Noted Canadian artist AA Bronson wants the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., to return a photograph of his that's been lent to an exhibition on gay and lesbian portraiture if the gallery fails to restore a video it pulled from the exhibition earlier this month.
Talks are underway between Mr. Bronson, famous as one of the three members of Toronto's pioneering conceptual art troupe General Idea, NPG director Martin Sullivan and the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa to resolve the dispute. The Canadian gallery owns Felix, June 5, 1994, a mural-sized photograph by Mr. Bronson that's included in "Hide/Seek," an ambitious survey of same-sex-themed art by Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, among many others, that the NPG opened in late October and runs through Feb. 13, 2011.
Mr. Bronson's request was prompted by a Dec. 7 announcement from the Smithsonian Institute, the NPG's parent organization, confirming its removal of a four-minute excerpt it was showing of A Fire in My Belly, a 13-minute video from 1987 by New York artist David Wojnarowicz who died of AIDS in 1992. Conservative organizations, most prominently the Catholic League, have deemed the work "anti-Christian," focusing most of their ire on an 11-second segment showing ants crawling over a bloodied crucifix.
The Smithsonian said it removed the video because it believed the imagery and "the way in which it was being interpreted by many" were "overshadowing the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition." Since its removal, the Smithsonian has been fiercely criticized for "censorship" and "gutlessness." This week both the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Smithsonian institutions, announced they would no longer provide such funds.
On Dec. 3, the Association of Art Museum Directors lashed the Smithsonian for caving in to "unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures."
In an e-mail sent Wednesday to the NPG's Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Bronson said the decision to pull the video was not something he could take "lightly" because "as an artist [he]saw first hand the tremendous agony and pain that so many of [his]generation lived through. ... To edit queer history in this way is hurtful and disrespectful." Felix, June 5, 1994 is a picture that Mr. Bronson took of his General Idea colleague Felix Partz shortly after Mr. Partz died of AIDS.
Earlier this week Mr. Bronson urged Canada's National Gallery to press the Smithsonian and the NPG for the return to Ottawa of Mr. Bronson's work. However, in an e-mail to Mr. Sullivan on Friday, National Gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer said he wouldn't be sending "a formal request ... to return the work from our collection. ... We will continue to honour our loan agreement with the [NPG]"
At the same time, Mr. Mayer asked Mr. Sullivan to "please consider [Mr. Bronson's]request to withdraw" as it is the director's understanding that "AA Bronson perceives the continued presence of his work in the exhibition makes him an accessory to censorship."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday, Mr. Mayer said he hoped, "informally, unofficially ... they do actually withdraw the work" of their own volition." "I do understand AA Bronson's position. I share his discouragement. I don't necessarily share his strategy." From an official professional and institutional standpoint, though, these are not "the circumstances that would make me wish to enact the kill clause we always have in these agreements. ... I don't want the free exchange of art between public institutions be politicized in this way."
Ideally Mr. Bronson would like to see all 13 minutes of A Fire in My Belly shown at the NPG. "If that means removing my work in order to make an appropriate space for the video, in its full from, I give my permission to do that," he said Friday. However, Bethany Bentley, a public affairs representative with the Smithsonian, indicated via e-mail Friday it's unlikely the full-length video would appear because "the space would not allow for a thoughtful contemplation of the entire length. (We don't have an area for people to sit and watch a video.)"
Ms. Bentley said the NPG expects to "resolve" Mr. Bronson's request early next week.