Recently we witnessed riots and worse across the Islamic world in response to a film clip on the Internet that disparaged the Prophet Mohammed. To Western eyes, with our deeply held beliefs in and protections of freedom of expression, the reaction seemed out of proportion to the insult. Images are powerful things, eliciting deep emotions from viewers. American museums for some time now have dealt with controversies arising from powerful images creating visceral responses.
I was director of the Museum of New Mexico in February 2001, when one of the museums in our system in Santa Fe, the Museum of International Folk Art, opened the exhibition Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology. The exhibition presented computer inspired art that combined “folk” elements with state of the art technology to create a new aesthetic for the 21 century. In the words of exhibition curator, Tey Marianna Nunn, herself a native Hispanic New Mexican with a Ph.D. in Latin American art history from the University of New Mexico: “The central purpose of Cyber Arte is to exhibit the work of the featured artists and to showcase the manner in which they translate and recast their deeply-rooted cultural beliefs, images and history by utilizing computers to create a new type of visual art.”
Over two years in planning, the exhibition featured the work of four Latina artists, including Alma López, from California. Among the dozen or so images by Alma López in Cyber Arte was the computer generated collage Our Lady, an image that arose from the artist’s deep personal feelings. Born in Mexico and living in Los Angeles, the artist is both Hispanic and Catholic. She grew up with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and both traditional images of the Virgin and symbols derived from the image appear in her art. Inspiration for Our Lady arose from an essay in which the author pondered what the saints wore underneath their outer garments. The idea intrigued López, who imagined the Virgin draped in garlands of roses, symbolic of one of the original miracles of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when she revealed herself to the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531, and bestowed upon him a cloak of roses, out of season, to convince the Bishop of Mexico that her appearance was indeed a miracle. López’ image, as portrayed by performance artist Raquel Salinas, is a Virgin with attitude. Not the demure, unassertive, head bowed Virgin of the traditional image, López’ Virgin is a head-up, chin-out, hands-on-hips assertion of the power of women and womanhood. Otherwise unclothed, garlands of roses cover her breasts and hips, and a cloak of Aztec symbols surrounds her. The angel that traditionally upholds the image from below is here replaced with a bare breasted female image as symbol of the nurturing qualities of women and mothers.
Origins of the Our Lady Controversy
No one was prepared for what happened next. Two Santa Fe activists, Deacon Anthony Trujillo of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish and Jose Villegas Sr., a self-styled “barrio warrior,” visited Museum of International Folk Art director Dr. Joyce Ice during the week of March 12 to request that the museum remove Our Lady from exhibition on the grounds that it is blasphemous and disrespectful of traditional images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and to the Catholic Church. On March 17, the Albuquerque Journal reported the story, describing the “Virgin of Guadalupe in a floral bikini, held aloft by a bare-breasted saint.” This inaccurate quip contributed greatly to firing the flames of the controversy. Thereafter, print and broadcast media referred to Our Lady as “the bikini-clad Virgin.”
On March 23, Villegas, Trujillo and 11 other protestors met, at their request, with New Mexico Officer of Cultural Affairs, Edson Way, Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer Linda Hutchison, Director of the Museum of International Folk Art Joyce Ice and me as Director of the Museum of New Mexico. While the television cameras rolled outside, the group presented a manifesto that demanded: removal of Our Lady from Cyber Arte; resignations of directors Wilson and Ice; return of Catholic sacred images in Museum of New Mexico collections to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, return to the public of any revenues generated by the exhibition; and an apology. Thus was initiated a highly charged and very public controversy that pitted the fundamental rights of freedom of expression against the demands of religious groups to dictate what may be displayed in a public museum.
Early Crisis Management and Decision Making: The First 24 Hours
The events that immediately followed this meeting that Friday were crucial to the museum’s decision to support the right of Alma López to have her artwork remain on display, the right of the museum to show it, and the right of the public to see it. Immediately after the meeting with the protestors, I convened a meeting of the senior staff of the Museum of New Mexico, including the directors of the four constituent museums and the department heads of all other divisions—about 15 leaders in all. To a person, the senior staff attending the meeting recommended leaving Our Lady on display. This support was critical in bolstering the decision not to remove the artwork.
