums and their curatorial staffs to make such decisions [about exhibition content], even if some art is deemed objectionable by external critics," said Bartlett in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. "I choose firmly and resolutely not to be part of an institution that is and can be put ad infinitum in this position."


National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan. (Photo by Susan Wilkinson)

"I wanted you to see how we are responding to critics of the decision (many of who are also enthusiastic supporters of the show)," said Martin Sullivan, the director of the embattled National Portrait Gallery, in an e-mail to the staff, shortly before a meeting Wednesday.

Sullivan said he was trying to respond to the "thousands of e-mails and phone calls" that the museum had received since it removed a video from the current show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."

Last week Sullivan, along with G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, removed the video "A Fire in My Belly," by Wojnarowicz. The video was criticized as "anti-Christian" by a few Republican politicians and conservative groups while artists and others called its removal censorship.

Sullivan's letter begins:

"Thank you for expressing your concern about the deletion of David Wojnarowicz's video, 'A Fire in My Belly,' from the National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek exhibition, and your support of the exhibition's importance.

"We've received thousands of e-mails and phone calls representing a mix of opinions. I want to assure you that your message has come through.

"As you know, more than 100 art works are on view in the overall exhibition. More than a dozen works specifically address the tragic impact of AIDS. The exhibition continues to include two important works by David Wojnarowicz as well as a portrait of him by Peter Hujar. The art was assembled from the Portrait Gallery's permanent collection and from many other sources. It is presented together for the first time ever, thanks to generous lenders and private financial supporters.

"We're grateful for that partnership and proud of the positive response from the many visitors who have experienced the exhibition."

In addition, in his letter Sullivan includes the Smithsonian's question and answer sheet about the controversy that it posted on its website last week.

A draft of the e-mail was first reported on ARTINFO.com

The objections to the decision to remove the video has also reached the ranks of the Portrait Gallery's commission, its advisory board. James T. Barlett, a member for the last year, resigned in protest, the museum confirmed.

More on this story:

Banned ant video still creeps into gallery
Photos: March for a controversial video | VIDEO
Video: Post critic debates Smithsonian censorship on CNN
Gallery shows Wojnarowicz video | VIDEO
Reaction to ants-and-crucifix controversy | VIDEO
Q&A: Catholic League president William Donohue
Ant-covered Jesus video removed after complaints
Gopnik: National Portrait Gallery bows to censors
Going Out Gurus: 'Hide/Seek': Go see it for yourself
Video: A clip from the ant-covered Jesus work

By Jacqueline Trescott  | December 9, 2010; 7:00 PM ET
Tags:  Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, James T. Bartlett, Martin Sullivan, National Portrait Gallery  
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