01/11/2011 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Smithsonian Stands Firm on Censorship, Congressional Checkbook Trumps Constitution


Nearly two years ago, I was asked to lend an artwork entitled Self-Portrait by artist Jack Pierson to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (part of the the Smithsonian family of institutions) for "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," a show described as focused on gay identity, portraiture and bringing a face to the contributions of gay artists for the past century. Like many minorities, members of the gay artistic community have been made invisible by the majority for hundreds of years, and therefore, the show's premise was solid, and the curatorial team was committed to realizing a very important exhibit.

I had been a longtime friend of the artist Jack Pierson, who is known largely for his sculpture and photography, and I have collected his work in a modest way for over a decade. This particular work was one of my favorite pieces by the artist and had already hung in the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of its 2004 Biennial exhibit. That I would have the work leave my home seemed a small price to pay for a so undeniably important opportunity for Pierson's work to be part of the pantheon of artists and works to be included at the National Portrait Gallery and this important survey.

As now millions of people have learned, the "Hide/Seek" show opened in October to mostly ebullient and effusive reviews by critics from around the world. The modern history of gay portraiture was now hanging next to the Hall of Presidents in the National Portrait Gallery; a more esteemed place, it would seem, would be hard to imagine. Portraiture, and even the broader contribution of gay and lesbian artists to the 20th century's cultural identity, was being showcased in a way never before realized in a museum venue that had never embraced works by marginalized, minority artists from the gay and lesbian community. This was a triumph in the making, or, at least, it seemed.

Nearly six weeks into the show's run, some members of Congress led by GOP Leader Congressman John Boehner, encouraged by the ire and financial backing of certain religious zealots, decided that one work, in particular, must be removed from the exhibit, David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. Without even a moment of public discourse, the Smithsonian team 'stepped and fetched.' They removed the work from the exhibit, naively imagining that they could bow to the pressures of a religious right, financially-powerful majority and that few would take notice. Censorship had come to sully the integrity of the "Hide/Seek" show that, while long overdue, was finally making positive strides for those who care about civil rights, equality, and minority voices.

Shortly after the news of the censorship hit, the Andy Warhol Foundation, a major donor to the Smithsonian, announced that it would no longer fund exhibitions at the Smithsonian until the censored work was replaced. As a lender to the show, I felt that I, in a far more modest way, had provided resources, which were being utilized by The Smithsonian in an appropriate manner. The decision to bow to censorship was inconsistent with the show's intent, inconsistent with my wishes for the display of Pierson's work (that it be a part of a complete presentation on the subject, rather than a diluted version edited by government controls), inconsistent with illuminating the contribution of the gay and lesbian community to the arts, and ultimately inconsistent with the United States Constitution.

I decided to follow in the footsteps of artist AA Bronson, a living artist whose work was a part of the show, and demand that the Smithsonian remove the work I had lent, not merely in protest to the removal of the Wojnarowicz piece, but also to make a larger statement that arts institutions have obligations to all constituents: including their lenders, who place their trust in curators, directors and donors, to share one's work in a manner consistent with the donor's intent.

The New York Magazine writer Jerry Saltz commended me, "lenders have the power," and along with the encouragement from a representative of Jack Pierson's gallery, Cheim and Read, I felt emboldened to make my personal statement about what had happened in our nation's museum, the Smithsonian. 'Voting with one's feet' seemed the measured and thoughtful response.

In mid-December, I wrote to Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, to express my position. Approximately three weeks later, I finally received a response that I felt was insensitive to the matters at hand, which I included on my Facebook page, as so many people are following this story.

Later last week, I also, finally, heard from both curators, David Ward, who is on staff at the National Portrait Gallery, and Jonathan David Katz. The curators' positions were clear: "do not further dismantle our show." The curators made a passionate plea for retaining the work in the show, and while they were terribly frustrated with the institution's position, they remained committed to the mission of the exhibit and therefore retaining its integrity to the greatest degree possible.

During the past week, I have received hundreds of emails, letters, and comments from civil rights activists and proponents of freedom of speech. While nearly all made very compelling arguments both in support and against removing my consideration of removing the work and wrote with great commitment and emotion, it was not until last Friday when I spoke by telephone to G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, when I decided that my stance was actually wrong, at least, wrong for me. The Smithsonian leadership had been largely mute on the National Portrait's Gallery crisis, and for that reason, I had requested an audience with Mr. Clough.

When we spoke, Mr. Clough described an environment in which he and the Smithsonian leadership had been as thoughtful as they could be in order to allow the arts discourse to take place on the playing field of the arts, rather than at the Smithsonian overall, an institution that includes a zoo, research and scientific organizations as well as museums for the visual arts.

By removing the Smithsonian from the arts/censorship debate, the organization attempts to preserve its reputation for when it goes to Capital Hill for 2011 and 2012 budget requests.

It appears to the author that having Sullivan and the National Portrait Gallery fall on their sword was precisely what was needed for the larger Smithsonian to distance itself from the controversy and retain its ability to seek Congressional support for approximately $760 million per year.

My conclusion was only then clear. I had been trying to get the attention of the National Portrait Gallery, when, in fact, they are part of the problem, but ultimately also simply the scene of the crime. The Smithsonian allows censorship, instead of fighting for freedom of expression. Does the Smithsonian believe that Congress's checkbook is more important than our Constitution?

I have made a decision to rescind my request to remove Jack Pierson's work from the "Hide/Seek" show. My reasons for wanting to remove the piece all remain intact, likely even more so, than before. However, the artwork, made by Pierson, cared for by me, and shared with hundreds of thousands, is part of an educational dialogue, is part of a story-telling and part of making a minority's voice and contributions heard. That is more important today than anything else.

And so to Mr. Clough, I say, thank you for five more weeks of lending me your real estate so that the curator's visions can be seen by thousands of visitors. I hope that as many members of Congress as possible get a chance to see Jack Pierson's masterpiece.