Last December the Smithsonian Secretary, Wayne Clough, ordered the removal of a short video that was part of the first major exhibit in art history to focus on gay/lesbian works of art. The video by artist David Wojnarowicz included an 11-second segment showing ants crawling over a crucifix, which some conservative critics called anti-religious and demanded its withdrawal. Many museum directors and arts groups publicly chastised Secretary Clough for "caving in" to unwarranted censorship.
At their recent board meeting, the Smithsonian's regents strongly supported Dr. Clough. Yet they implicitly said he had made the wrong decision, for which he was not reprimanded.
In justifying this curious position, they stated, according to The Washington Post, that, "His broader accomplishments in running the 19 museums and research complex outweighed the uproar over the episode." Patty Stonesifer, chair of the board, added that the Smithsonian was doing better than before he got there, a not surprising conclusion since the institution was in enormous turmoil and uncertainty since the departure of the former Secretary Lawrence Small.
John W. McCarter, a regent and president of the Field Museum in Chicago, who was a member of an advisory panel convened by the board to review the decision, claimed that including the video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz was not a mistake. The panel's report found that, unless there is an error, changes should not be made to exhibits once they are displayed without consultation with curators and board members. Secretary Clough conceded that he probably had acted too quickly, yet he stood by his original decision. He didn't have the courage to admit that he was wrong.
In its reporting, The Washington Post left several stones unturned. It did not ask the board's chair whether she or any other regent had been consulted by Secretary Clough at the time of his decision. It did not ask the Secretary whether he had investigated the credibility of both William Donohue and his Catholic League, an organization not connected to the Catholic Church, who launched the attack on the exhibit, labeling it "anti-Christian hate speech". The Post failed to question why Congressional representative on the board had not spoken out in support of the exhibit in the face of sharp criticism by a couple of right wing colleagues who had not even seen the show. And it failed to mention that Secretary Clough, during his tenure as president of Georgia Tech, was also involved in an incident in which he "caved in" to the pressure of right wing organizations.
In 2006, according to Inside Higher Ed, Republican students at Georgia Tech objected to the institution's "Safe Space" program that aimed to make the college's environment more amenable to LGBT students, claiming that such a policy discriminated against religions that promoted anti-gay beliefs and favored religions preaching tolerance. The students demanded changes in the Student Code of Conduct and Community Guide that greatly weakened measures to discipline those who harassed students on the basis of race, religious belief, color, disability, sexual preference and age. The university administration "caved in" to these demands.
At least one regent also seems to have tolerated censorship in her own institution. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, authorized her administration to remove well established artist, Wafaa Bilal, from a classroom and to prevent his video art from being shown in the face of criticism by college Republicans. The RPI administration also terminated the faculty Senate last year after the Senate voted to give voting rights to full-time non-tenured faculty members, a position opposed by RPI's board. Dr. Jackson hardly appears qualified to oversee Smithsonian practices on such sensitive issues as censorship and freedom of expression.
The regents' job is to assure the public accountability and integrity of the Smithsonian Institution. Why then did they have to appoint an advisory panel, on which one of their members sat, to review the decision by the Secretary to eliminate the video in the exhibit on gay art? Weren't they capable of making that assessment themselves? If not, they aren't qualified to be board trustees. If they were trying to deflect the heat from themselves, they surely don't have the courage to be guardians of the institution.
The censorship scandal has once again raised the question of board accountability at the Smithsonian. It is interesting to note that Patty Stonesifer was a member of the audit committee that not only oversaw the finances of the museum during Larry Small's tenure as Secretary but knowingly approved some of the illegal expenditures incurred by Small at the time. She and her other colleagues on the board also failed to prevent other internal scandals such as the inappropriate expenditures by the head of the Air and Space Museum and the unaccountable behavior of Richard West, director of the National Indian Museum.
The Regents, composed of eight representative of government--including three Senators and three Congressmen--and nine citizens, are neither constituted to be an effective overseer of a huge bureaucracy, nor are representative of the broad public interest community. Six of the nine citizens are from the business community, two from universities and one from the museum world. The most recent vacancy was filled by yet another businessman, as though the board was not in need of greater diversity. The board could use more representatives from our nonprofit sector as well as from a few individuals with evaluation and oversight experience.
It is time the Smithsonian shed its old skin and adopt a governance system that suits the actual mission and needs of the institution.