Honoring an Exhibition That Never Opened

Three decades after the infamous cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibition, the Corcoran tells the story of what happened.

June 14, 2019
 
Nick Hazelrigg
Display cases with documents from the "6.13.89" exhibition with an image from a protest in the background.

Thirty years ago, the Corcoran Art School and Gallery gained national attention when it canceled an exhibit of photographs, some sexually explicit, by Robert Mapplethorpe, amid political criticism over federal support for the show. Now, the gallery is hoping to confront one of the most controversial moments in its past with a new exhibition showcasing the history behind the cancellation.

The Corcoran became part of George Washington University in 2014. In the late 1980s, the Corcoran was at the center of the debate over freedom of expression in the arts when it planned to showcase the controversial works of Mapplethorpe, a photographer. The exhibition would never open -- instead the gallery bowed to political pressure and chose not to showcase the works.

This weekend the Corcoran will open “6.13.89: The Canceling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition,” displaying both internal and external documents related to the highly public controversy surrounding the original exhibition. Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran school, said showing this exhibition will be vital to helping the gallery confront a dark moment from its past.

“The Corcoran has obviously gone through a significant degree of change over the years,” Sethi said. “It’s been going through changes and challenges over time. There’s no way as an educational community … that we couldn’t mark what happened 30 years ago. We really had to. There’s no way we couldn’t have conceptually or philosophically continued without asking ourselves, ‘How far have we come?’”

The current exhibition moves chronologically through a group of documents that depicts the story of the Mapplethorpe cancellation. The exhibition begins with documents discussing plans to bring Mapplethorpe’s “Perfect Moment” exhibition to the Corcoran, and moves through press releases and advertising discussing the planned exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work. The documents were compiled after the Corcoran was incorporated into GWU five years ago and have not been publicly displayed before.

The exhibition then moves through the pressure that was exerted on the gallery regarding Mapplethorpe’s work, including a letter penned by members of the U.S. Congress condemning the exhibition and another artist's work.

"We, the undersigned Members of Congress, are outraged to discover two recent grants to 'artists' which lead us to question whether the National Endowment for the Arts is spending tax dollars in a responsible manner," the letter read.

Mapplethorpe’s “Perfect Moment” was particularly controversial because it was partially subsidized by the NEA. Mapplethorpe's art in the exhibit depicted the human form in a variety of ways, incorporating nudity, gay eroticism and images depicting sadomasochism.

Sethi said as he looks at cultural institutions today, he believes they have an obligation to protect freedom of expression -- regardless of NEA funding.

“I don’t think the NEA is funding too much in higher ed anymore,” Sethi said. “I think there’s the possible precipitation of another conversation of what it means to be American. Are we really for a dynamic, culturally accepting, norm-disrupting and culturally creative society, or are we for something more homogenous? That’s where I think all cultural institutions [are], regardless of whether they have NEA funding or not. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too -- you can’t assume someone else is going to push for those dialogues.”

Members of Congress spoke vehemently against the exhibition, and amid the pressure, gallery leadership made the decision to cancel the exhibition. In the center of the room in the 2019 exhibition is a case displaying the documentation surrounding the decision to cancel the exhibition created on June 13, 1989 -- giving the current exhibition its name. The document in the center is the press release announcing the cancellation of the exhibition and explaining the reasoning behind it. Sethi said the central location of these documents reflected what the exhibition is all about.

“This exhibition needed to be done internally by members of our community to be able to assess and understand what occurred,” Sethi said. “It’s important for us to look at through the lens of our students and the lens of our faculty.”

Several recent graduates of the Corcoran school worked to create the exhibition by analyzing the documents. One graduate, Maddy Henkin, said the documents give the exhibition the opportunity to tell several stories at once.

“What this exhibition is trying to highlight is various points of the story and individual narratives happening within this greater narrative,” Henkin said. “I think that’s the beauty of doing an archival show, because you can show so many aspects of a story.”

To the right of the central case in the exhibition is a group of cases showcasing the aftermath of the decision to cancel “Perfect Moment.” Press clippings, letters expressing displeasure and quotes from protesters are shown.

After the original cancellation, LGBT rights proponents and free expression activists protested at Corcoran, earning an apology from the Board of Trustees.

Sethi said due to the Corcoran’s commitment to artistic freedom of expression, the gallery needed to address and reflect on the Mapplethorpe incident.

“The Corcoran really has to be at the forefront of critical dialogues and conversations involving social critique,” Sethi said. “Other cultural institutions need to do the same, and they need to do a better job of it probably. We had to showcase this because we have this moment in time where we didn’t stand up for these issues, so it has to be a critical dialogue with us now.”

Though much has changed, Sethi said America is at the forefront of a new culture war, and to not reflect on the past will be disadvantageous to institutions like the Corcoran. Sethi said he hopes the exhibition will allow viewers to look back on the Corcoran’s past mistakes and help the Corcoran move forward as an institution.

“We need to do a better job of exhuming the ghosts of our past and talking about them, frankly.”

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