Also important was a call that morning to Republican Governor Gary Johnson’s chief of staff, Lou Gallegos. Gallegos noted the high sensitivity to such issues in Santa Fe, observed that the museum would have its critics and defenders, and advised that museums, like universities, must enjoy learning without inhibition. He recommended getting the 7-member Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents involved to support the museum. This support from the governor’s office was extremely important in the earliest hours of decision making under increasingly very heavy pressure to remove Our Lady.
The Crisis Escalates
As a constant barrage of news coverage elevated the level of the controversy and spread it throughout New Mexico and beyond, events over the next two weeks moved very quickly and involved some of the major institutions in the state.
On March 26, the Archbishop of Santa Fe put out a press release stating a position that was to have serious consequences inhibiting the museum’s ability to negotiate a solution to the crisis. Calling the image “repulsive” and the exhibition of it “insensitive” and “imprudent,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan stated that “To depict the Virgin Mary in a floral bikini held aloft by a bare breasted angel is to be insulting, even sacrilegious, to the many thousands of New Mexicans who have deep religious devotion to Guadalupe.”
He continued, sounding themes that would recur over the course of the controversy, that “[s]uch a picture has no place in a tax supported public museum.” He doubted “that the Jewish community would be patient with such a mistreatment of symbols sacred to their faith,” and wished that “those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash and leave the Catholic ones alone.”
On the next day, March 27, nine members of the New Mexico Legislature, Democrats all, including the Speaker of the House and some of the most powerful figures in the legislature, wrote to Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents President Wood “Mike” Arnold, citing “the “outrageous desecration of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe” and noting the “flagrant disrespect and degradation of one of the most respected, beloved and admired saints.”
On March 30, the museum received ringing support from the American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the American Civil Liberties Union, the first of many national organizations to weigh in on the controversy. The ACLU wrote to support, “without condition, the original decision of museum staff to present Ms. Lopez’ artwork,” further stating “our strong conviction that, as a public institution, the museum not only has the right, but the civic obligation to promote free expression, regardless of whether artwork is provocative or controversial.” A week later, the ACLU was more blunt, threatening a First Amendment lawsuit against the Museum of New Mexico if the regents voted to remove the artwork.
On the same day, the Association of Art Museum Directors supported “the principles of free expression and tolerance that are the underpinnings of our democracy…. We encourage those who oppose this issue to exercise their Constitutional right to peaceably and freely express their own opinions and to choose not to view works of art that may offend them. However, actions against the Museum of International Folk Art and the Museums of New Mexico by censorship or withdrawal of public funding are a breach of the Constitutional rights guaranteed to all American public institutions and individuals and are consistent with our democratic values.” These were some of the first statements from national organizations commenting on both sides of the issue, from many university departments to the Catholic League.
Meanwhile, the war in the press increased. On March 28, I defended the museum’s decision in both the Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican: “We do not think one group of New Mexicans should be able to dictate to another group what they should be thinking, what they should be reading and what they should be seeing. And it is not fulfilling the mission of the museum as an educational institution to censor works of art.”
The Governor of New Mexico could no longer remain above the fray. In a news conference on April 7, Governor Gary Johnson defended the museum’s right to display Our Lady without censorship. Arguing that Our Lady did not violate community standards of obscenity, and that therefore the artwork should remain on exhibit, Governor Johnson noted that those who objected to the piece did not have to go see it. He further questioned what business the state would have running art museums if officials were willing to give in to those who call for censorship of works on display. The governor’s support of the museum position—and his statement fairly directly told the regents, whom he had appointed, specifically where he stood—provided a welcome counterweight in state government to the letter from the legislature.
The museum received hundreds of letters expressing and exploring all aspects of the controversy, sometimes quite passionately, eloquently and thoughtfully. People in communities across New Mexico debated the issues. The New York Times and BBC covered the story. The museum received over 60,000 postcards from a national Catholic publication calling for the removal of the image from the exhibition. There were also darker sides. Museum of International Folk Art Director Joyce Ice received a letter so vile that I considered it a threat and brought in the F.B.I. A caller from Ohio left a message asking what swamp I had crawled out from and promising to beat me. Someone threatened to burn down the artist Alma López’ home.
