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Critic's notebook: Smithsonian regents didn't solve the problem

February 1, 2011 | 12:59 pm

Smithsonian close up
Monday's special report and press conference in response to the censorship scandal at Washington's National Portrait Gallery did not solve the Smithsonian Institution's problem. But it did imply a potential resolution, which doesn't have much time left to succeed.

In a nutshell: Uncensor the show.

A special review panel was convened by the Smithsonian Board of Regents to investigate the abrupt removal of an excerpt of a work of video art from an exhibition. The panel included two outsiders with deep Washington connections -- Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, and CNN political analyst and Harvard professor David Gergen -- as well as regent John W. McCarter, president of Chicago's Field Museum and panel chair.

Their two salient conclusions:

-- Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has been an effective leader overall and still enjoys the strong support of the regents and the special panel.

-- Clough stumbled badly when he made the hasty decision to remove the excerpt of David Wojnarowicz's video, "A Fire in My Belly," from the portrait gallery show.

Fair enough. The Smithsonian receives the lion's share of its funding from Congress -- six House and Senate members also serve as regents -- and he who pays the piper calls the tune. However prematurely, Clough thought he was protecting the Smithsonian from congressional critics, real and imagined.

Hirshhorn Still, the damage he did is hardly minimal -- not least to important principles of scholarly integrity and independence. That matters, especially within the professional ranks of the Smithsonian's far-flung museums in history, science and art. Trustees at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last week issued an open letter saying they were "deeply troubled by the precedent" represented in Clough's action. Nothing that happened Monday does much to change that reasonable worry.

Chairman McCarter, when pressed, also told reporters that curators were entirely correct to include the contested video in the NPG show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." No curatorial error had been made. The six-page report goes on to say that -- "in the absence of actual error" -- exhibitions should not be changed after opening, without meaningful consultation with all levels of Smithsonian hierarchy.

And therein lies the solution to Clough's problem going forward, which is how to repair the damage he caused. "Hide/Seek" is still on view at the National Portrait Gallery. (It remains through Feb. 13.) The regents' expression of support for the secretary means that he's the one who makes final decisions.   Having pulled the video, Clough should now acknowledge his error and direct that it be restored.

Will he? According to a Smithsonian spokesman, there is no plan at present to reinstall the work. So far, Clough has maintained that removing the video was the right decision -- even though it seems clear that the special panel disagrees, as do many, if not most, in the museum field.

There's still time to do the right thing, but the clock is ticking. The ball is in Clough's court. "I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix'd and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament," said Shakespeare's stubborn Julius Caesar -- just before being dispatched by his once-faithful coterie.


A man dressed as Julius Caesar in font of the Colosseum Reuters Complete Smithsonian coverage

Group protests art censorship at Smithsonian chief's speech in L.A.

Critic's notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Top, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and regents Patricia Stonesifer and John W. McCarter. Credit: Associated Press. Middle: Hirshhorn Museum. Credit: Smithsonian. Bottom: A man dressed as Julius Caesar in front of the Colosseum during a December snowfall. Credit: Reuters.