A visitor study of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” conducted by the Smithsonian’s own Office of Policy and Analysis and published yesterday found strong visitor approval for and appreciation of the show. The report indicates that visitors formed strong intellectual and emotional connections with “Hide/Seek,” that visitors overwhelmingly praised the NPG for presenting a scholarly, inclusive exhibition that brought together social history and art history, and that visitors were perplexed by the Smithsonian leadership’s censoring of the exhibition.
“OP&A has conducted visitor studies of Smithsonian exhibitions for many years, and comments on Hide/Seek were among the most reflective, emotional, authentic, and discerning that OP&A staff have heard,” OP&A director Carole M.P. Neves wrote in the forward to the report. The study found that Hide/Seek made a “strong impact” on visitors who anticipated “an enriched understanding of art and history, and the exhibition delivered in this area.”
The report was based on 69 interviews researchers conducted with 55 visitors and on survey responses from 470 visitors who entered the exhibition and 429 visitors who were on their way out of it. (While many Smithsonian reports are dry, dull affairs, MAN readers will likely find this one unusually engaging. It’s available in PDF form here.)
While the report mostly sidestepped the controversy generated by Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough’s removal of a David Wojnarowicz artwork from the exhibition, it found that no one the study’s researchers spoke with “explicitly approved” of Clough’s decision. The report found that museum visitors were much more comfortable with the exhibition’s subject matter than Clough and other Smithsonian administrators seemed to be, and that many visitors wondered why more museums didn’t make clear, explicit links between art history and social history. [The report quotes one visitor: “[SFMOMA] should do [a show like this], and they haven’t.… People don’t do this. People aren’t bold enough to do this. They aren’t brave. Because it takes some guts … to do a show that has gay or lesbian themes in it.”]
At the time the exhibition was on view, Clough’s decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” was widely criticized. A three-person review panel assembled by the Smithsonian’s board of regents failed to endorse Clough’s censorship of the exhibition and a regent who sat on the review panel strongly suggested that Clough’s removal of the Wojnarowicz (rather than its inclusion in the exhibition) was the institution’s major error.
Responses recorded by the Smithsonian researchers indicate exhibition visitors were comfortable with the exhibition’s address of gay and lesbian history. “If a substantial proportion of visitors were offended by it, this did not show up in any obvious way in the study,” the report said. ” ‘Hide/Seek’ made a strong impression on many visitors, such as those who focused on the larger-than-life image of an emaciated AIDS victim, Felix, a few hours after his death. Some commented on how works in ‘Hide/Seek’ led them to a deeper understanding of the suffering caused by that disease—not only through its direct effects on the bodies of the afflicted, but also indirectly, through society’s marginalization of AIDS victims. Some interviewees cried as they talked about these issues.” [Image: AA Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994, collection of the National Gallery of Canada.]
In several places the report’s unnamed author or authors noted that the exhibition subject was effectively within the mainstream of American experience. “In [the view of many visitors], standards for what is considered outside-the-box are simply low in Washington D.C., at least in comparison with major cultural centers,” the report said, and then quoted many visitors who were stunned at the Smithsonian’s leadership’s perceived prudery.
(The report examined only visitor response and not scholar-response. However, gays and lesbians have long been within the mainstream of scholarly inquiry.)
The report also seemed to affirm the exhibition’s scholarly approach to its subject: “Visitors came to Hide/Seek anticipating an enriched understanding of art and history, and the exhibition delivered in this area. Nearly half of entering visitors selected ‘Enriching my understanding’ as an experience they were looking forward to, and a similar percentage reported this as an actual satisfying experience upon exit.”
The report indicated that the exhibition’s ‘thesis,’ that gays and lesbians developed ways in communicating otherhood through art and that those codes became or inspired the semiotics that both gay and straight artists have used throughout American art history, was effectively conveyed by the exhibition: “One idea that many visitors took away from the exhibition was that artists often ‘coded’ gay themes into their works rather than making them explicit, particularly in the days when homosexuality was widely stigmatized. Visitors detected this type of coding not only in works by artists who were themselves gay, but also in works portraying gay (or ambiguous) subjects by artists of any sexual orientation.”
The researchers also indicated that the Smithsonian is widely seen as an institution that affirms previously known histories rather than an institution that supports probative, revisionist histories that re-considers the American experience: “A number [of visitors] were surprised that the exhibition was held at such an ‘unlikely’ place as the Smithsonian Institution,” the report said. “Some believed that the Smithsonian should present more exhibitions that engage with provocative themes and depart from traditional expectations.”
The report’s conclusion noted that the show should serve as a warning shot for the Smithsonian: “Far from being a cautionary tale, Hide/Seek suggests how the Smithsonian can succeed in presenting a potentially sensitive issue while staying within boundaries that most visitors are willing to accept, even if in the end not all are enthusiastic about it. If the Smithsonian wishes to remain relevant in a rapidly-changing world, it may have to be willing at times to grapple with social and contemporary issues of the sort treated in this exhibition.”
Nota bene: I’ll update this post when information I’ve requested from the Smithsonian becomes available.