Public Protests & Dialogues
The Museum of New Mexico planned a meeting on April 4 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture for the public to discuss all points of view of the controversy. On the day of the meeting the regents convened and the meeting began with about 250 persons in the building. Unfortunately, more than that also arrived outside wanting to attend, but the fire marshal stopped the overflow crowd from entering. The situation, controlled by a hefty presence of New Mexico State Police, was volatile enough that board president Mike Arnold cancelled the meeting soon after it began, with the promise that the regents would hold another meeting as soon as possible in a venue large enough to accommodate all members of the public.
The result of this fiasco was increased bad feeling among those members of the public who wanted a quick decision to take down Our Lady, and mistrust of museum officials, whom they saw as purposefully orchestrating the situation for their advantage.
The museum and the city scheduled the next meeting for April 16 in the Sweeny Center, Santa Fe’s convention center and the largest forum for assemblies in the city. Plans called for an open mike in the largest meeting space, which could hold about a thousand persons. Simultaneously, facilitators ran up to eight round table discussions, and the forum provided facilities so that visitors could record their opinions upon paper taped to the walls.
Security was tight for the approximately 700 persons who attended. I asked the audience “to remember that we are all New Mexicans, and to treat each other, and the variety of opinions that we are about to express, with the mutual respect for the ideas of others that is the bedrock of our American, and New Mexican, democracy.” Of the speakers at the open mike, which ran non-stop from about 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., probably about 70% were in favor of removing Our Lady. Many expressed sincere hurt at having the work on public display, and there was display of devotion in many of the speakers. Many of those supporting the museum made arguments regarding freedom of speech and the freedom not to view the image if one found it offensive.
Although formally convened as a regents meeting, the board made no decision regarding Our Lady that day, because by then the Attorney General of New Mexico had set out a process to make decisions concerning Our Lady.
The Decision Making Process
From the beginning it was unclear who had authority to make final decisions regarding Our Lady. If it were an operational issue, perhaps I had authority as director of the Museum of New Mexico; if it were a policy issue, perhaps the regents had authority. On April 6, the attorney general’s office provided clarification. Citing New Mexico statutes and Museum of New Mexico collections policy, the attorney general recognized the policy making power of the board of regents, including authority over exhibitions, but not before staff of the Museum of New Mexico completed an internal process of review and decision making.
The attorney general determined that under the policy, Our Lady was a “culturally sensitive object,” and therefore fell under the purview of the museum’s committee on sensitive materials. The committee, as the attorney general interpreted the policy, must work with “concerned parties” and make a recommendation to me as director of the museum. I had to issue a written response within 30 days to any appeal of my decision. One could further appeal my decision to the board of regents, whose decision would be final.
The Committee on Sensitive Materials Recommendations
After intensive month long fact-finding and deliberations, the committee issued its findings and recommendations on May 21. Stating nine findings, the committee recommended “that all the artwork in the Cyber Arte exhibition remain on public view for the duration of the exhibition.” By this time, the Museum of International Folk Art had already taken a number of steps to ameliorate the controversy, and was prepared to take more. Those steps already taken included: the panel discussion on opening day featuring the four artists; a bilingual warning label at the entrance to the exhibition; a comment book for all visitors to sign; statements from the museum director Ice, curator Nunn, and artist López; and invited a member of the Catholic clergy to write a statement concerning the Virgin of Guadalupe (declined).
In addition, the Museum of International Folk Art, “in a spirit of reconciliation,” offered to close the exhibition on October 28, its original closing date but four months earlier than the date finally scheduled. At the regents meeting on September 20, the attorney general made clear to the board that, because a fundamental constitutional right under the First Amendment was involved, a knowing abridgement of the artist’s right to free speech would expose the museum and the regents personally to considerable liability. Accordingly, the regents took no action, and Our Lady came down with the rest of the Cyber Arte exhibition on October 28, 2001.
Villegas and Trujillo were not willing to await this course of events to transpire. Frustrated by the administrative process, after a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests, they took the museum to district court, arguing the committee on sensitive materials violated New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act. The judge ruled that even if the museum violated the Open Meetings Act, the relief sought—removal of Our Lady from display—was not appropriate, and therefore denied relief.
