As the Smithsonian censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” video continues to make waves, it’s important to remember that the decision was made not by National Portrait Gallery staff, but by the absentee Smithsonian secretary. A leaked memo drafted by Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan and published by Artinfo demonstrates the internal conflict over the controversial decision. To view the full leaked memo, click through for Artinfo’s commentary on the leak, or view an image of the memo.

National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan (image from

“I regret that the video was removed from the installation without more deliberate consideration of other possible options,” director Sullivan writes. Echoing criticism that have been heard around the internet, he also adds, “’A Fire in My Belly’ was misinterpreted as having a meaning that the artist did not intend.” Sullivan reiterates that “The Smithsonian’s firm position is that this acclaimed exhibition will remain on view, with no further deletions, until its scheduled closing in mid-February.”

The deletion of Wojanrowicz’s video was a bureaucratically-induced case of over-management and misinformation. Beyond ideology, the immediate decision by the secretary to remove the video was made too much in haste and without consultation or reflection.

As much as I’m glad that the Smithsonian is sticking with the rest of its exhibition, there are still Wojnarowicz pieces on display in Hide/Seek. It’s ironic that the secretary couldn’t stand behind all of the exhibition’s works rather than jettisoning one. Interviews with the curators of Hide/Seek, who were also not consulted on the deletion, echo director Sullivan’s regret that the piece was removed.

Given director Sullivan’s drafted memo, it is clear that the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s staff share the art world’s reaction to a politically motivated decision that was made with clear disregard for the curatorial practice of the museum and the art on exhibit. We must take care to place responsibility not on the Portrait Gallery but on the greater context of the controversy and the secretary’s failure to consult the museum’s staff, or, apparently, think about what he was doing.

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...