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Warhol Foundation issues ultimatum to Smithsonian over censored artwork

December 13, 2010 |  1:32 pm

Fire2 The controversy over the Smithsonian Institution's decision to remove a piece of artwork that was on display in the National Portrait Gallery took another turn Monday when the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts issued a letter vowing to stop funding future exhibitions at all Smithsonian institutions if the artwork is not restored immediately.

Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation, wrote a letter addressed to Smithsonian leaders -- including Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution -- in which he described the recent decision as "unconscionable" and contrary to "everything the Smithsonian Institution should stand for, and everything the Andy Warhol Foundation does stand for."

The Warhol Foundation is one of the many funders of "Hide/Seek," a privately funded show that is set to run at the National Portrait Gallery through Feb. 13.

In the letter, Wachs states that the board of directors of the Warhol Foundation has voted unanimously to demand that the Smithsonian restore the censored work immediately, or the Warhol Foundation will cease funding future exhibitions at the Smithsonian.

"I regret that you have put us in this position, but there is no other course we can take," wrote Wachs in the letter. "For the arts to flourish the arts must be free, and the decision to censor this important work is in stark opposition to our mission to defend freedom of expression wherever and whenever it is under attack."

The artwork in question is a 1987 video by the late David Wojnarowicz titled "A Fire in My Belly," which was being shown as part of the current "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition. The Smithsonian's decision to remove the work came after the Catholic League and a number of conservative politicians voiced objections to the video's depiction of Jesus Christ covered in ants.

In the days since the Smithsonian's decision, arts organizations around the country have publicly condemned the decision to remove the artwork. The Hammer Museum in L.A. and the New Museum in New York have announced their decision to show the Wojnarowicz video, in addition to the Transformer Gallery in Washington and other galleries around the country.

The Warhol Foundation, located in New York, is a key funder of art exhibitions and projects around the country. In the past few years, it has given more than $375,000 to fund several exhibitions at various Smithsonian institutions, according to Wachs' letter.

-- David Ng

Photo: A pedestrian watches David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" in a streetfront window at one of its new homes: the Transformer Gallery in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press



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