After yesterday’s announcement from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts that it would withhold all potential future funding from Smithsonian museums unless the Smithsonian reversed itself and placed David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly back in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” I called Warhol president Joel Wachs. [Image: Keith Haring, Unfinished Painting, 1989.]
I asked Wachs if Warhol’s intent was to loudly, publicly object to the Smithsonian’s censorship of an artist and the Smithsonian’s failure to support its own historians? Or was Warhol taking a more nuanced position, refusing to fund exhibition proposals at Smithsonian museums given that the Smithsonian had effectively made it clear that it might substantially alter exhibitions after they opened?
Wachs was unequivocal: “Our position is that we’re not going to fund someone who’s going to censor artwork, period,” he told me via phone, his voice rich with defiance. “If they’re… going to be bullied by bigots, we’re not going to fund them.”
I asked Wachs if that meant Warhol’s move was all about principle and not at all about process. “Absolutely,” he said. “Speaking out is important, but we’re going beyond speaking out. We’re not going to fund them anymore [if they don’t restore the video].”
Wachs also told me that Warhol would talk with other foundations in an effort to build a coalition of foundations that will refuse to fund Smithsonian art exhibitions until the Smithsonian re-installs the Wojnarowicz. Or not. “If they’re going to give into crap from the other side they’re going to hear from our side,” Wachs said.
Consider Warhol’s move in context: Warhol has given $375,000 to Smithsonian exhibitions in recent years. (In addition to funding “Hide/Seek,” Warhol has supported Yves Klein and Anne Truitt exhibitions at the Hirshhorn.) The Smithsonian’s federal appropriation for fiscal year 2010 is $761.4 million, two thousand times Warhol’s four-year total. The Washington CityPaper reported that foundations as a whole kicked another $65 million into Smithsonian coffers last year — and that a Castle spokesperson’s response to Warhol was a shrug.
Smithsonian sources I spoke with this morning pretty much rolled their eyes at the Warhol letter, pointing at the discrepancy between the federal appropriation and Warhol’s funding. “They obviously don’t understand Washington,” one source said. Warhol has brought silly string to what will likely be a missile fight.
That’s not to suggest that arts organizations shouldn’t engage with this issue and shouldn’t protest the Smithsonian’s failure to support its historians. To recap, that’s happening: After the American Association of Museums embarrassed itself with a pathetic statement, groups such as the Association of Art Museum Directors have more or less sided with the angels. Best of all, the art museums that have rushed to the NPG’s side have responded in the most meaningful way possible: They’ve installed Wojnarowicz’s work. Furthermore, it’s not only progressive museums such as the New Museum for Contemporary Art that have stood with the NPG, it’s conservative institutions such as SFMOMA and the Walker Art Center and non-modern/contemporary museums such as the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art who are joining the fight. The art world has learned from 1989. It is standing up for art and for history.
( The latest: Smith College is sorta heeding MAN’s call by installing this Wojnarowicz [at right]. Also, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, who was briefly the director at the Hirshhorn, posted this to a Walker blog last night. Unfortunately, in at least one place it wrongly blames the National Portrait Gallery for removing the video when the order came from the Smithsonian over the NPG’s objections. It’s all well and good for Viso to declare a “crisis,” but when she gets a beginning-of-the-story fact wrong she looks afflicted with me-too-ism.)
And to be sure, in threatening the Smithsonian the Warhol Foundation has more firm ground on which to stand than most art museums. Warhol has consistently funded progressive exhibitions and scholarship. In recent years lots of other museums could have done similar shows — and haven’t.
But I still think the Warhol threat is a missed opportunity. Here’s how Warhol could be more constructive: The foundation should stand by its intention to stop funding Smithsonian exhibitions because of Clough’s rash actions. Then it should announce that it will use money it might have spent on Smithsonian exhibitions to instead fund acquisitions at Smithsonian art museums. This fund would be used to acquire art that addresses AIDS or that is by gay artists who are missing from Smithsonian museum collections. (David Wojnarowicz comes immediately to mind…) Instead of organizing a foundation boycott of the Smithsonian, Warhol should announce its intention to raise money from other foundations for this dedicated acquisitions fund. Furthermore, missing from much of the art world response to all this is support for the exhibition’s pioneering curators, Jonathan Katz and David Ward. The Warhol-and-friends fund could be named in their honor.
Warhol’s move was unnecessarily us-against-them, red state-vs.-blue state. It’ll play great in the art world, which values purity. In the broader fight against right-wing bigots and the Smithsonian’s inept administrators, it’s a blunder. Wachs and his board turned up the temperature too much. Here’s hoping they find a way to moderate their position.