Leaked Letter Shows Internal Tensions Over Smithsonian Censorship

Leaked Letter Shows Internal Tensions Over Smithsonian Censorship
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
(Courtesy Flickr)

A leaked Smithsonian letter written by National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan suggests that the Washington, D.C., institution is riven by dissent over the recent decision to remove David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly" from the Gallery's "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition.

The unpublished document, obtained exclusively by ARTINFO, offers a more conciliatory response to the public outcry over the censorship than does the official Smithsonian statement, which was released on the institution's Web site last night in the form of a Q&A. While Sullivan's memo falls short of an apology, it appears to side with critics of the removal, which was ordered by Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough, as Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green first reported.

In the statement, titled "Draft response to critics of the removal of 'Fire in My Belly'" dated 12/4/2010 and signed, the Gallery director acknowledges that the decision, reached while Clough was traveling outside of the capital, was made in haste and based on a misunderstanding. "I regret that the video was removed from the installation without more deliberate consideration of other possible options," Sullivan writes. The work, a four-minute meditation on the AIDS crisis, drew criticism from such right-wing critics as Republican congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Catholic League president William Donohue because of an 11-second clip of ants crawling on a crucifix. "'A Fire in My Belly' was misinterpreted as having a meaning that the artist did not intend," Sullivan writes.

Referring to the fact that the National Portrait Gallery receives a majority of its funding from Congress, Sullivan continues: "The coming months are likely to bring closer scrutiny of federal funding programs in general as well as specifically for cultural agencies, institutions and activities. We all recognize that tough choices will be considered. As that discussion moves ahead, please continue to voice your beliefs about the central role of artistic expression in a free society." Sullivan's conclusion echoes the language of the American Association of Museum Directors' rebuke of the censorship that was released on its Web site: "The AAMD believes that freedom of expression is essential to the health and welfare of our communities and our nation."

In the Smithsonian's very different online statement, the institution says that Clough opted to take down the video after "hearing the opinions and views of the relevant parties," including Sullivan and one of the show's two curators, David Ward. "Smithsonian officials and museum leaders are sensitive to public perceptions of the Institution’s exhibitions," the official statement continues. "In this case, they believed that the attention to this particular video imagery and the way in which it was being interpreted by many overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition."

As withering criticism of the censorship continues to mount from museums, artists, and art advocates across the country, the Smithsonian has struggled to maintain a united front. Today the Buffalo News quoted the show's other co-curator, art historian Jonathan David Katz, decrying the fact that he was not consulted before the work was taken down. "How incredibly stupid of the museum to rise to the bait," Katz told the paper. The leaked memo further confirms internal differences of opinion over the removal of the work.

Contacted about the draft response, a National Portrait Gallery spokesperson said she had no knowledge of Sullivan's letter.

To read the letter in full, click on the document at left.