Group protests art censorship at Smithsonian secretary’s speech in L.A.


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The few protesters outside the Biltmore Hotel Thursday with a poster-board cross and a casket weren’t exactly sure what to do.

They had come to protest the decision by Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian museum, to remove a controversial piece of art from an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Called “A Fire in My Belly,” the piece by artist David Wojnarowicz uses a video filled which strong imagery, such as a sequence with ants crawling on a crucifix.


They wanted Clough to hear their message of the importance of the 1st Amendment and their displeasure with what they see as the frequent censorship of art. But they weren’t exactly sure how or where to best make their point. The hotel has three prominent entrances -- where should they march? Or should they walk through the hotel?

Carol Wells, executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics -- the group behind the protest -- and her husband, Ted Hajjar, bought tickets for the luncheon at which Clough was speaking and planned to lob questions at him. They weren’t sure whether or not the cross should come too.

Ultimately, a procession of about two dozen people made a U-shape around the Biltmore. Two women carried the small casket, draped with a printout of a dollar bill -- a reference to another instance of perceived censorship when the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles removed a mural by the street artist Blu that featured coffins draped in dollar bills.

Ellen Sturtz led the procession. With a solemn expression and a measured pace, she carried the white cross, adorned with a cutout of the beleaguered Jesus on the crucifix from Wojnarowicz’s piece.

“It’s about the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression,” said Sturtz, a retired government regulator who’s also active in gay and lesbian causes. Sturtz said that at her age -- 54 -- she’s become more active and less fearful of the consequences. She wouldn’t mind being arrested, she said.

“I don’t want to be silenced,” she said. “There’s too much going on in the world not to get up and say something.”

Hajjar, a retired high school government and U.S. history teacher, said it was important for them to challenge the notion that “it’s OK to undermine the 1st Amendment for political purposes.”

“We’re supposed to be this beacon of liberty and freedom,” he added, “and we have to work to preserve that.”

The group continued their march to the curious looks of passersby. Two police officers followed a few paces behind. The group didn’t make too much of a stir, as they quietly shuffled down the sidewalk. Clough gave a 20-minute talk for an audience of slightly more than 100 people, followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session in which about half the questions, submitted in writing and read by Town Hall Los Angeles President Jon Goodman, were about the removal of the video.

While he spoke, a gray-haired woman called from the back of the room in a not-very-loud voice, “Shame on you for censoring the exhibition.” She was quickly and quietly escorted from the room by two hotel security officers.

About an hour into the demonstration, the protesters made one last walk around before they called it quits. Wells and Hajjar had a lunch to attend, and the small group that was left crossed the street and carried the casket down the escalator down to the Metro station.


Critic’s Notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole

Protest over art censorship will greet Smithsonian chief before L.A. talk Thursday

-- Rick Rojas and Mike Boehm
Above: Demonstrators protest in front of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel Thursday before a speech by Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times