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Posted at 5:00 PM ET, 02/10/2011

"Hide/Seek" visitors register their opinions

By Jacqueline Trescott
Lee Bridges, of Washington, watches the video, "A Fire in My Belly," outside the Transformer Gallery in Washington. (AP)

The groundbreaking "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibit elicited tears from some viewers, prompted anger at the Smithsonian Institution and drew solid admiration for the artists in the show.

Some reactions, captured in the visitors' log for a two-week period, were extremely personal. "Thank you for putting this together. Today is the day I'll finally come out to my mother. Happy Solstice!," signed one woman. Another visitor happened by the show after he witnessed President Obama sign the bill to reverse "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." "I just came from the bill signing of DADT repeal where I was embraced by the President and cried on his shoulder. To walk into this exhibit by "accident" is an overwhelming treat. Thank you for the courage to exhibit this communities' unjust suffering, invaluable contributions, and unfolding VICTORY!"

The show at the National Portrait Gallery became a flashpoint for many cultural issues and was the loudest uproar at the Smithsonian in years. The show, the largest in the portrait gallery's history, also drew record crowds. In January, the entire building, shared with another museum, had 85,656 visitors.

The exhibition, which closes Sunday, was the first at a major museum that unequivocally showed how artists handled questions of sexual and gender identity. The artists ranged from Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Georgia O'Keeffe to Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

In late November, hearing complaints from Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and conservative critics, the Smithsonian removed a video that some critics labeled sacrilegious. The work in question was a short portion of "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz that contained a scene of a crucifix crawling with ants. That decision, made by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, set off demonstrations, panel discussions and Internet debate about the censorship at the Smithsonian, funding to Smithsonian shows and the role of the gay artists.

The majority of entries on the museum's comment books deal sharply with the controversy.

"I wish the NPG had not caved into the demands of self-appointed censors and removed the video. We, the viewers,should have been allowed to see it and decide for ourselves."

"This exhibit was so refreshing-"outing" many famous artists in a sensitive way. Kudos to the Smithsonian and the curator for arranging this--BUT the response to the protest by conservative extremists was an affront to the vital message of this exhibit. What a shame!"

Another listed his message. "Kudos for the fine exhibit. Shame for the short-sighed removal of the Wojnarowicz's video. Good luck recovering from the mess."

One signer mixed his personal and political reaction. "I want to leave the exhibit reclaiming an identity the culture at large tries to take away from me. The museum was decidedly NOT brave, however, in capitulating to religions, right-wing paranoia. Deeply touched by the exhibit, deeply ashamed of the Smithsonian's cowardice."

Some noted their political leanings. "I am a 'conservative' who is happy to be here and to experience the true freedom of expression that our country stands for."

Some didn't like the material at all. "Trashy-inappropriate low class exhibit--you can do better." Or its approach. "More like a lecture than an exhibit."

Others thought they show featured too many male images. "Not enough girls in it," and "I loved this, but it seemed largely skewed towards gay men. What about the rest of the LGBTQ community?"

One negative reaction triggered a written debate. "There is a reason God made AIDS to kill off all the [four-letter slur]." Right below it someone wrote -- "Last I checked, it's killing millions of heterosexuals too." And that is followed by "Bravo!"

No matter the point of view, the show attracted thousands of visitors to the museum. The National Portrait Gallery shares a building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum at Gallery Place. It also shares visitor statistics. The entire building had 320,003 patrons from November 2010 to January 2011. American Art was hosting a successful show of Norman Rockwell at the time. For the same period the year before the two museums had 199,927 visitors.

The Rockwell show closed January 2. The January visitor numbers, released by the Portrait Gallery, show 85,656 visitors,

compared to the January 2010 tally of 64,968.

On the last day, one more protest is planned. Two men who were removed from the museum for showing the banned video outside the exhibit entrance, have been screening the entire film in a truck outside the museum. On Sunday they have invited people to form a flash mob inside the show and show the video from their iphones and ipads.

More on this story:

Video: A clip from the Wojnarowicz work

Smithsonian chief says banned video a work of art

Reaction to National Portrait Gallery's ants-and-crucifix controversy

Smithsonian removes controversial art (news, photos, video)

By Jacqueline Trescott  | February 10, 2011; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Smithsonian, Washington exhibitions  | Tags:  Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Reactions to the show, national portrait gallery  
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