It’s true that the Smithsonian’s Flashpoints and Faultlines forum was too late for Hide/Seek, but keeping the issues alive months after the exhibit closed may be the right timing for the future of this public institution.

It was no surprise that in his welcoming remarks Wayne Clough described himself as having no choice but to censor the artwork.  Less expected was when Richard Kurin, Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture, made his first direct public comments on the issue: during what was billed as a “Thanks and Going Forward” wrap-up, Kurin claimed the last word with a remark that the decision was a pragmatic and necessary.  Neither Clough nor Kurin elaborated on purported “regrets” over the censorship or articulated calculations of when removing one piece of artwork might or might not “save” a remaining exhibit.  Neither of these most powerful men in the room deigned to engage with otherwise worthy panels.

On the first day current and former Smithsonian curators provided more specific examples than I expected of incorporating challenging material into exhibits and efforts to anticipate objections, including a few summary removals of material by senior officials fearing controversy.  All of the curators on the program stated in answer to a question that they would not “personally” remove part of an exhibit in an effort to appease critics.  Mike Blasenstein was correct to point out from the audience that the panelists’ views were irrelevant to the Smithsonian’s actual decision and to challenge Clough to turn around from his front-row seat.  Clough answered that “we’re preaching to the choir in this group,” but that differing views must be considered.  This echoed his suggestions earlier this year that he is the adult in squabbles between “the art world” and its censors.  None of the curators on the panel, including Hide/Seek‘s co-curator Jonathan Katz, took an opportunity offered by the moderator to comment.  (Views of the public were examined in a detailed and candid visitor study of the show from the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis: “If substantial portions of visitors were offended by it, this did not show up in any obvious way in the study.”)

The Smithsonian initially planned pseudo-balance for the forum with the author of a Washington Times column that described Hide/Seek as “lewd, sado-masochistic porn displays.” Portraying public opinion as encompassing the crackpot views of a few individuals might have furthered an impression that Clough was caught in some reasonable “middle,” but a more relevant spectrum was represented on the forum’s second day–which Clough did not attend–by two former chairs of the National Endowment for the Arts and the president of the American Association of Museums.  They discussed the political art of compromise for publicly funded cultural institutions and had differing observations about whether two members of Congress would have and could have crippled the entire Smithsonian but for the removal in one day of “A Fire in My Belly.”

But while Clough offered no insight on how he would respond to complaints another time, he did hear his peers and subordinates once again talking back on curatorial integrity and free expression.  And at least as important is that they heard themselves doing it.   The biggest threat from Clough’s decision is to research and programming yet to reach the drawing board.  It is in the year or so following a censorship experience that an institution can become so chilled and warped that its minds gravitate toward less challenging projects without even the awareness of “self-censorship.”  Exhibits that were well under way before the assault on Hide/Seek and are scheduled to open this year include the history of AIDS and the life and work of Gertrude Stein.  By maintaining a spotlight on the effects of a heckler’s veto even after Hide/Seek closed and publicity faded, the Smithsonian showed (and possibly galvanized) a professional staff that, unlike its leader, is not ready to jump before getting pushed.

John Davis Malloy counsels Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts on First Amendment advocacy and served as Director of Legal Services from 2001 to 2006.  He chairs the Arts and Cultural Law Committee of the District of Columbia Bar