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In the Wake of the Smithsonian Controversy: Hide/Seek Curators Speak at the New York Public Library

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Before a standing-room-only house at the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Wednesday night, curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz made a presentation about the development and installation of Hide/Seek, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery's (NPG) historic gay-themed exhibit. The curators, who oversaw the installation of Hide/Seek, decried the Smithsonian's decision to withdraw a work of video art by the late New York artist David Wojnarowicz from the show after complaints were lobbed by right-wing political activists.

Ward, who serves as a historian at the NPG, said that he believes the decision to withdraw the Wojnarowicz video was "made too hastily, without sufficient planning." His co-curator, Jonathan Katz, chair of an arts Ph.D. program at SUNY Buffalo, described the political groups that demanded the video's removal as "an American Taliban that is very much invested in the destruction of images they don't like."

While most of the panel was dedicated to examining the artistic content of the show, much of the question-and-answer session was absorbed by the simmering controversy, with some audience members criticizing the museum for removing Wojnarowicz's work. (The artist's video showed ants crawling on a crucifix—an image which was labelled as "anti-Christian" by some right-wing groups. For a detailed blow-by-blow on what happened, see my earlier post.)

While Katz was critical of the Smithsonian's decision to remove the work, he defended the NPG's willingness to put on the show in the first place—saying that in his 15 years of trying to get this exhibit mounted, the NPG was the only arts institution willing to take on the subject of homosexual identity in art. "It’s also been dispiriting to watch institutions clucking their tongues at the Smithsonian and decrying its weak-kneed politics," he said, "when I know for a fact that those very institutions were ones that I approached about doing a similar exhibition and they said, 'Absolutely not.'" (See Minute 11:00 of the audio.)

Towards the end of the talk (at about Minute 15:00), National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan—who was in the audience—also chimes in. He expresses disagreement with the Smithsonian's position ("Was it a great decision? Absolutely not.") but also cites limitations in the museum's physical plant in showcasing such a lightning rod work.

While the discussion was spirited, the presentation took place without disruptions. For the full discussion on the controversy, tune into the embedded audio. It is Ward who opens the session (he is the one with the gravelly voice).