WASHINGTON – In 1989, the pressure applied by members of Congress forced the canceling of an exhibition by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington; 30 years later, the gallery is providing a new look at the turbulent days of that disputed decision.
Few exhibitions are dedicated to recalling how and why an exhibit was suspended days before its inauguration due to censorship, but “6.13.89: The Canceling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition” is one of them.
Sanjit Sethi, curator of the exhibition and director of what is now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University, told EFE in an interview that the idea of the show is “to excavate one of the biggest ghosts of our past.”
“Thirty years ago today, the Corcoran Gallery of Art announced that they were canceling ‘A Perfect Moment,’ the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, so for us it’s a very important opportunity to revisit what happens when an institution has canceled an exhibition, and to do so through the lens of us as an educational community,” Sethi said.
“You know, I think the implications for the cancelation were profoundly felt internally within the Corcoran, locally, nationally and internationally,” the director said. “What does it mean when you have a significant cultural institution caving-in to political pressure? And those repercussions continue today, I think. We still see those.”
To begin with, it’s necessary to look back three decades.
The new exhibition brings to light documents, letters, the minutes of meetings, newspaper cuttings, protest posters and, of course, a catalogue of the original exhibit that has become a gem for collectors.
“Immoral trash” is what the exhibit was called at the time by Jesse Helms, the powerful Republican senator from North Carolina who together with his New York colleague Al D’Amato were the most critical.
The Mapplethorpe show was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and disgruntled lawmakers threatened that agency with budget cuts.
“We realize that the interpretation of art is a subjective evaluation, but there is a very clear and unambiguous line that exists between what can be classified as art and what must be called morally reprehensible trash,” more than a score of House members said in a June 8, 1989, letter to the NEA.
The lawmakers blasted the exhibition as “a horrible abuse of tax dollars.”
The artist, known for his explicit and stylized images of gay eroticism, had died of AIDS several months before when he was only 42 years old.
Male couples of diverse races hugging, explicit nudes both masculine and feminine, close-ups of the genitals of Mapplethorpe’s friends and colleagues, were some of the photos in the original exhibition by the photographer considered one of the landmark artists of the 1970s and ‘80s.
As a result of the pressure by Congress, an after consulting with the board of directors, the director of the art gallery, Christina Orr-Cahall, announced its cancelation.
Her decision was backed by the museum board on the recommendation of chairman David Lloyd Kreeger.
“It was a close call,” Kreeger said at the time. “If you went ahead, I suppose you could say you were upholding freedom of artistic expression against possible political pressure. But you have to consider the larger picture.”
“The endowment has been under attack, its appropriation has been cut by the Executive again and again, only to be restored by Congress. And this is a very critical period in the appropriation process. If proceeding with this exhibition hurts NEA appropriations, it is detrimental to the Corcoran and every other art institution,” the chairman said.
After the show was canceled, the protests continued and the US capital’s artistic community organized demonstrations in front of the museum where they projected some of the photographer’s iconic images.
Though the cancelation sought to guarantee its financial well-being, the failed exhibition was a lethal blow to the museum, founded in 1869 and until then one of the most prestigious art galleries in the United States.
In the following years, donations and other forms of financial aid collapsed, and the institution’s influence entered a progressive decline to the point that it was sold to GWU in 2014 on condition that it maintain its original mission and that its collection be redistributed to other art centers.
The Corcoran is now trying to look its past squarely in the face.