When Ethical Codes Collide: Chicago Responds to the Smithsonian Controversy

Rachel Hewitt

Apparently John Boehner thinks that curatorial duties are part of the Speaker of the House job description. If that’s true, he’s off to a good start. Boehner and incoming House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor are demanding that the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian, which is federally funded) cancel “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desired in American Portraiture,” an exhibition of work with LGBT subject matter. The work that has drawn the majority of conservatives’ ire is Fire in My Belly, a video made in 1987 by David Wojnarowicz, which uses a variety of imagery to depict the agony of death by AIDS, and also according to a rep for Cantor, is “…an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” The basis for this assertion is an 11 second clip of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. The video has since been removed by the NPG with no plans to respond to Boehner’s demands to shut down the entire show.

Republicans are now demanding an investigation into the financials of the National Portrait Gallery. Should they decide that this investigation would be a far more appropriate use of tax dollars and go ahead with it, they would discover that while the NPG and Smithsonian are federal institutions, in the case of “Hide/Seek,” the exhibition was partly paid for by outside donors and sponsors (including the Andy Warhol Foundation), as are many major exhibitions.

Federal investigations aside, to whose code of ethics is the Smithsonian bound? Those of the Catholic Church, those of John Boehner himself, or is it the museum code of ethics set forth by the American Association of Museums, of which the National Portrait Gallery is an accredited member?

Well, the AAM expects that accredited institutions will develop an institutional code of ethics that is consistent with the AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums, but tailored to each museum’s needs. Both the AAM and The Smithsonian Institution Statement of Values and Code of Ethics describe the importance of the museum’s role as an entity held in the public trust. In this case of the Smithsonian, as a federally funded institution, The Board of Regents, which was established by Congress, acts as the governing authority. This is what The Smithsonian Institution Statement of Values and Code of Ethics says about the Board of Regents:

from "A Fire in My Belly"

“The Board of Regents was established by Congress to carry out the responsibilities of the United States as trustee of the Smithson trust. Given this unique and special status, the Smithsonian must be mindful that it is a public trust operating on behalf of the American public and the United States government to carry out its mission to increase and diffuse knowledge. As such, the Smithsonian will be guided by the principles of the federal sector in the conduct of its activities whenever appropriate and consistent with its mission and trust responsibilities. In all other cases, the Institution will follow the principles and best practices for fiduciary stewardship in the nonprofit sector.”

You can read more about specific members of the Board of Regents and how they are appointed here. Scarily enough, the Speaker of the House does have some influence in appointment of board members, but s/he cannot be a member, nor do the duties of that appointment include curatorial, directorial, or exhibitions planning responsibilities. Additionally there is an internal Ethics Advisory Board to provide the Board of Regents with advice on compliance with the institutional code of ethics.

So, yes, the Smithsonian and its museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, are federal institutions with federal responsibility. That being said, the following statement on exhibitions is also part of their institutional code of ethics.

“To carry out its mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, the Smithsonian engages in and supports a vast array of exhibitions and educational and public programs in science, art, history, and culture. The Smithsonian conducts these activities in accordance with professional standards and practices and ensures that accuracy and intellectual integrity are the foundation for all exhibitions and educational and public programs produced in its name or under its auspices. The Smithsonian retains control over and responsibility for the contents of its exhibitions and educational and public programs. We acknowledge and address diverse values, opinions, traditions, and concerns and ensure that our activities are open and widely accessible. Policies and practices to ensure compliance with these principles and consistency with professional standards and best practices are established, clearly articulated, disseminated, kept current, and consistently applied.”

The code of ethics also makes note that the Smithsonian values and promotes diversity in all of its activities, which would include exhibition subject matter.

The Smithsonian has made a statement expressing their firm stance in support of the exhibition, though one could argue (and many have) that the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video is inconsistent with that stance, and a cowardly move. In the wake of this controversy, there have been a variety of reactions, including the resignation of National Portrait Gallery Commissioner, James T. Bartlett. Numerous museums and galleries have protested the video’s removal, made statements against censorship, and have screened versions of the video themselves. If Boehner’s intent was that nobody see the video, his plan backfired in a big way. The YouTube video alone has nearly 80,000 views, in addition to the public screenings.

In Chicago, The Nightingale, home to the resurgence of the Dil Pickle Club, held a screening of the work on Saturday, December 11, at the top of every hour. Additionally:

The Eye & Ear Clinic screening series, in conjunction with The Student Union Galleries of the School of the Art Institute (SAIC 112 S. Michigan) will present the work at 4:45pm on Wed Dec 15. Artist-activist, and chair of the dept of Film, Video, New Media and Animation, Gregg Bordowitz will present this screening. Jonathan D. Katz, curator of “Hide/Seek,” will participate in a Skype chat at 4:45 p.m. The Student Union Galleries have been showing the video in their space as of December, 8th.

Keep your eyes and ears open for other screenings, or if you want to set up your own screening, the Estate of David Wojnarowicz can be contacted at PPOW Gallery, at info@ppowgallery.com

You can also check the video out on YouTube1 and Vimeo.

1 The YouTube video was flagged for content, so viewers must sign in and verify age to view it.

A Fire in My Belly from ppow_gallery on Vimeo.