Yesterday, Smithsonian Institution secretary G. Wayne Clough finally broke the media silence that has followed the outcry over his decision to censor a work by David Wojnarowicz at the National Portrait Gallery, talking to reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post. In the face of ongoing pressure from the art world and gay rights activists, he reiterated his belief that he had done the right thing — though he did tell the Post’s Jacqueline Trescott that “looking back, sure, I wish I had taken more time” — and strove to maintain a public posture of sangfroid, saying that he did not feel that the institution was under siege, and that he had not considered stepping down.
Yet, between the lines, both interviews — and more particularly an internal email to Smithsonian staff posted on Tyler Green‘s “Modern Art Notes” blog — gave the lie to the sunny picture, showing the Smithsonian secretary continuing to grope around for a way to respond to the crisis. Here are the seven things that we learned about the Wojnarowicz/Smithsonian crisis from the new exchange:
1) In both interviews, Clough tried to deflect criticism by placing great stress on the danger of having Smithsonian funding slashed by Congress, telling the Post, “We are going into a period which I would describe as probably the most difficult period for funding for federal agencies in our lifetime.” His remarks seem to show him to be much more concerned with placating the new Congressional Republican leadership than with widespread protests and public condemnation from art supporters.
He explains that the Smithsonian was “communicating through back channels” with conservative congressmen, and Trescott reported that the “task of repairing any rifts with the Congressional leadership is being handled by the six members of Congress, representing both political parties, who sit on the Smithsonian’s board of regents.” (That would be Senators Thad Cochran (R), Christopher Dodd (D), and Patrick Leahy (D), and Representatives Xavier Becerra (D), Sam Johnson (R), and Doris Matsui (D).) Clough also told the Times’ Kate Taylor that he was eager to sit down with John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the politicians who had precipitated the crisis by condemning Wojnarowicz’s work (without having actually seen it): “I’d love to meet them — I present myself at any chance they have.”
2) At the same time, Clough told Taylor that the board of regents met with an unidentified “outside committee” last weekend “to go over how the incident unfolded and what the institution could learn from it.” However, the results of that meeting won’t be made public until the end of the month, when the regents meet on January 31.
3) Clough’s main public gesture towards Wojnarowicz supporters seems to be a proposed public discussion of the “issues” raised by the censorship. Details are still vague, but he said the event would take place in April — well after the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” show is to close on February 13. The agenda for the public meeting will include “the difference between publicly funded and private museums, their approaches to exhibitions and the role of the Smithsonian as a national leader,” according to Trescott.
4) Meanwhile, Clough continued to downplay the damage done to the institution by the backlash, which has caused the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to pull funding, and other private donors to question the Smithsonian’s credibility. “The funders and people who were upset by the decision, and I respect that, still have an appreciation that this exhibition is up,” Trescott quotes Clough as saying. “We were willing to take this topic on when others were not, and people appreciate that.” He also denied that he had been missing in action since the controversy broke, saying that he had been working hard behind the scenes, talking to “at least 100 people” about the crisis.
5) In his internal email to Smithsonian staff, Clough writes that in response to the controversy, he is forming a new body called the Directors Advisory Group, for “the purpose of providing me and other senior leaders agile advice on a variety of management topics.” What exactly this means is unclear, though it would seem to indicate that Clough recognizes that his management in the Wojnarowicz incident was off target, and that in order for him to be a competent director he needs his own special advisory group.
6) The tone of Clough’s email also undercut his public statements to the Times and Post that he is feeling no pressure. “I am committed to improving the way we communicate and consult with our internal and external stakeholders, especially our board leadership, our directors and curatorial community,” he said, seemingly addressing dissent. He adds that Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s under-secretary for history, art, and culture, has proposed “to tap our directors and curatorial staff on a rotating basis to insure that arts perspectives are well represented in decision-making,” which, again, seems to indicate that his own staff thinks that the decision was a bad idea. (But we knew that already.)
7) Finally, the internal email seems to acknowledge that this round of media outreach on the secretary’s part is specifically an attempt to blunt criticism in advance of his first public appearance since the National Portrait Gallery uproar, scheduled for tomorrow in Los Angeles. “I am traveling to California to speak at the Los Angeles Town Hall on Thursday, and I will address this issue there,” he writes. “I anticipate tough questions and protests, and I welcome the opportunity for debate and discussion about this controversy.” As ARTINFO previously reported, at least one protest group — the newly formed anti-censorship collective L.A. Raw — has plans to demonstrate against Clough when he speaks. L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight, meanwhile, summed things up with an article today on the upcoming appearance: “Clough erred by choosing censorship, throwing gasoline onto a brush fire.”