David Wojnarowicz portrait by Peter Hujar (1981) (image from artnet.com)

The Smithsonian Board of Regents met on January 31st with Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough to discuss the fallout from the recent censorship scandal at the National Portrait Gallery. The takeaway is that the Board fails to make a strong statement against the censorship but does suggest several ways forward for better practice in the future. Secretary Clough isn’t going anywhere.

In an op-ed for the LATimes published before the Board’s report, art blogger Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes asks if “Clough be an effective leader given the damage he’s done,” writing that with the decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the Hide/Seek exhibition, Clough has set a dangerous precedent for the compromising of future exhibitions:

When Clough removed the Wojnarowicz video from “Hide/Seek,” he took the process of researching and explaining history away from scholars and curators and handed it over to activists with a record of objecting to the inclusion of certain voices and people in our nation’s cultural history.

Green concludes,

As long as Clough leads the Smithsonian, the institution’s curators cannot produce history and conduct research without wondering if their work will become politically expendable. To restore integrity to the Smithsonian’s work, Clough must go.

On the Smithsonian’s website, the Board of Regents released a follow-up report on their meeting that is available as a downloadable PDF document. The tone of the release is conversational rather than confrontational. Here are some highlights.

As the leader of a large and complex institution, the Secretary is not involved in curatorial decisions.  However, the Secretary is sometimes faced with managerial issues that affect exhibitions and should seek timely input from a range of appropriate advisors to assist in decisions.

In anticipation of possibly controversial exhibitions, the Smithsonian should provide an opportunity for public input or reaction at pre‐decisional exhibit planning phases. Culturally sensitive exhibitions should be previewed from a diverse set of perspectives.  It would seem appropriate for the Smithsonian to be fully informed about red flags before exhibitions go public.

In the absence of actual error, changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens without meaningful consultation with the curator, director, Secretary, and the leadership of the Board of Regents.

The concept of an ombudsman, “Public Editor,” or other techniques should be explored to ensure that a broad range of opinion is available to the Secretary… The Smithsonian should consider initiating a summer executive education institute for curators and directors to discuss case studies applicable to Smithsonian exhibition planning and implementation.

A Wall Street Journal report headlined “Smithsonian board seeks changes after video flap” notes that protesters remain active in the controversy:

Earlier Monday, about 30 protesters, many from the New York-based group Art Positive, picketed outside the Smithsonian board’s meeting and called for Clough to step down. They chanted “No more censorship — Clough must go.”

LATimes critic Christopher Knight commented on the report on his Twitter:

UPDATE: Tyler Green just posted his response to the Smithsonian Regent Board’s report. He is disappointed in the weak reaction to Clough’s mistakes and the inability of the Board to clearly and publicly state that the censorship itself was the wrong move. Also included are tons of good details on the Board’s press conference itself.

Kyle Chayka

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,...

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