• February 1, 2015

Smithsonian’s Board Failed in Crucifix Controversy

Smithsonian Museum Protest Photo

Frances M. Roberts/Newscom

A group protests the Smithsonian Museum's decision to pull a controversial video.

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close Smithsonian Museum Protest Photo

Frances M. Roberts/Newscom

A group protests the Smithsonian Museum's decision to pull a controversial video.

As the Smithsonian has faced sharp criticism about its handling of an exhibit on same-sex art, few observers have discussed the real problem: the repeated failure of the organization’s board to uphold the values and integrity of America’s largest and most important museum and art institution.

Four years ago, Lawrence Small was forced to resign as the institution’s chief executive after a series of scandals tore the institution apart. The Board of Regents had tolerated inappropriate expenditures, exorbitant compensation practices, conflicts of interest, and poor governance. What exposed this dark underbelly of the institution was not the proper oversight of its board but the extraordinary investigative reporting by James Grimaldi of The Washington Post.

This time, the Smithsonian’s leader, Wayne Clough, ordered the removal of a four minute-video from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, “Hide/Seek,” because of objections from right-wing bloggers and a few conservative members of Congress. The video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, contained an 11-second segment showing ants crawling over a crucifix, which the critics called anti-religious.

The exhibit, which features paintings by well-known artists like Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keefe, Grant Wood, and Andy Warhol—some straight, some gay—elicited no complaints during its first month at the Portrait Gallery.

What caused the uproar over the video were the comments of William Donohue, executive director of the Catholic League, a nonprofit that has no connection to the Catholic Church. Donohue labeled the video “anti-Christian hate speech” and slurred the gay theme of the exhibit. He was joined in his denunciations by Rep. Eric Cantor, of Virginia, and Rep. Jack Kingston, of Georgia, Republican members of Congress who threatened to halt federal payments to the Smithsonian, even though the exhibit was financed entirely by private funds.

Very soon after the protests began, Mr. Clough ordered the Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, to withdraw the video. Mr. Clough informed the board of regents about his decision but did not involve them in the decision-making process, according to a Smithsonian official who asked not to be named.

What is remarkable is that an institution that spends more than $1-billion a year and that has a powerful board and enormous prestige should have acted so precipitously without assessing the facts of the case and the dangers to the integrity of the museum. Clearly, the financial threats by a few ideologically impaired members of Congress were the overriding concern, regardless of whether the threats were even serious. The decision was both mindless and cowardly.

Nor should it have been a management decision. With the reputation of the Smithsonian at stake, it was a matter for the regents as well as the secretary.

Many museums have publicly criticized the Smithsonian for censuring a part of the exhibit and plan to show the video themselves. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts sent Mr. Clough a warning that it would no longer make grants to the Smithsonian if the video was not restored.

The Smithsonian has set a dangerous precedent. Will it cave in to future pressures from politicians, religious fanatics, unhappy critics, or disenchanted art lovers when the next controversy arises?

Art should remain free from politics, not dictated by the whims of the elite or the ignorance of kooky critics. Some art might be considered totally offensive and not worth displaying, but this should be a matter of thoughtful and judicious decisions. That is why we have museums, art institutions, and experts that can maintain the integrity of artistic products.

Where was the Board of Regents in this unfortunate episode? Although the board supported Mr. Clough, according to a Smithsonian spokesman, they have not commented publicly either individually or as a board. Do they support the censoring of art exhibits? Will they condone such practices in the future? Will they succumb to unjustified political pressures? It is a time for them to speak up.

Mr. Clough is the former president of a university. Two of the Smithsonian’s board members, France Córdova, president of Purdue University, and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute should be especially aware of the importance of academic and scientific freedom and the right of academic and arts institutions to pursue and protect ideas and creativity without restriction. Their voices are wrapped in silence.

And what about Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, another of the board members who so often talks about progressive values? He said nothing during the scandals of the Lawrence Small administration, and now it is unclear where he stands on censorship. What about Rep. Xavier Becerra, the California Democrat who has been willing to attack private foundations for neglecting the poor but is not willing to stand up for the Smithsonian’s right to sponsor sometimes touchy and controversial exhibits? And why has the board’s chair, Patty Stonesifer, former chief executive of the Gates also had nothing to say?

Something is fundamentally wrong with a Board of Regents that has failed the leadership test and one that has showed cowardice rather than courage in the face of minor pressure. The American public and the Smithsonian deserve better.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s opinion section, is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His e-mail address is pseisenberg@verizon.net.


1. tianekennedy - January 10, 2011 at 11:51 am

If the Smithsonian would like to have complete comtrol over the types of art that it feels are appropriate, the American people would be happy to completely defund the institution and allow private parties to fund it. By the way, has the Smithsonian shown any controversial Islamic art that perhaps would be offensive to Muslims? I highly doubt it.

2. harlanr - January 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

Good call, tianekennedy. Slapping Christians around seems to be fine with the liberals, er, uh, I mean, progressives, who are in charge of our "Arts". I think it's time to remove all taxpayer funding from all art projects and let the artists compete in the marketplace based on their talent and merits.

3. erikatarango - January 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Except for the fact that there are a good number of Americans (Catholics like myself even) who feel like the piece should have stayed in the exhibit. Art is challenging, art is controversial -- we don't go to exhibits to see Thomas Kincaid paintings.

