In this week's art section, I write about the decision made in 1989 by the director of the prominent Washington, D.C. museum the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Christina Orr-Cahall, to cancel a scheduled traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in the nation's capital. (Orr-Cahall has just been named director of EMP in Seattle.)
On her blog Another Bouncing Ball, Regina Hackett questions whether Orr-Cahall was actually responsible for the decision, or whether she was the pawn of trustees. "I heard indirectly from a couple of Orr-Cahall's friends that she was trapped between big-money board members who insisted the show be canceled and the very real fear that the government would cut off all Corcoran funding if the Mapplethorpe show proceeded."
I'll admit that I didn't spend enough time describing the details of the situation in the story—I was concerned about doing too much rehashing of an old and overly familiar story. But Hackett's vague assertion of hearsay from Orr-Cahall's friends is the worst kind of doubting. (You "heard indirectly" from "a couple of Orr-Cahall's friends"? Is this what passes for reporting on your new blog?)
My first question in reporting the story was about this—and it was also on the minds of many reporters at the time. This is pretty well-combed territory. I went back into newspaper archives from The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Florida Sun-Sentinel (Orr-Cahall went to the Florida museum the Norton directly from the Corcoran). I paid out of my own pocket (since times is tough for newspapers, dontcha know) for archives from the Miami Herald.
What I could discern is: Jesse Helms was already on the warpath for Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. But nobody, on the record, had made any direct moves to challenge the Corcoran's upcoming Mapplethorpe show. Orr-Cahall, aware of the generalized climate of pressure, conducted a thorough study of all of the images in the Mapplethorpe exhibition in preparation for its arrival in D.C.
But instead of using that study to support the exhibition's arrival and beef up programing and dialogue around it, she (and trustees, of course) decided to take a vote on canceling it. The vote was put on the docket of a board meeting late, and some trustees were not at the meeting, not knowing this was on the agenda—later they would criticize the decision.
Orr-Cahall spent the months after the decision, until her eventual resignation, defending it strenuously, even as some of her board members didn't, and even as her high-level staffers—including a chief curator who was seen as the heart of the institution—resigned in protest.
Orr-Cahall may have felt that her hand was forced by circumstances, but there's no evidence of undue pressure from any single source. She never gave any indication that she did not fully support the museum's decision at the time. In fact—except in the sympathetic Washington Post feature I quote (believe me, I went looking for an apology!)—she didn't indicate that she thought it was wrong, only that it was ineffective. She told a reporter that she'd rather have taken the heat from the politicians than from the art community. Here's her talking to the Post on September 19, 1989, three months after she canceled the show:
"[T]he trustees and I do feel regret and felt that the approach we took did not work. It was a failed strategy and probably on my part naive."
In my story, I'm not sure I characterized dramatically enough how unheard-of it is for a museum to cancel an entire show that the museum has decided is important enough to have put it on the schedule in the first place. It's highly controversial when a museum decides to censor a single work.
Need an example? Let's turn to Hackett's own strong 2007 criticism of Seattle Art Museum deputy director/curator Trevor Fairbrother's 1999 decision to excise a Mike Kelley piece (including a work made by a serial killer) from a planned exhibition. Here it is.
When [Fairbrother] left in 2000 after 4 years, I wrote that he was "the most creative, open-minded and intellectually provocative modern-art curator in the museum's history."
What didn't impress me was his inability to back his own plays.
Well, Orr-Cahall backed hers. Here's her explaining the Mapplethorpe cancellation to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"Our feeling is that, because the National Endowment for the Arts has said they want to begin the process of looking at their system for awarding funding (for controversial artwork) . . . we think by presenting the exhibit at this time, we would be involved in political discussions that really turn the exhibit not into an educational opportunity but into a political platform.
She emphasized that the museum did not edit the show.
"We didn't want to do any editing of the show because we felt that would be censorship."
Everybody knows that there's plenty of pressure inside every museum, and nobody's suggesting that these jobs or these decisions are easy.
Making things doubly difficult is that both Hackett and I—and any journalist covering the situation now—is looking at a distance. Was the Corcoran going to lose funding? Probably. Was Orr-Cahall feeling the pressure of the situation? I'm sure. But that's not the same thing as being pushed around by trustees. (If you want to see what happens when a museum director decides differently, all you have to do is look at Cincinnati, the next stop on the Mapplethorpe tour, where the director became the first in American history to be indicted for putting on a show. The formal charges were two misdemeanor counts of pandering and using minors in pornography. All charges were cleared.)
Now I can't say for absolutely sure what went on inside the Corcoran, but a lot of good reporters spent a lot of time trying to figure out just that at the time—and I've consulted what they did, and taken their lead, as well as listening to the words of Orr-Cahall herself.
Like those reporters—and like Hackett with Fairbrother—I did check. But the scent of scapegoat is just not anywhere to be found.