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Smithsonian chief, embroiled in video censorship controversy, to speak in L.A. Jan. 20

January 6, 2011 |  3:40 pm

SmithsonianWayneCloughAnneCusack Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, currently occupies the art world’s hot seat because of his recent decision to censor an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after congressional Republican leaders complained that a video containing shots of ants crawling on a crucifix was anti-Christian. Now Clough is L.A.-bound, engaged to speak Jan. 20 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles as part of the Town Hall Los Angeles public issues series.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Thursday that Clough’s engagement was booked last summer; the Town Hall Los Angeles announcement says his talk, entitled “New Perspectives at the Smithsonian,” is being presented in conjunction with LA Arts Month.

Clough has come under fire not only for the decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from a show about gay-themed portraiture but for thus far not speaking publicly about the controversy.

St. Thomas said Clough has not tried to duck the issue but had been traveling over the holidays. “He will be speaking about it more publicly,” she said, probably before his arrival in L.A.

The Town Hall Los Angeles program is open to the public; tickets, which include lunch, cost $65 and are available through its website, or by calling (213) 628-8141. Clough is expected to field questions from the audience for about 20 minutes after his talk –- the speakers series' usual format.

St. Thomas said he’ll reserve some time after the event to speak with reporters, who under Town Hall Los Angeles rules are welcome to cover the talks but are asked not to take part in the question-answer period that's part of the program.

The Smithsonian gets $761.4 million a year from the federal government -- about two-thirds of its budget. Among those bringing pressure to remove the video were John Boehner (R-Ohio), now the speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the House majority leader.

WojnarowiczProtestJaquelynMartinAP The exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” runs through Feb. 13;  the National Portrait Gallery characterizes it as “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.”  Since its removal, the video has been shown in protest around the country.

The exhibition opened Oct. 30. On Nov. 29, a conservative website, CNSNews.com, ran a long, detailed report about it, headlined “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts.”

CNS and its reporter, Penny Starr, followed up the next day with an article focusing on GOP leaders’ response. In it, a spokesman for Boehner said, “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington.”

Cantor was quoted as saying that the video was “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” adding that “the museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.”

The Smithsonian removed “A Fire in My Belly” the same day those comments were published. In a statement on its website dated Dec. 6, the National Portrait Gallery posted its explanation: The “video created as a complex metaphor for AIDS was perceived by some to be anti-Christian. It generated a strong response from the public. We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition.”

Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote that Wojnarowicz’ video –- originally 13 minutes and shown at the National Portrait Gallery in a four-minute excerpt -– was not anti-Christian but a protest “against those who profess Christian compassion but refuse to enact it … in part a terrifying shriek against the shocking indifference to the AIDS crisis then engulfing the United States.”

The Los Angeles Times’ editorial page  predicted that the episode presages a return to the 1990s “culture wars” in which conservative objections about avant-garde works led to steep budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and an end to its grants to individual artists. The NEA’s purchasing power has yet to fully recover. The editorial lamented that the Smithsonian had caved to pressure:  “it’s dispiriting that the defenders of culture and artistic expression seem so willing to surrender.”

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, headed by former Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, said it would stop issuing grants for Smithsonian exhibitions if the video isn’t reinstated. The Assn. of Art Museum Directors rebuked the Smithsonian for bowing to “unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures, many of whom, by their own admission, have seen neither the exhibition as a whole or this specific work.”

But North America’s other leading museum advocacy group, the American Assn. of Museums, told the Washington Post that it agreed with the Smithsonian that it was proper to pull the video rather than allow the controversy to subsume an “excellent show.”

-- Mike Boehm

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 Photos: Smithsonian Institution secretary Wayne Clough; protestors hold portraits of artist David Wojnarowicz in protest of removal of his video from National Portrait Gallery show. Credits: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times (Clough); Jacquelyn Martin/AP (protestors).

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