Over the last two weeks Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has damaged his institution. On Nov, 30 Clough ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly, an intense, haunting exploration of the artist’s and America’s response to the AIDS epidemic, from “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. By so doing Clough momentarily abandoned his institution’s commitment to support scholarship, research and the presentation of that work at Smithsonian museums.
Clough’s decision has been pilloried by art museum associations, nearly every major art critic in America and even the New York Times editorial page. Clough should move swiftly to address the harm he has done to the Smithsonian’s reputation and to its place in American life.
Specifically, Clough should:
* Put the ‘long version’ of A Fire in My Belly up on the “Hide/Seek” exhibition website. It’s ridiculous that Fox News can show the video outside its historical context and that the Smithsonian won’t show it within its historical context. The Smithsonian should also install a ‘digital resources area’ in the exhibit. Among the resources that should be available in this area is the exhibition’s website.
* Give a major speech and take questions from the press. Remarkably, the head of the quasi-governmental Smithsonian has yet to speak publicly or answer reporters’ questions on his censorship of “Hide/Seek.”
Clough should focus his remarks on trying to re-establish his support for the historians and curators who write and present our nation’s story. He must admit that in siding with anti-gay activists instead of his own scholars that he committed a credibility-damaging error. This is particularly important because in a statement the Smithsonian recently explained its removal of the Wojnarowicz by saying that the artwork was “distracting.” Clough is not a historian or a scholar. As an administrator, his job is to support the historians and scholars whose work he has helped enable and whose exhibitions he has approved.
In an interview here last week, “Hide/Seek” co-curator Jonathan D. Katz said something that Clough would be wise to parrot: “This is a museum exhibition. It examines a history. You may or not like that history, but it’s a job of a museum to examine that history.“
* Announce plans for a major exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. The Smithsonian should commit to traveling the show around the country – and not just to New York and San Francisco. As it stands now, Clough has proved that the Smithsonian will cower when confronted by bigots. The Smithsonian must make it clear that the institution will henceforth side with historians and scholars instead of with racists, sexists or anti-gay reactionaries.
* As soon as possible, launch an exhibition examining how artists have addressed AIDS, a disease that has been particularly devastating to creative communities. The Smithsonian could show meaningful leadership by partnering with other arts organizations, such as the Kennedy Center, to create a full, multi-disciplinary history of how artists responded to AIDS. When the Smithsonian announces this exhibition, it should take the unusual step of noting that A Fire in My Belly will be included.
Unfortunately, between the credibility problem created by Clough’s recent actions and low curatorial staffing levels at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – the Smithsonian museum into whose wheelhouse this show would fall – the Smithsonian is temporarily unable to create such a show with its own staff. Hirshhorn and Smithsonian leaders should move swiftly to bring in an independent historian with relevant expertise, such as Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston or Berkeley Art Museum director Lawrence Rinder.
* Address a gap in the Smithsonian’s management structure. Clough came to Washington from the presidency of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Before joining university administration, Clough earned a PhD in civil engineering. Clough has no background in the arts or humanities. Prior to Clough’s arrival, one of the Secretary’s top deputies was an undersecretary for art. Clough merged that position into the undersecretary who oversees the Smithsonian’s history museums. Currently that undersecretary, Richard Kurin, also has no background in art. Over the last couple of weeks, this expertise gap in the Smithsonian’s management team has been made painfully evident. The Smithsonian needs to re-establish the undersecretary for art position.
The Smithsonian is the institution through which our nation tells its story to the world. It is a vital resource and educator. America’ needs a strong Smithsonian in which scholars, historians, curators, archivists and researchers are fully empowered to examine our nation and to tell its history. Until Clough begins to address the mistakes the Smithsonian has made in the last two weeks, we don’t have that.