Part of publicly funded art is sometimes we aren't going to like the piece. Part of what is great about America is that we (should) let others have their voice and express their opinion. If you don't like it, speak up. Challenge the artists, the institution, your fellow patrons to defend the piece. Have a discussion. Don't censor the art because you don't like it.

4. awsmithjr - January 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Eisenberg has it both ways here. First, he criticizes the Board for being involved in the decision making process on the removal of the video, then he says that they "showed cowardice" rather than courage in the face of minor pressure. If they weren't involved, how could they be acting cowardly? This in yet another example of clear bias from an outsider who has not himself sat on a major board or dealt personally with complex governance issues. I'd much prefer reading the views of someone with real expertise in these areas.

5. denise6983 - January 10, 2011 at 01:27 pm

Harlanr -

First, I believe it is completely arrogant to insinuate that you have any idea what the "American People" would be happy to do. Second, most arts have never been and will likely never be able to compete in the marketplace - very little art is commercially viable. That art that is commercially viable, is restricted for access to those who can afford to make it so. Many things, like the expression of faith, for instance, are not commercially viable, but are valuable to society, none the less, and are important to be brought to the masses regardless of income or ability to purchase it.

Art throughout the ages has been endowed by those who believe that art is important to the soul. The question is not if art can or should compete in the marketplace, the question is if "we the people" (otherwise known as government) should collectively support the arts, or if art should be supported by those who believe art(or particular art) is worthy of support for access by all.

The government funding of the Smithsonian is not related to this discussion at all. First, the government funding did not pay for the display of this art-work. Second, the government did not communicate to the Smithsonian as a condition of funding that only art that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY appreciates should be shown.

The question here, as the author argues, is one of governance. The Smithsonian board needs to decide criteria on which they select and display art and direct management to apply that criteria always. Then when people are offended by a particular piece the Smithsonian management can review that they consistently applied the criteria established by the governing body in the selection of that piece of art. However, the criteria could not be that NO ONE in the US is critical of a piece of work, or the Smithsonian would have no art.

I would also argue that the Smithsonian accomplishes far more than just the mass display of art, but that it accomplishes the objective preservation of the history of the US...something that greatly justifies its funding by "We the people."

6. tridentcg - January 10, 2011 at 03:22 pm

What offends me, more than anything else, in the ever-increasing situations like this, is the arrogant, sanctimonious double-standard approach of the so-called "elites" and the academics in arguments such as this one.

The earlier poster was correct. The "PC-loonies" would recoil at the thought of anything in an exhibit that blasphemed Judaism or Islam (and so would I), and they would call for the heads of the perpetrators. Where the sacred in Christianity is concerned, however, everything is fair game, and we Christians are supposed to "lighten up" and "get a sense of humor."

If we all agree that there should be some kind of good-taste, self-imposed limits (not government censorship) on the extremes to which art will go simply to offend or provoke people, then those limits should be set for every group and not just the one/s that have the current favor of the "PC" crowd.

As Mr. Obama often states, it's all about fairness.

7. kdstjohn - January 10, 2011 at 11:24 pm

thank darwin for denise6983 and erikatarango. athough it is not necessary to know something about art or how this particular exhibit was funded to type a response regarding this topic (not to mention understanding how antidemocratic is censorship) it would help...

8. jaylat - January 11, 2011 at 12:54 am

Interesting how the fate of Molly Norris, now hiding in secret under death threats from Islamic thugs, garners nary a yawn from the collective arts elite. I guess it's not PC to criticize certain religions?

Talk about cowardice...

9. everyman - January 11, 2011 at 11:18 am

Why don't we suggest to the Smithsonian that it would be fun and fair to have an exhibit of the now-famous Mohammed cartoons from Denmark! That might be interesting! Don't count on it; never going to happen. These phonies might be offended. They'd certainly be fearful about their physical well-being!

The hypocrisy and sanctimony of the "intelligentsia" and the PC folks in situations like this are stunning.

It's not about museum management or governance. It's about common sense and decency and self-imposed standards of good taste. As jaylat says above, it's also about cowardice. One likes to keep a head on one's shoulders. Literally!

10. bink614 - January 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Here are some tidbits I found on the Internet about this particular artist -- the late David Wojnarowicz.

"In the late 1980s, after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Wojnarowicz' art took on a sharply political edge, and soon he was entangled in highly public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists. Wojnarowicz challenged the nature of pubic arts funding at the National Endowment for the Arts, and initiated litigation against the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, an anti-pornography political action group that Wojnarowicz accused of misrepresenting his art and damaging his reputation. He won the lawsuit."

The Smithsonian's discernment of showing ths particular artist's work is remarkable. So yes Pablo -- go ahead and assail Mr. Donohue for his free speech rights to defend the sanctity of the Crucifix. (Most people don't even distinguish the difference between a Crucifix and a cross.) This was an anti-Catholic shot across the bow by the late Mr. Wojnarowicz, who hated the Catholic Church. And it's clear his hate speech toward the Church has been carried on by other haters of the Church. There's enough hate in this world Pablo -- we sure as heck dont need you throwing gas on the fire.

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