This February, exhibiting photographer Patricia Ridenour took her photographs down from the walls of the Benham Gallery when, at the opening, she found her work removed from the front gallery to the back room. The work in question (Ridenour’s sixth show in 12 years at Benham, and decidedly not the first to depict nudity) was a series of black-and-white photographs that seeks to break down the thin barriers dividing art, advertising, and pornography. (To see one of the works, click here). By appropriating the recognizable formats of famous paintings such as Edouard Manet’s Olympia and inserting male models as subjects, Ridenour pointedly employs the shock value of male nudity to problematize our “conditioned acceptance of the objectification of the female body.” Ridenour saw blatant censorship behind the gallery’s decision.

Marita Holdaway, owner of the Benham Gallery, is known as a risk taker. She’s shown more daring work than this (that of another gallery artist, Paul Dahlquist, often depicts men with erect penises.) But during the first two weeks of Ridenour’s show (the reception took place midway through the run), she had observed visitors as they stepped in off the street and encountered the photos. She considered the gallery’s location—at 1216 First, it’s across from the Lusty Lady and a few doors up from a couple of pawn shops—and realized people might think they’d stumbled into an unsavory establishment, not a gallery at all.

The work was subsequently shown at Darbury Stenderu in Seattle.

(based on Anna Fahey’s article for the Seattle Weekly)

NCAC’s position:

The relationship between private gallery owners/curators and artists can sometimes get tense with disagreement over decisions of where to place the work, what work should be given emphasis, etc. We have come across gallery spaces that refuse to display images ranging from nudes to work critical of environmental damage. Given that these spaces are private they can display whatever they like. Contrary to the situation in government-supported spaces, the artist whose work is suppressed by a private gallery cannot legally assert a First Amendment right to free expression. However, there are other factors a gallery needs to consider: among them its public image and reputation, as well as its relationship with the rest of the artists it represents.

When deciding on the way to display work, a commercial gallery has a number of factors to consider. In the case of the Benham gallery, there seems to have been a conflict between Ms. Ridenour’s desire to have her provocative work displayed in the front room and the interest of the other artists in the show to have their work seen. That conflict only became obvious in the first weeks of the show when visitors to the gallery would not proceed to the other rooms after seeing the display in the front room. Ms. Holdaway then made a curatorial decision to move the work.

Is moving a work to a different position equal to censoring it or do we only talk of censorship when a work has been entirely removed? The answer has to take into account the reason a work has been moved and the location to which it was moved. If a work is moved solely because of its content or the viewpoint it expresses to a location where access to it is limited, we do have a suggestion of censorship. Of course, the complete removal of a work—as in the case in Abilene, TX, where one of Ms. Ridenour’s photographs was entirely excluded from the show—is a more egregious act.

Even though content does appear to have played some role in the removal of Ms. Ridenour’s work to the back room of the gallery, that seems to have been done not so much to suppress what Ms. Ridenour had to say but to encourage visitors to view the work of the other artists. Ms. Ridenour’s work remained easily accessible to gallery visitors. However, there appears to have been a degree of misunderstanding as to the intended effect of the work. Ms. Ridenour sought to blur the lines between art, advertising, and pornography, hence the display of the work in the front gallery was crucial to its impact. The ambiguity Ms. Ridenour sought inevitably led to the confusion of visitors as to whether they were in a gallery or at an “unsavory establishment,” a confusion that prompted Ms. Holdaway to move the work (as reported by the Seattle Weekly).

It is unfortunate that a series of miscommunications—about the effect Ms. Ridenour was hoping for and the effect Ms. Holdaway expected, as well as the failure to contact Ms. Ridenour to inform her of the decision to move her work led to such a conflict between a gallery well known for the risks it is willing to take and a highly-regarded artist whose work Benham Gallery obviously values.

Because the circumstances can be viewed in a favorable light to each side, it would be particularly regrettable if this incident caused a schism among those who otherwise are united in their support for the arts and freedom of expression. We urge both sides to seek ways to acknowledge each other’s concerns and mend this rift so they can get back to doing their important work.