Issues Arising from the Our Lady Controversy
The Our Lady controversy arose initially over a single issue: whether an image that a portion, perhaps a majority, in the local Catholic community found objectionable should be removed from a state museum. The issue aroused such passion on all sides because it represented a clash of deeply held beliefs—freedom of speech as guaranteed by our constitutional democracy, with its implications of tolerance and respect for the views of others, versus the idea that an image found offensive, blasphemous or sacrilegious by some should be removed from a public museum out of respect for those beliefs.
Very soon, however, the controversy expanded to include some of the major social issues in northern New Mexico: elites/outsiders versus locals/insiders; economic disparities between groups; the roles of women in society in general and within traditional patriarchal Hispanic northern New Mexico society in particular; loss of control of cultural heritage; Anglos versus Latinos and Catholics versus others; the roles of artists in society; the roles of museums in society; the role of art in cultural change; and the responsibilities of museums funded by public money. Some of these are deep cleavages in northern New Mexico society and far beyond the capacity of the Museum of New Mexico to resolve.
The Power of Images
Over the last few decades, a number of museum exhibitions exploded into controversies of national significance, often with implications far beyond the institutions and interest groups immediately involved. The furor surrounding an exhibition of the photographs of the artist Robert Mapplethorpe led to its controversial cancellation at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1989), an impassioned debate about public funding of the arts and a host of other issues, and ultimately a criminal indictment and trial of a museum director.
At the Smithsonian Institution, there was a huge national controversy regarding whether and how the story of the Enola Gay, the B-25 that carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, would be told (1994-95). A colossal argument developed over the historiography of the war in the Pacific and the role of a national museum in presenting the complexities of that story. The exhibition was cancelled and the director of the National Air and Space Museum lost his job. At the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, the Sensation exhibition contained an image of the Virgin in which the African artist Chris Ofili used elephant dung in the mixed media painting. This led to a confrontation between the museum and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the First Amendment rights of the museum to display the painting versus the city’s right to penalize the museum for doing so. The First Amendment triumphed.
Controversies in museums are not going away. We now know some of the things that are most likely to cause controversy, some of the themes involved, and how such controversies are likely to unfold. Perceived denigration of religious symbols can lead to crisis, such as the Brooklyn Museum example, Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ, or in the case involving Our Lady. In 2010, a huge controversy arose when the National Portrait Gallery, under massive pressure from conservatives in congress and elsewhere, removed a video, depicting ants crawling over a crucifix, from the exhibition Hide/Seek, which explored sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. The recent furor in the Islamic world over the Internet video unflatteringly depicting the Prophet Mohammed falls into this category.
Powerful patriotic symbols also may evoke impassioned responses, such as the Enola Gay case, or the use of American flags—on the floor in the case of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1989) or on the floor and in the toilet at the Phoenix Art Museum (1996). Artistic treatment of political issues can cause a furor, such as the exhibition of Nazi-inspired art at the Jewish Museum (2002), or the painting of Mayor Washington in drag, again in Chicago (1988). Sexual images that offend are another, such as Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs.
In the contested terrain of ideas and images, museums are sometimes likely to be controversial if they are doing their jobs as forums for the presentation and discussion of issues. Controversies will erupt over powerful images. Leaders of institutions in controversy cannot fear for their jobs, this inhibits freedom of action. A cool head as the controversy breaks is essential. Leaders need good legal and public relations advice. They should educate policy-making boards about the potential for controversy before it happens, and develop a plan of action. Assemble allies and keep them engaged, they will be some of your most effective spokespersons and supporters. Work with community groups, as the Museum of New Mexico did before and after Our Lady, this will reduce the chance of surprises and give you support if necessary. Combat self-censorship. One of our greatest fears, unrealized I hope, as a result of the Our Lady experience, was that our curators and directors would doubt their own judgments.
Artists push boundaries: that is what they do. They show us new ways to think about the world. Occasionally this is unsettling. America was founded upon the principle of free expression of ideas, no accident that the concept is enshrined in the First Amendment. Sometimes we pay the price in discomfort and more for our precious right to express ourselves freely.
Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council, and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History