Target of Art Protests Quits as Corcoran Director

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

The embattled director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, whose cancellation of an exhibition that included sexually explicit photographs ignited a firestorm of controversy, resigned Monday.

In a letter to Freeborn G. Jewett, president of the museum’s board of trustees, Christina Orr-Cahall cited “extraneous and disruptive difficulties” of the last several months that had put the museum’s future in doubt.

A decision in June to cancel a show of sexually explicit photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe was widely seen as capitulating to intense political pressure from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.) and others in Congress. Numerous artists protested by withdrawing their works from shows scheduled at the Corcoran.


Orr-Cahall had issued an apology for having embroiled the museum in a censorship controversy but added fuel to the fire by refusing to say that she had erred.

The exhibit of photos by Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in March, included homosexual themes and some explicit homoerotic works. It had been shown in other cities without objection.

Amid indications that she might be fired, Orr-Cahall resigned effective Feb. 1. An interim director will be named while the gallery looks for a permanent successor, Jewett said.

A special panel of board members established in September to consider her future was to have met Monday, but board members said Orr-Cahall told the panel over the weekend that she would step down, so it took no vote on her status.

“What upset the board was the continuing barrage of the Corcoran,” the chairman, Lloyd Kreeger, said. “It was blown into a symbol of repression, pornography-versus-license, freedom of speech and a political issue.”

The controversy over the cancellation exacerbated an already tempestuous debate over the National Endowment for the Arts’ support of controversial art works, and it led to moves in Congress to restrict federal funds for art deemed “obscene or indecent.”


Mapplethorpe’s 150-work retrospective had been organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When she announced that the exhibit would be canceled, Orr-Cahall said the museum wanted to avoid being drawn into the congressional fight over the federal arts agency. It was the only time the Corcoran had canceled a planned exhibit.

The Corcoran board said it is restructuring the way the gallery is governed, eliminating lifetime memberships on the board and replacing them with three-year terms.

“We are on the brink of restoring the Corcoran not only to its former prestige but to make it a more vital and dynamic institution in the city,” Kreeger said.

An artists’ boycott led to the cancellation of at least two exhibits and realist painter Lowell Nesbitt cut the Corcoran from his will.