Conversation: Martin Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery

BY Jeffrey Brown  December 2, 2010 at 5:14 PM EDT


Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Photo by Douglas Graham/ Roll Call/ Getty Images

Currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is, according to the gallery, “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” It’s an exhibit that considers sexuality (including homosexuality and bisexuality) as a major — though often hidden — factor in the lives of, and as inspiration for, many modern American artists.

On Tuesday, the Catholic League, a U.S. organization founded to defend the civil rights of Christians, released a statement that criticized the exhibit for featuring artwork it considered sacrilegious. That statement cited a report on the exhibit published on Monday by a conservative media organization, which described a work of video art called A Fire in My Belly by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992.

The video (actually a 4-minute excerpt cut down from the 30-minute original) was objectionable to the Catholic League because it includes an 11-second scene showing ants walking across a small crucifix. The Catholic League’s president, Bill Donohue, said it was an attack on Christians and urged the House and Senate Appropriations Committees “to reconsider future funding” of the Smithsonian.

Some lawmakers did take notice. House Majority Leader-designate Eric Cantor (R – Va.) and future Speaker of the House John Boehner (R – Ohio) called for the exhibit to be shut down, saying that the museum could face budgets cuts come January when a new session of congress begins, according to The Hill. Kriston Capps reported in the Washington City Paper that Rep. Boehner had not actually called the museum to pressure museum leaders to take down the exhibit, nor had he been to the museum to see the exhibit.

By late Tuesday, Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough made the decision to pull the video from the exhibit, according to Modern Art Notes. Washington art critics, bloggers and art supporters alike responded in protest, and a local Washington gallery was granted permission to show the video in its entirety on a constant loop in a monitor placed in their window.

Martin E. Sullivan, Photo Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery
On Thursday, National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan spoke with Jeffrey Brown about the exhibit and the controversy:

[After the jump, watch a slide show of images from the exhibit with commentary from historian David C. Ward]


Art Beat interviewed National Portrait Gallery historian David C. Ward about the exhibit “Hide/Seek” in November, before the battle over A Fire in My Belly began.

“This is an art exhibition,” Ward said at the time, anticipating that some viewers might find some of the material provocative. “It’s not a social history or a political exhibition. It does not have an axe to grind.”

Watch a slideshow of images from “Hide/Seek”:

— With additional reporting by Katherine Stevens, Mike Melia and Molly Finnegan
Editor’s Note: The video slideshow was added later on Thursday, after the initial posting of this interview.