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