Forty-nine days ago Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough personally censored an art exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In the seven weeks since Clough ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” we have learned that Clough’s Smithsonian was initially dishonest with the American public about who censored the exhibit. We learned that when gay people assert themselves, Clough believes they must be dismissed as expediently as possible so as to protect the rights of heterosexuals.
After so much silence and so much questionable behavior, Clough had a lot to answer for when he finally spoke with journalists yesterday. Clough broke his long silence in two ways: Through short interviews with two carefully picked reporters — Kate Taylor of the New York Times and Jackie Trescott of the Washington Post — and in an email to Smithsonian staff that was first published here on MAN. (On Thursday Clough will make his first public appearance since his scandal started, at this forum in Los Angeles. He is scheduled to take questions from the press for 30 minutes after the forum.)
In all three ‘outlets,’ Clough essentially shrugged off the whole affair. He did not apologize for censoring an art exhibition or for interfering with Smithsonian-supported scholarship and he did not promise to fix the mess he made. Clough created new committees to do something that is not quite clear. He did nothing to bring a visual art professional into the Castle’s leadership. (As reported here previously, neither Clough nor the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for art, history and culture has any professional experience with the visual arts.)
Clough’s comments to the New York Times were notably divisive. He created a false separation between people who care about art and people who care about our national museums: “[I]n the interest of that exhibition and this institution and its legacy and maintaining it in the strongest possible position, I think I made the right decision — in that context,” Clough told Taylor. “I’ll let the art world debate it in another context.”
Clough might as well say that the prissy people who care about art and art museums should leave him alone. (Actually, that’s almost exactly what he said.) Like it or not — and Clough obviously does not — the Smithsonian is part of the art world and some of the art world resides within the Smithsonian. The Sackler/Freer and the Hirshhorn are major international art museums that perform scholarship of global importance and that have world-class collections. The National Museum of African Art has one of the best collections of African art in America, maybe the world. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery are nationally prominent. The National Portrait Gallery just proved itself capable of presenting a significant, high-quality art exhibition.
In talking with Trescott, Clough proved he is out of touch with how his decision has affected other Smithsonian museums:
Clough said that he never felt the criticism carried over to the entire Smithsonian Institution, reminding himself and others of the work and exhibitions going on at the museums. “No, no,” he said, when asked if he ever felt the Smithsonian was under siege.
If Clough believes that, his aides are shielding him from the truth about how his actions have affected the Smithsonian as a whole. Senior staff at many Smithsonian art museums have told me that they’re deeply concerned about whether they’ll be able to raise money for upcoming exhibitions, acquisitions and programs. Everyone I’ve spoken with has reported that Clough’s censorship has come up at every fundraising or loans-related meeting they’ve had since early December. Clough’s comment is only understandable in the context of what he told the Times: Clough will let the art museums deal with their problems… in the context he’s created for them.
Clough said a lot of astonishingly out-of-touch things yesterday, but this, from an email to staff, may have been the topper: “I continue to believe that my decision on the video was the best thing for the good of the exhibition and for the Smithsonian.” It is not clear how censoring an exhibition and interfering with Smithsonian historians is good for either scholarship, an exhibition or the Smithsonian. Clough didn’t say.
There is also reason to be concerned that Clough has learned that any Smithsonian exhibitions that include gays, lesbians or other persecuted minorities will no longer have a place in Clough’s Smithsonian: “We probably have to have a little more laser-like focus when we design our exhibitions,” he told Trescott.
Unfortunately there’s no indication Taylor or Trescott asked Clough about his anti-gay record at Georgia Tech and how that experience impacted his handling of a show that examines how gays and lesbians have influenced American art history (Trescott: Clough “survived fights” at Georgia Tech), or why his Smithsonian initially lied to the American people about who ordered the removal of the Wojnarowicz.
Clough’s comments yesterday and his create-bureaucracy approach to addressing his mistakes made it clear that he doesn’t have the moral compass or the administrative skills to lead the Smithsonian. In indicating to people who care about art and art museums that their take on his censorship of an art exhibition is not important to him, he declared himself unfit to run an organization that is about one-third art museums. Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott is right: It’s time for Clough to resign.