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Smithsonian's crucible of censorship given scrutiny at forum; Removal of video from 'Hide/Seek' is debated by official

Worried officials from the Smithsonian Institution reviewed all the pieces in an exhibition on homosexuality in American art last year before it opened except for the short film that ended up sparking the most controversy and leading to a national debate about censorship.

That was the word Sunday from Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for history, art and culture.

Kurin, a University at Buffalo alumnus, spoke during a panel discussion in Albright-Knox Art Gallery about censorship, as he and two UB professors debated the controversy surrounding the exhibit "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery last year.

The exhibit, which ended in February, was described by the Smithsonian as the first major museum show "to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," by looking at "society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire and romantic attachment." It reviewed more than 100 years of sexuality in art.

Speaking to more than 100 people in the Albright-Knox auditorium, Kurin said Smithsonian officials knew that the exhibit could spark trouble, based on past experience. The exhibit had previously been offered to other major museums.

"We knew that some people would have a problem with it, but it was important," he said, citing the Smithsonian's duty to show American art and culture. "We knew that it had been taken around to other institutions, and others rejected it."

Even so, he and Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, head of the national group of museums, gave their approval. Just in case, though, officials looked at 103 works of art included in the show to make sure they were prepared for any potential problems or questions. But, Kurin acknowledged, "we did not look at" David Wojnarowicz's film "Fire in My Belly."

The exhibit went up and, at first, received great reviews. But within a month, a small scene within the short video was sparking outrage among cultural conservatives and Catholics across the country. They denounced a single scene in which ants are seen crawling over a crucifix, calling it a sacrilege and accusing the Smithsonian of disrespecting Catholicism -- even though many had only heard about it without seeing it.

And they were contacting not only the museum, but Congress. "All of a sudden, we started hearing from members of Congress that their constituents were upset," Kurin said.

Facing intensifying pressure and threats of budget cuts, Clough made "a pragmatic decision" to take out the video but maintain the rest of the show.

"We wanted to keep the exhibition open," Kurin said. "We knew that Congress could make it impossible to show such an exhibit in the future."

And he defended the position of public institutions, caught between academic freedom and being owned by and subject to the will of people. "Choices are made all the time," he said. "You don't want to impede knowledge, but you have to take into account the feelings of your constituents."

Besides Kurin, the panel included UB professors Jonathan D. Katz, who's also director of the doctoral program in visual studies and president of the new Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a law professor and First Amendment expert who directs UB's Law, Religion and Culture Program.

Katz, who also was co-curator of the "Hide/Seek" exhibit, excoriated the Smithsonian for removing the film. "The Smithsonian didn't do its homework and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," he said. "We missed an opportunity to engage in a discussion about the role of museums, missed an opportunity to educate, to fight back."

email: jepstein@buffnews.com