No Sin in Cincinnati: A Conversation About Robert Mapplethorpe’s Legacy

I recently appeared on NPR’s 1A to discuss how two museums handled the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity controversy back in 1990. You can listen here.

The episode was produced by Jonquilyn Hill.

What happens when art catches the ire of a U.S. senator?

In the case of one of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibits, “The Perfect Moment,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., the consternation of Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina contributed to the cancellation of the exhibit.

Mapplethorpe’s work often involved homoerotic themes and occasionally contained sexually violent content.

His work challenged audiences around the country, especially because at the time, Mapplethorpe recently had passed away as a result of complications from AIDS.

When the show was planned at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), the museum’s staff knew it would be controversial.

But they weren’t quite prepared for what happened on the first day of the show.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

A little before noon on opening day, a grand jury issued four criminal indictments—two against the museum and two against [Dennis Barrie, the then-director of CAC] himself for pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor in nudity oriented materials. Seven of Mapplethorpe’s photos were deemed obscene—two portraits of children and five of explicit male sexual behavior. At about 2:30 p.m., some 20 law enforcement officials entered the museum and presented the CAC officials with the indictments, kicking out the visitors while they videotaped the exhibition to collect evidence.

Outside, hundreds of demonstrators gathered, carrying signs both for and against the display of the work.

The case went to a jury trial. After two hours of deliberation, the museum won.

And The Corcoran Gallery Of Art (now a part of George Washington University and called Corcoran School of the Arts and Design) is reflecting on their decision to cancel the show with a new show called “6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition.”

At a time when museums around the world are evaluating their curation practices — and their funding sources — the story of Mapplethorpe’s work remains relevant.

What can a 30-year-old controversy tell us about the First Amendment today?

Produced by Jonquilyn Hill.


Matthew Billy, Host, “Bleeped;” @MatthewBilly

Sanjit Sethi, Director, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design; @sanjitsethi

Janet Fries, Of counsel, Drinker Biddle & Reath; Vice President, Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts

In a 30-Year Wake-Up Call, Museums Learn They, Too, Aren't Exempt from Public Scrutiny

This article first appeared here on Grit Daily

On April 7th, 1990, dozens of Cincinnati police officers stormed into the Contemporary Arts Center and shut it down.

This was the opening day of The Perfect Moment, an exhibition of 175 photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Earlier that day, a grand jury indicted the Contemporary Arts Center and its director for pandering obscene photographs. 

Mapplethorpe had recently died from a tragic and long-fought battle with AIDS. To celebrate his life’s work, six museums organized a tour of The Perfect Moment. The exhibit featured a wide array of Mapplethorpe’s work including some of his photographs of homoerotic sadomasochism and portraits of nude black men. 


The controversy did not begin in Cincinnati. It started months earlier when a family values organization called the American Family Association noticed that the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts was funding museums displaying the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

The AFA felt it was wrong to feature S&M on museum walls, so they sent letters to every member of Congress asking them to do something. Jesse Helms, a senator from South Carolina and social values crusader, sided with the AFA and began attacking the Mapplethorpe exhibit in his speeches on the floor of the Senate. Once he found out the exhibition was coming to Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. — right in his backyard — he began attacking the museum. 


The Corcoran Gallery never expected The Perfect Moment to be controversial. Museums in other cities had exhibited the photographs without any fuss, so they were unprepared for Jesse Helm’s ire. The museum had a tough choice. Risk losing government funding or cave to the political pressure. They chose the ladder. 

The art world didn’t take the cancellation well. They staged a protest nearing one thousand people and projected a Mapplethorpe self-portrait on the gallery’s wall. The Corcoran’s corporate sponsors canceled their sponsorship, and the museum’s board of directors asked the director to resign. 

Six months after the Corcoran canceled the exhibition, the Contemporary Arts Center faced the same predicament and took the opposite path. They decided to stand up to the political pressure even if it meant suffering a police raid and lengthy court battle. The CAC won the trial by proving the Mapplethorpe photos were not obscene because they exhibited artistic merit. 


On the surface, it seems the Contemporary Arts Center made the right decision. They stood up for the first amendment and ended up victorious.  But the truth is more complicated than that. Both museums ended up losing most of their corporate sponsorship and, after the controversy had died down, both asked their directors to resign. In the end, the outcomes were almost identical.

After The Perfect Moment, museums all over the country realized that they weren’t going to be exempt from public scrutiny anymore. If they wanted to avoid controversy, losing sponsors, and expensive court cases, the only option was to avoid controversial exhibits entirely. Now, if museums are self-censoring out of fear, the public will never know what they’re not being shown. They’ll never get the chance to decide for themselves whether they should see an exhibit or not.

You can hear a full story about the police raid against the Contemporary Arts Center on the second episode of Bleeped, a podcast about censorship and the people who stand up to it.

Mar-a-Largo Neighbor Pits Eminent Domain Law Against City's Tax Base

This article first appeared here on Grit Daily

Despite being only eight miles from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Largo resort, Riviera Beach is the poorest city in Palm Beach County, Florida. Crime is high, incomes are comparatively low, and most buildings could use a fresh coat of paint.

