Despite rebuke, Smithsonian regents say they support Clough

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WASHINGTON — In a rebuke of the Smithsonian’s chief executive, the institution’s board of regents Monday moved to prevent the removal of controversial exhibits — like the portion of David Wojnarowicz’s video depicting ants on a crucifix from a show at the National Portrait Gallery — without greater consultation but expressed confidence in Secretary Wayne Clough’s continued leadership.

‘There are a number of things that, with 20-20 hindsight, probably could have been done differently,’ said John W. McCarter Jr., who chaired a panel to recommend ways to head off controversies like the one touched off by the Clough’s decision to pull the video.

Clough acted after House Republican leaders, whose support is critical to the Smithsonian’s funding, objected that the video was sacrilegious, but his action came under attack as artistic censorship.
McCarter, president and chief executive of the Field Museum in Chicago and a member of the Smithsonian board of regents, said Clough nonetheless enjoys the ‘enormous support’ of the board.

The panel, in its recommendations to the board of regents, said the Smithsonian has an ‘obligation to produce exhibitions that may be controversial’ but said that ‘in the absence of actual error, changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens without meaningful consultation’ with the leadership of the Board of Regents, among others. Officials noted that the board includes members of Congress.


‘In anticipation of possibly controversial exhibitions, the Smithsonian should provide an opportunity for public input or reaction at pre-decisional exhibit planning phases,’ the panel recommended.

Patricia Q. Stonesifer, the board’s chair, said that regents watched the controversial video ‘A Fire in My Belly’ but did not vote on whether the exhibit should have been removed. McCarter said in response to a question that he thought including the video in the ‘Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ exhibition was the right decision.

Stonesifer said after the board meeting that ‘It’s clear that in order to fulfill our mission, there will be controversies in the future.’

Clough, calling his decision to remove the artwork a ‘painful decision,’ said, ‘We need to engage more people … about what we’re doing.’ Noting that the board includes six members of Congress, he said, ‘We need to take better advantage of their thoughts … and to keep them informed. … We could have kept them better informed.’

‘I’d like to think I’m a little wiser than I was six months ago,’ he said.


Complete Smithsonian coverage

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Above: Clough, Stonesifer and McCarter speak to reporters after the Smithsonian regents’ meeting. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press.

— Richard Simon