Just days before an important Smithsonian Institution board of regents meeting next Monday, the board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has released a statement in response to Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough’s censorship of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Read it here, on the Hirshhorn’s Smithsonian-hosted website. The museum is also encouraging comments about the statement/issue on its Facebook page. This is apparently the first response to Clough’s actions from a Smithsonian art museum. Here’s the toughest part:
The attempt by any individual or group to restrict the content-not only artistic, but cultural, historical, and scientific-that may be shown in an institution that serves the public as a whole is counter not only to the founding American principle of freedom of thought and expression, but also to the spirit of inquiry at the core of the Smithsonian’s mission. Hence we are deeply troubled by the precedent the Institution’s leadership has set with its decision. We believe that bowing to pressure with regard to the works on view in its galleries harms the integrity of the individual Smithsonian units and the Institution as a whole. If dissension arises over the presentation of a piece, then rather than remove it, that is the very moment to initiate conversation so that all perceptions may be heard in an effort to create greater awareness and understanding.
So far no Smithsonian art museum director has publicly addressed Clough’s decision. (I understand that in off-the-record events with Smithsonian staff that nearly every art museum director has expressed outrage at what Clough did.) I’ve offered MAN Q&As to several Smithsonian art museum directors. None has yet responded to the offer.
Also: There’s one passage in the statement that bothers me: “This decision raises crucial questions-for us, for our visitors, artists, museum supporters, and colleagues-about the role and responsibility of publicly supported museums to engage with complex and sometimes sensitive topics.” Gays and lesbians are not a ‘sensitive topic.’ They are humans and Americans. That there have been gays and lesbians who have contributed to our nation’s history and to the history of art is simply part of our story.