But that doesn’t mean Riviera Beach doesn’t have its charm. Many families have lived there for generations. In the 19th century, immigrants from the Bahamas — called Conchs — recognized the potential of Riviera Beach’s pristine waterfront and settled in the area. They formed a small fishing village and used their knowledge of boat building to construct beautiful one-story houses designed to allow air to circulate during the hot summers. These houses are eponymously known as Conch houses — one of Florida’s few examples of vernacular architecture.

By the 1990s, the waterfront neighborhood had fallen into decay. Most outsiders considered Riviera Beach a dangerous place to live, but, to the residents, Riviera Beach was home. The city had the bones of a beautiful waterfront historic district and just needed some tender loving care to reach its potential. A few residents formed a local chapter of a non-profit group called Main Street America that began working alongside local small businesses to improve the downtown. Slowly, they made progress, but when they asked the city for permits to make large improvements, permits were not forthcoming. Riviera Beach had other plans.


In the early 2000s, the city designated the entire waterfront as “blighted” and announced plans to use eminent domain to seize all the houses — including the remaining Conch houses — and hand them over to private developers. In turn, the developers intended to build a marina for wealthy people’s yachts and luxury condominiums. Then-Mayor Michael Brown justified the eminent domain seizure as a way to “improve the city’s tax base.”


But 5,500 people lived in those homes, and they would not hand them over without a fight. They filed three separate lawsuits to try to stop the eminent domain, and in response, the city retaliated. In a closed-door City Council meeting, the council discussed hiring private investigators to tail outspoken residents and asking the police to give them a hard time. A transcriptionist documented this conversation, and the city later made it public.

Despite the retaliation, none of the residents backed down. Riviera Beach didn’t want to deal with three expensive lawsuits, so they canceled the redevelopment plan. The Conch houses were saved, at least for a little while.

A few of the private developers (who would have been the beneficiaries of the eminent domain seizures) didn’t scrap their plans entirely. They made offers to buy some of the houses at inflated prices, and many homeowners caved.

“It was like the dam broke and everybody sold within days,” says former resident Martha Babson. “The conch houses have all been ripped down.”

You can hear a full story about Riviera Beach’s redevelopment plan on the first episode of Bleeped, a podcast about censorship and the people who stand up to it.

China Censors CBS

This article originally appeared on O'Dwyer's PR News

Most viewers thought it was a joke. On the May 2 episode of CBS’ “The Good Fight,” the CEO of ChumHum — a fictional Google-like company — decided to build China a customized search engine called Praying Mantis. Much like Google’s real-life customized search engine, Project Dragonfly, Praying Mantis would allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Defending his decision to build the search engine, ChumHum’s CEO said, “It’s the Chinese market. You need to toe the line, or you get frozen out.” Then, the scene cut to a black screen with five words scrawled across it:


The message remained on the screen for almost nine seconds. Most people thought this was a humorous attempt to drive home the message from the previous scene, but it wasn’t. CBS actually censored its own show. That black screen replaced a short musical interlude of the type that “The Good Fight” frequently runs. This interlude was supposed to feature lyrics poking fun at things the Chinese government censors zero in on — images of Winnie the Pooh, because of the cartoon’s likeness to Xi Jinping, or the letter “N” because it might be a coded reference to the elimination of Presidential term limits.

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum reported that the nine-second placard was actually a compromise between CBS executives and the show’s co-creators, Robert and Michelle King. Initially, CBS executives approved the song’s lyrics, but two weeks before the segment aired, something spooked them, and they got cold feet. In response, the Kings threatened to quit, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and they compromised.

So what spooked CBS? Maybe they’re scared of being “frozen out” themselves. China has one of the largest and fastest growing streaming television audiences in the world. Plus, Chinese viewers love American television dramas.

But just because the people want it, doesn’t mean the Chinese government will let them have it. In the last five years, Chinese regulators have tightened their grip on streaming television and blacklisted shows featuring “excessive entertainment,” meaning too much violence, superstition, and scandal. Shows that criticize China can also wind up on the blacklist. “The Good Fight”’s predecessor, “The Good Wife,” was one of those and CBS probably doesn’t want to find themselves in that situation again.

However, CBS’ public statements explaining the censorship have nothing to do with the Chinese market. Instead, CBS executives are worried that when they visit China, the government may hold them accountable for producing critical television shows and retaliate.

For decades, China has combated critical speech by retaliating against the speaker, especially their own citizens. Now, as China invests more and more in international businesses, they’re finding it easier to retaliate against foreigners as well.

In 2018, Canadian authorities arrested the CFO of Huawei — one of China’s largest companies — for conspiring to defraud banks. China retaliated by arresting two Canadian men visiting China who had nothing to do with the Huawei incident.

It’s understandable that CBS executives visiting China might feel like they’re one poorly worded presidential tweet away from being locked up. Come to think of it; I was actually hoping to visit Bejing sometime next year. Maybe I shouldn’t…