Politics and positioning in Smithsonian debate

How is it that two Twin Cities museum directors are players in a story that takes place in Washington, D.C.? And what will be the consequences of their actions?

Earlier today I reported that Walker Art Center’s Olga Viso has decided to screen the video “Fire in my Belly” at the Walker starting tomorrow. This after the same video was pulled from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Last week the MIA’s Kaywin Feldman, who is also head of the Association of Art Museum Directors, released a statement on behalf of close to 200 museum directors criticizing the actions of the Smithsonian.

A deeper look at the controversy, and their reactions, reveals more than just protest.

Kaywin Feldman, as head of the AAMD, had an obligation to speak to this incident, in part because it sets a scary precedent: namely, museum administrators caving to the opinions of politicians. In her statement she pointed to the particularly disturbing fact that those protesting the work of art had, for the most part, not even seen it.

Olga Viso, on the other hand, is joining in with several other museums across the country to show the video by artist David Wojnarowicz (now deceased). As the head of a contemporary art museum, Viso must regularly support work that is controversial. The former director of a Smithsonian museum (the Hirshorn), Viso felt an obligation to see the show and comment on the incident on her blog (she has turned down requests for an interview).

But showing the video is by no means a controversial act. “Fire in my Belly” has been around for almost 25 years and can be found in numerous places on the web. That fact makes the Smithsonian’s action seem all the more questionable… and it makes the Walker screenings seem more like a bid for foot traffic than a genuine act of solidarity.

At this time what is needed is not another screening but a forum for an intelligent conversation, in which those who are offended by the work and those who are passionate in its defense can come to mutual understanding.