Politics and Sexuality in the Museum: A Second Act for Hide/Seek

Tom Murphy by Minor White
When the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture finished its run in February, 2011, earlier plans to travel it had been abandoned due to the controversy it had engendered. Much of the uproar over an exhibition exploring themes of gender identity in portraiture was caused by the Smithsonian’s removal of a short video featuring ants crawling over a crucifix. The work was deemed offensive by The Catholic League and certain members of Congress. This provoked discussion of a variety of issues, both in the press and in the museum community: the responsibility of museums to mount exhibitions that explore sensitive cultural issues, especially those related to sex and sexuality; censorship and the fishbowl existence of the national museums in Washington, DC; federal funding for the arts and humanities; the role of the curator, and many more.
Following the February closing, however, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington decided to reorganize and host the exhibition at their respective venues (October 2011-February 2012 in Brooklyn and March-June 2012 in Tacoma).  Now in Brooklyn, the original exhibition, with the exception of a few objects for which loans could not be renewed, is virtually intact. The offending art, “A Fire in My Belly,” a four-minute excerpt from a video made in 1986-87 by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at 37, is back in the show.  And the Brooklyn Museum has mounted a wide array of public programs, for families and teens as well as for adults, that embrace the major themes of the exhibition in a way that was not possible in the nation’s capital.
Self-portrait, Romaine Brooks.Images Courtesy Brooklyn Museum.

I’m hoping to attend one of the programs, a roundtable discussion with museum directors, curators, and selected artists, entitled Sexuality and the Museum, with the implicit question, What’s next? The program will be held at the Museum on January 21, 2012.  Readers in the New York area might want to check it out.

I followed the 2010-11 discussions here in Washington with great interest. I’ve been writing and speaking about exhibitions on “unexhibitable” topics for many years because, as each museum deals with its particular controversy, much is revealed about the individual museum and more is revealed about the field as a whole and its reluctance to take up these kinds of issues. I plan to post again after seeing the Brooklyn installation and attending the discussion.  For now I am including below the editorial I wrote about the exhibition for the Spring 2011 issue of Exhibitionist The theme of that issue was “Is It a Museum? Does It Matter?” and it explored some of the same questions raised by Hide/Seek controversy.

On a chilly day in November I walked the three blocks from D.C. Superior Court, where I was serving on a grand jury, to see a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Word was that Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture broke new ground in examining the ways in which 20th century artists both communicated and obscured gay and lesbian themes in their work. I went back to the show on two subsequent lunch hours, but I did not linger at the video installations and thus missed what became the cause célèbre.

Within a week or so the Catholic League objected to a video that depicted a crucifix with ants crawling over it, an artist’s testament to a lover who had died of AIDS. The Smithsonian quickly removed the offending video but held firm in not shuttering the exhibition before its scheduled February 2011 closing date. This despite intense pressure, including threats of budget cuts, from the new Congress. Most of the ensuing controversy focused on questions of art censorship and the quick compliance by the Smithsonian with the Catholic League’s demands regarding the video.

But from my point of view (and the reason that I am discussing this in an issue devoted to the nature of museums) the more important point is that this exhibition exemplifies what museums should be about: designed spaces that provide opportunities for insight, enjoyment, and new ways to experience the world.  In a period when gay and lesbian concerns are highly sensitive, a mainstream American museum, in a very tough political environment, chose to explore through design and display an important aspect of American portraiture that had been left mostly unexamined in the museum world.  I was familiar with a number of the paintings and photographs in the exhibition, but their juxtaposition and interpretation here provided a new set of lenses through which to view them.
Those who have seen the show will know what I mean when I say that I will never look at another vintage Arrow shirt ad in the same way!  This is, I think, what motivated me to spend three precious breaks from the jury room –I was seeing familiar work anew, I was gaining a wider perspective—this kind of expansive learning is extremely engaging. Hide/Seek was a very traditional exhibition in terms of its format, despite one or two somewhat interactive installations. But within its genre it was extremely well done: its scholarship took visitors to uncharted territory; the works selected were impressive in their quality and variety; the design and measured pacing of the galleries within the whole led the visitor forward; and the content provided insight into an important contemporary issue. It was an example of best practice that any museum would (or should) be proud to display. Isn’t this what all museums strive to do? Through interpretation, intentional design, and exhibitry (whether artifacts in cases or hands-on components) museums provide time and space to explore both known and unknown worlds. This is the achievement of NPG’s Hide/Seek, and why I think it provides an object lesson on the nature and role of museums in the 21st century.
First published in Exhibitionist Vo1. 30.No.1.

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