Thirty years ago, a debate on what is, and what is not, art was front-page news.
A controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment — a touring retrospective exhibit of photographs by the artist, including a series of partitioned X-rated images — dramatically played out in museums across the country. The exhibit featured celebrity portraits, self-portraits, interracial figure studies, floral still-lifes, collages and homoerotic images.
Shortly after the exhibition opened, the artist died at age 42 from AIDS complications on March 9, 1989. The tour had popular stops in Philadelphia and then Chicago. The brouhaha began when Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled the show weeks before its opening during the summer of 1989 when the issue of public funding of art became political red meat for right-wing politicians such as Sen. Jesse Helms. (The D.C. show was saved when Jock Reynolds of The Washington Project for the Arts steered the exhibit to his arts center.)
Next stop: Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in October, where it became a blockbuster hit. When the tour reached Cincinnati’s Institute of Contemporary Art in the spring of 1990, police arrived to shut down the show on its opening night and arrest the museum director, who was later put on trial for obscenity.
As an arts journalist for the Hartford Courant, I witnessed first-hand all three city experiences of the tour. It was the most exciting time to be writing about art in America, when debates raged about the values, responsibilities and roles surrounding this country’s culture.
“Millard Pryor was the hero of the hour,” says Patrick McCaughey, who was director of the Atheneum then, referring to the chairman of the museum’s board at the time the show came to town. “The trustees came to him in all directions saying the exhibit would endanger the capital campaign or ruin the reputation of the museum. I remember saying to him, ‘Millard, if you want this exhibition to go away, I will make it go away. I will not be pleased and I won’t have the same attitude toward the Wadsworth Atheneum.’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to back you.’ He was a man of real courage.”
Pryor urged McCaughey — who was just into his second year as director — to do a PR campaign, talking about the show before it arrived in Hartford and answering questions people might have about the exhibit.
“But nothing straightened [the board’s] arm more than when the Corcoran [Gallery] sucked up to Helms,” McCaughey says. “That’s when the trustees — which was still a divided board privately — decided to stand firm and not fold.”
Receiving support on the editorial pages and and rave reviews from the Courant helped. And with “the cha-ching of the cash register, [the board] tended to swing thoroughly behind it, good Yankees that they were.”
McCaughey remembers a chairman of one of the old local banks — Connecticut Bank & Trust’s Pomeroy Day — coming to an advance walk-through of the exhibit. “He was a wonderful man and when someone asked him what he thought, he said, ‘Well, 150 photographs, some very beautiful, some pornographic. So what?’
That quote went around like wildfire and calmed a lot of them down, too.”
What particularly impressed McCaughey was the attentiveness and seriousness of the crowds. “This wasn’t your typical museum audience at all — yet they really looked thoughtfully at all the photos. That made me think, ‘Who the [expletive] does Helms think he is to make judgments for these eminently sensible, clear-minded Americans who were coming out to see what all the fuss was about?”
The exhibition was a huge success for the museum, attracting close to 100,000 attendees.
In the end, “the show helped in one very material way,” McCaughey says. “It made the Atheneum the center of the city’s attention and helped the capital campaign. These were good days for the museum — and for Hartford, which hadn’t quite lost its nerve at that stage.”
The tour continued on from Hartford uneventfully, but there were growing concerns that the show would have trouble when it hit Cincinnati, which had a strong, and well-financed, conservative political power base.
On April 5, 1990, a cadre of uniformed police arrived at the Contemporary Art Center to shut down the show for an hour on its opening night while videotaping the exhibit as evidence. A grand jury charged the museum director, Dennis Barrie, and the museum with “pandering obscenity” and “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.” A U.S. District judge blocked police from seizing or disturbing the exhibit and the show went on.
But Barrie still faced charges in court that fall — and a possible jail sentence if convicted. After weeks of jury selection and a trial that went on for days, the jury returned a not guilty verdict in less than two hours.
The Mapplethorpe Estate gifted a number of the artist’s works to the Atheneum. Reynolds became director of Yale University Art Gallery, a role he stepped down from last year. Barrie went on to become a co-creator and executive director of Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and oversaw the opening of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. The now-retired McCaughey went on to the Yale Center for British Art. A TV movie, Dirty Pictures, was made about the Cincinnati controversy. Last year the biopic Mapplethorpe was released, starring Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip in Netflix’s The Crown.
“But Mapplethorpe’s reputation in a funny way hasn’t grown greatly,” McCaughey says. “As he was in life so is he in death: remarkable, beautiful, idiosyncratic.”
The Wadsworth recently featured an exhibit Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall, which included five Mapplethorpe pieces.
“Without that [The Perfect Moment exhibit] I don’t know if shows like Be Seen would have the space to breathe,” says Thomas J. Loughman, the present Wadsworth director and CEO who was in high school at the time of the Mapplethorpe tour.
“The explosive moment 30 years ago gave Mapplethorpe an outsize identity,” he says. “Most artists are not talked about at that many kitchen tables as when you have a sensational, highly politicized culture war happening. America is different now. If anything, Mapplethorpe is now more known for being one of the great American photographers of the body and still life than for having been a prime political football.”