What would happen if the head of a federal government agency took a controversial action, was not truthful about it, and then went into hiding and refused to speak with the public, journalists, or even his own staff? That’s exactly what’s happening in the Smithsonian/David Wojnarowicz fiasco, and yet because of the unusual dynamics of the situation — Censorship! Bigoted right-wingers! — that part of this story has been pretty much ignored. It’s time to focus on it.
In order to understand this scandal-within-a-scandal, let’s look back at how the Smithsonian fiasco developed: On Nov. 30, Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly was removed from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The Smithsonian presented the story thus: The call to remove the work was made by NPG director Martin Sullivan and Smithsonian undersecretary for art, history and culture Richard Kurin in association with exhibition co-curator David C. Ward. That’s how Blake Gopnik reported the story in an (excellent) Nov. 30 essay in the Post. That’s how the Post’s Jackie Trescott reported the story for Dec. 1’s paper. The Washington CityPaper’s Kriston Capps reported the story the same way. (I can’t find a Nov. 30 press release, but the language Trescott and Capps use is so similar that there must have been some kind of official communication I did not receive and that is not on the Smithsonian’s website.) Trescott, Gopnik and Capps are blameless: They reported the the story the Smithsonian told. They had no reason to believe the Smithsonian was being untruthful.
Then on the afternoon of Dec. 1 we found out that the Smithsonian’s story was one big fib: It turns out that it wasn’t Sullivan and Kurin who had yanked the video but the Smithsonian’s top official, secretary G. Wayne Clough [above]. That news broke at 3:30 in the afternoon. A few hours later Clough sent an email to Smithsonian staff confirming that story and taking personal responsibility for censoring “Hide/Seek.” Clough’s email was a tacit admission that the Smithsonian’s initial story about the Wojnarowicz was false. However, Clough neither explained the Smithsonian’s untruth — a fib which conveniently delegated responsibility for censoring artwork to lesser Smithsonian officials — nor apologized for it.
He still hasn’t. In fact, since the story began developing three weeks ago, Clough has yet to say one word about his censorship of one of our nation’s museums. He has yet to speak publicly. He has yet to take questions from journalists. So far as I know, he has yet to hold a public forum or any other kind of event with the staff of Smithsonian art museums (plenty of whom email me nearly every day to express their anger and frustration at the harm the Smithsonian’s boss has done to their credibility). [Update, Wednesday morning: A MAN commenter says Clough has now done an event with Smithsonian staff. Working on learning more.]
The Smithsonian received $761 million from American taxpayers last year, a sum that covers about two-thirds of the institution’s budget. It is entirely unacceptable for a quasi-federal institution to be untruthful with the American public about how a controversial decision was made (and who made it) and for the head of that institution then to refuse to speak publicly about that decision.
Clough should stop hiding from the American public. He must publicly explain the institution’s fib and apologize for it. He must explain his decision to pull the Wojnarowicz. (Of course, he should apologize for that too.) He should take questions from journalists. He should do all of this immediately. Clough’s continued silence is damaging the institution he leads.