Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment
July 20 – August 13, 1989
Our artists and board members voted unanimously last night to take the show.
— Jock Reynolds, WPA Director, quoted in The New York Times, June 15, 1989
With this vote, WPA stepped squarely into an impassioned national debate about artistic freedom, public reception, and censorship. The controversy centered on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, who, as the Washington Post described, had “set out to chip away at the boundaries of…tolerable behavior—specifically by aestheticizing homosexual behavior with an interracial and, occasionally, a sadomasochistic twist.” A Mapplethorpe exhibition curated by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had received partial support from the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The show had been critically acclaimed in its Philadelphia and Chicago venues. Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art was next on the list.
In the meantime, Mapplethorpe’s images, along with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of 1987, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, were generating considerable public debate. On Capitol Hill, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) was attempting to limit taxpayer support for what he termed the “indecent” and “obscene” imagery of these and other artists by introducing a constitutional amendment to disavow the use of tax dollars for “offensive” projects. Countering these views were arts advocates and lawmakers, including Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and John Chafee (R-RI), who questioned whether “indecent” and “obscene” could ever be defined, and who were deeply concerned about the bill’s implications of censorship. Amidst this ever-worsening dispute, Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahall cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibition for fear of “adversely affect[ing] the NEA’s congressional appropriations.”
Orr-Cahall’s announcement created a firestorm of its own. Local artists banded together to form a National Committee Against Censorship in the Arts which circulated petitions in protest of the cancellation; artists and gay activists picketed outside the Corcoran while slides of Mapplethorpe’s photographs were projected on the museum’s façade in a 40-foot format; and artists and their supporters dropped their Corcoran memberships. Within two months, Orr-Cahall had issued a formal apology, and three months later she relinquished her position as the Corcoran’s director. On Capitol Hill, the most controversial and invasive aspects of the Helms amendment were struck down.
It was at the height of the Capitol Hill dispute that WPA stepped in to host, with the help of private donors, the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Tickets for the opening reception raised $125,000 for the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (Mapplethorpe died of AIDS just four months earlier at age 42). Attendance figures reached a record high of nearly 49,000, roughly 30 times the norm for the WPA, and visitor donations topped $40,000. The catalogue for the exhibition sold out. And there was surprisingly little protest. As Jo Ann Lewis of The Washington Post pointed out, the show was really quite tame. “The most shocking thing about the Robert Mapplethorpe…show,” she wrote, “is how good it is.” Indeed, as Philip Brookman, WPA director of programs, put it, “we wouldn’t normally show [Mapplethorpe’s] work. It’s too safe, too well known.”