In a 30-year wake-up call, museums learn they, too, aren’t exempt from public scrutiny

Published on July 17, 2019

On April 7th, 1990, dozens of Cincinnati police officers stormed into the Contemporary Arts Center and shut it down.

This was the opening day of The Perfect Moment, an exhibition of 175 photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Earlier that day, a grand jury indicted the Contemporary Arts Center and its director for pandering obscene photographs. 

Mapplethorpe had recently died from a tragic and long-fought battle with AIDS. To celebrate his life’s work, six museums organized a tour of The Perfect Moment. The exhibit featured a wide array of Mapplethorpe’s work including some of his photographs of homoerotic sadomasochism and portraits of nude black men. 

Controversial origins

The controversy did not begin in Cincinnati. It started months earlier when a family values organization called the American Family Association noticed that the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts was funding museums displaying the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

The AFA felt it was wrong to feature S&M on museum walls, so they sent letters to every member of Congress asking them to do something. Jesse Helms, a senator from South Carolina and social values crusader, sided with the AFA and began attacking the Mapplethorpe exhibit in his speeches on the floor of the Senate. Once he found out the exhibition was coming to Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. — right in his backyard — he began attacking the museum. 

The “perfect moment”

The Corcoran Gallery never expected The Perfect Moment to be controversial. Museums in other cities had exhibited the photographs without any fuss, so they were unprepared for Jesse Helm’s ire. The museum had a tough choice. Risk losing government funding or cave to the political pressure. They chose the ladder. 

The art world didn’t take the cancellation well. They staged a protest nearing one thousand people and projected a Mapplethorpe self-portrait on the gallery’s wall. The Corcoran’s corporate sponsors canceled their sponsorship, and the museum’s board of directors asked the director to resign. 

Six months after the Corcoran canceled the exhibition, the Contemporary Arts Center faced the same predicament and took the opposite path. They decided to stand up to the political pressure even if it meant suffering a police raid and lengthy court battle. The CAC won the trial by proving the Mapplethorpe photos were not obscene because they exhibited artistic merit. 

Which museum made the right decision?

On the surface, it seems the Contemporary Arts Center made the right decision. They stood up for the first amendment and ended up victorious.  But the truth is more complicated than that. Both museums ended up losing most of their corporate sponsorship and, after the controversy had died down, both asked their directors to resign. In the end, the outcomes were almost identical.

After The Perfect Moment, museums all over the country realized that they weren’t going to be exempt from public scrutiny anymore. If they wanted to avoid controversy, losing sponsors, and expensive court cases, the only option was to avoid controversial exhibits entirely. Now, if museums are self-censoring out of fear, the public will never know what they’re not being shown. They’ll never get the chance to decide for themselves whether they should see an exhibit or not.

You can hear a full story about the police raid against the Contemporary Arts Center on the second episode of Bleeped, a podcast about censorship and the people who stand up to it.

Matthew Billy is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is an award-winning podcaster in radio/podcasting since 2003 -- first at 90.7 WFUV with iconic on-air personalities Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatale, and then at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. In 2016 his latest podcast, Between the Liner Notes, won the Newhouse School of Public Communications' Mirror Award for Best Single Story – Radio, Television, Cable or Online Broadcast Media for its episode about the founding of MTV.

Read more

More GD News