Editor’s note: a Blade review of the exhibit is here.
A gay Republican businessman from New York who led the fundraising campaign to underwrite the National Portrait Gallery’s gay exhibit “Hide/Seek” has added his voice to those calling on the gallery to reinstate a controversial video by the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz.
Donald Capoccia, a real estate developer who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve on the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and his partner, Tommie Pegues, sent a letter this week to the head of the Smithsonian Institution requesting that the video be “returned to the exhibition floor, without fail, and as soon as possible.”
The role of Capoccia and other gay donors who helped fund the exhibit has been overshadowed by a series of events beginning Dec. 1, when National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan removed the Wojnarowicz video from the exhibit.
Sullivan said he acted in response to complaints by the Catholic League and Republican members of Congress that an 11-second segment of the video, which showed ants crawling over a crucifix, was offensive and an anti-Christian slur.
“I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious,” Sullivan said in a statement. “In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the intention of the museum to offend. We have removed the video.”
News of Sullivan’s decision, which surfaced on World AIDS Day, prompted an outcry among gay and AIDS activists and leaders of the arts community, who denounced the action as a form of censorship.
Sullivan told the New York Times he was sympathetic to the activists and artists who decried the decision to pull the video. He said his decision, which he said had the support of the leaders of the Smithsonian Institution, was aimed at quelling a “distraction” from the overall exhibit, which features important works from leading gay and lesbian artists.
The National Portrait Gallery is an arm of the Smithsonian Institution, which, among other things, operates the federally funded museums in the nation’s capital.
Among those who criticized the video and the exhibit itself were Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who will become Speaker of the House in January, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who will become majority leader at the same time, when Republicans assume control of the House.
Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), whose district includes the Northern Virginia suburbs just outside D.C., said Boehner and Cantor along with other Republicans were exploiting an exhibit, in which just 11 seconds of a single video was offensive to some, for political gain.
Cantor said his concern was that the Smithsonian Institution, of which the National Portrait Gallery is a part, was using government funds to pay for an exhibit that was highly offensive to many Americans.
Cantor and other critics of the exhibit dismissed assertions by Smithsonian officials that private donors picked up the cost of the exhibit, saying taxpayer funds are used for the upkeep of the building and to pay the salaries of Portrait Gallery employees who operate the exhibit.
The National Portrait Gallery has called the exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the nation’s first major museum exhibition to “focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.”
LGBT activists involved in the arts have said the exhibit also shows how gay artists, through their varied works, have grappled with anti-gay bias and prejudice against different forms of gender expression over the past century.
Phillip Clark, chair of the board of D.C.’s Rainbow History Project, called David Wojnarowicz, a gay man who died of AIDS in 1992, an important figure in the LGBT arts community. Clark noted that Wojnarowicz used ants in his video and still photography works as a symbol for depicting human suffering and injustice.
“The image of the Christ figure attacked by ants in ‘A Fire in My Belly’ [the name of the Wojnarowicz video pulled from the exhibit], far from being sacrilegious, is actually a commentary on the destructiveness of society toward AIDS patients in the 1980s,” Clark said.
D.C. gay rights advocate Charles Francis, who recruited former President Gerald Ford to become a board member of a national gay GOP group, the Republican Unity Coalition, before Francis left the Republican Party in 2004, called on the LGBT community to remain supportive of the Smithsonian.
Francis, who joined Capoccia in contributing money to the Hide/Seek exhibit, said he disagrees with the decision by the Portrait Gallery to remove the Wojnarowicz video. But he said the gallery and the Smithsonian as a whole have been supportive of LGBT-related projects in recent years.
“The Smithsonian is doing a great job step by step in expanding and including LGBT Americans in the stories they tell, in the collections they show,” he said. “I think it’s time for the gay community to rally around the Smithsonian.”
PHOTO: “Self-Portrait — Robert Mapplethorpe,” a 1975 Polaroid print, one of the images in the Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Image courtesy of the Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, New York City.