When the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced that it would be removing “A Fire in My Belly,” a David Wojnarowicz video work, from its Hide/Seek exhibition due to Republican political pressure, the art world rushed to the work’s defense. Among the first art institutions to respond to the scandal was the New Museum. In a press release on December 6, the museum announced that it would be displaying the video in its lobby “as an act of solidarity with the many artists whose rights of expression continue to be limited by misinformation and fear.”

New Museum’s Toby Devan Lewis Director Lisa Phillips (image from azueroearthproject.org)

In a Hyperallergic-exclusive Q+A with New Museum’s director Lisa Phillips, the director explains how the museum reacted to the initial controversy and how the decision was made to display the censored video in the lobby.

Kyle Chayka: What was the initial reaction around the New Museum to the Smithsonian’s decision to remove the David Wojnarowicz video?

Lisa Philips: We were surprised and concerned.

KC: Who started the initiative to display the removed video at the New Museum and how was the decision finally made to put the video on display?

LP: I started a conversation with the curators about exhibiting it on Friday, and they all agreed that we should. We got the tape on Saturday and quickly arranged for it to play on a monitor in the lobby. The New Museum presented a full retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work in 1999, and we all feel that he is an enormously important artist and also a heroic figure who courageously expressed the brutality, suffering, and neglect that characterized his life and the lives of many others. His work is a poetic and profound meditation on life, death, man, and faith realized through richly layered images, sounds, and words.

KC: What has visitor reaction to the video been like so far? Any gestures of support or appreciation?

LP: Word circulated fairly quickly and on Sunday we had individuals and groups coming specifically to see the work. We’ve also received a lot of responses on our Facebook page, all appreciative.

KC: Does the New Museum have more curatorial flexibility than the Smithsonian, given that the Smithsonian is a government body?

LP: It’s the New Museum’s mission and responsibility to stand behind powerful and frequently challenging work by contemporary artists, and to foster greater tolerance and understanding of diverse points of view and new forms of artistic expression. I’ve seen minds changed and people changed and truly believe that the public is open to change, eager to learn more, be inspired and expand their experience beyond what is already familiar. There will always be a vocal few who spread misinformation and fear — and they are not limited to any one particular political party either — so we must continue to be vigilant in defending artistic freedom and support the work we believe in.

David Wojnarowicz’ “A Fire in My Belly” (1987) will be on display at the New Museum (235 Bowery, New York) through January 23.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

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