The National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” has generated its share of controversy. Some have called for the removal of the entire exhibition because they objected to its content, while others have objected to exclude a video from the exhibition by the artist David Wojnarowicz.
Enthusiastically, I supported the Portrait Gallery’s plans to host the first major museum exhibition focused on sexual difference in modern portraiture in America, because the exhibition opened a window on the art and illuminated the history of our changing societal norms.
The focus is to understand American portraiture through the eyes of artists who spoke to us through code, symbol and who paid a price for doing so. Included are portraits by artists John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Thomas Eakins, Annie Leibovitz, and two other works by Wojnarowicz.
From the beginning, our role was to use the power of the Smithsonian’s national visibility to reach the largest possible audience; however, this past month illustrates how the Smithsonian’s mission, can place it at the intersection of national debates about cultural transitions. This is not a complaint, but an acknowledgment of our complex role as a publicly supported institution.
More than 15 years ago, a document entitled: E Pluribus Unum: This Divine Paradox, Report of the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian, summarized these challenges in the following terms:
“Museums in general, and the Smithsonian in particular, are increasingly flash points in the debates that characterize our nation’s transition from a society that depends for coherence on a single accepted set of values and practices to one that derives its strength and unity from a deep tolerance of diversity. This happens because museums … must prepare exhibitions that record and illuminate this transition. This sometimes results in acrimonious and contentious debate… [The Smithsonian’s] position is especially challenging because it is a national institution with large and complex collections and missions.”
For 164 years, these words still hold true, the Smithsonian has provided visitors from across the nation and around the world an opportunity to learn about the American experience. We benefit from the support of its 300 million citizens. Together they represent all facets of the American story, as well as new ways of looking at the world.
In December, after consultation with the Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan, Curators David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz with the Under Secretary of History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin , and myself made the decision to take a video work out of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”
My responsibility as Secretary is to take actions needed to sustain the long-term strength of an institution to continue to serve its important educational mission. My decision was the best option for ensuring the exhibition would remain open through to completion of its schedule.
Never subjects of easy consensus, but if anything is learned from the events of the past month, we must continue to encourage discussion. In the near future, we will hold a forum with key constituencies and the public to continue the dialogue. Our focus continues to be deepening knowledge of art, science, history and culture, and sustaining public trust in the Smithsonian as a place to learn and be inspired.