When the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition opened at the Contemporary Arts Center on April 7, 1990, Charles Desmarais was director of the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif. He says that, because of national coverage of the Mapplethorpe controversy here and Sen. Jesse Helms' stepped-up campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts, the year was difficult for museum leaders everywhere.
When he was offered the position of CAC director in 1995, Desmarais says he took time to reflect on the events surrounding the Mapplethorpe controversy. Despite Dennis Barrie being indicted and tried for obscenity, Desmarais says that the events of 1990 proved the CAC was where he wanted to be.
The Mapplethorpe experience did effect my decision to come here, he says. The center's board had upheld the principles that contemporary art museums are founded on. What more could a museum director hope for?
Some Cincinnatians, particularly those who were involved in protesting the city's prosecution of the CAC and Barrie, feel the Contemporary Arts Center should be doing something to officially recognize the exhibition's 10th anniversary. Some of the same people, and others, feel the CAC, bloodied by its Mapplethorpe experience, has softened its approach to presenting controversial art.
Desmarais disagrees with both assertions and offers his take on how the events of 1990 resonate with him, the CAC and its staff today.
Ten years after the Mapplethorpe exhibit, does the controversy surrounding it and the subsequent trial resonate at the CAC on a day-to-day basis? Does it affect your exhibition choices? Does it affect the Center's fund-raising or marketing efforts? If yes, how? If no, why not?
I know that the exhibition and the trial mean a great deal to many people but, perhaps because I wasn't here during all the fuss, it really doesn't mean the same thing to me.
I see the world differently. I don't wake up thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe or his photographs. The CAC curatorial staff never discusses exhibitions in the context of the show or the trial. It has never crossed my mind to worry about being arrested for the art we select.
In part, I suppose, I am able to do that because the legal protections for artistic expression were re-affirmed by the CAC's stand in 1990 -- by the community's support for those protections. In any case, the Hamilton County Sheriff is, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to our artistic decisions. The law keeps him out of the discussion.
During my tenure as director, the CAC has shown many works of art that created controversy in other cities or that had the potential to create controversy here. We reserve our right to do the same in the future. Having said that, I would also argue that it's completely appropriate, when planning programs and exhibitions, to take into consideration the needs, tastes and mores of our audience. Whoever said that all potentially controversial works must be shown, or that art museums must show only controversial works? We make curatorial decisions based on what we judge to be of value to our community; some programs are addressed to adult audiences, some to children, some to art-sophisticated specialists and some to people new to the challenges of contemporary art.
As for fund-raising and marketing, we do, of course, try to match exhibitions to appropriate sponsors, and we try to market programs appropriately. Some sponsors prefer to back the edgier projects, some choose family-oriented ones. And we wouldn't think of marketing, say, a show by Kara Walker or Sally Mann -- who have done some pretty tough work and who raise issues that would challenge any thinking adult -- in the same way we promoted the participatory art for children and families we commissioned from Allan Wexler.
On a national level, is the CAC still known as the museum that stood up to censorship over Mapplethorpe? If yes, is that impression positive, negative or a little of both for you?
It's entirely a positive impression, because the people who visit and support museums want to know they are dealing with an institution where free expression is valued.
But I'm not sure that the CAC deserves all the credit for standing up. I have never seen the trial as a case of one museum against a conservative city. Instead, I see it as a city that had an internal conversation about artistic freedom and that came to what I consider the proper resolution. It's not important to me that Cincinnati is the place where a museum was criminally prosecuted for the art it exhibited -- that could have happened anywhere, as we learned from events in New York a few months ago. What's important is that Cincinnati is the place where a jury of ordinary people unequivocally upheld the rights of artists, of museums, of audiences to make and show and see works of artistic merit without legal constraint.
You have to ask yourself: If giving to the arts nationwide has been shrinking each year since 1992 (which is the case), why is the Contemporary Arts Center growing by leaps and bounds? It's because people in our city care about the CAC and about its programs and its philosophy. That sounds like a pretty progressive community to me.
The CAC isn't planning an official recognition of the 10th anniversary of the Mapplethorpe exhibit. Why not?
There are a lot of things we aren't doing. I prefer to focus on what we are contributing to our city and to the field of contemporary art. I choose to focus on the future, not on something that happened 10 years ago.
I wrote a Director's Message in the CAC newsletter; I'm doing this interview. I wrote a strong defense of the Brooklyn Museum a few months ago. What more should we do? We don't celebrate anniversaries of other exhibitions -- a lot of them more important in an art historical sense -- presented at the CAC over the last 60 years.
Someone said we've been accused of being chicken. Why should I care about that? I'm not aware of any substantial constituency, or anyone with real credibility in the field or in the community, clamoring for an anniversary celebration. To be in the public eye is to be subjected to criticism -- it comes with the territory. I'm proud of our program, proud of our past, proud of our artistic record.
Part and parcel with art is its history. So every exhibition is, in a sense, recognition of our past. There's nothing more for us to prove.