A Portrait of Controversy

A Portrait of Controversy

Homosexuality, Art Censorship, and the Smithsonian Institute in Crisis



This paper is a case study of a crisis of art and social values, of public perceptions of a controversial art exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institute for display at the National Portrait Gallery in October 2010. Initially, aspects of the exhibit’s focus on sexuality and gender initially offended certain conservative religious groups. To alleviate the crisis the Smithsonian chose to withdraw part of the exhibit. This backfired, however. By censoring the exhibit, the Smithsonian only created a bigger crisis by drawing the criticism of art censorship opponents and proponents of civil liberties. In responding to one set of stakeholder demands, the Smithsonian solved exacerbated its crisis. It was only through changing its method of crisis response to meet the separate demands of other social groups that the Smithsonian was able to resolve the crisis successfully and minimize damage to the public image of the organization.

Crisis communication has become an increasingly hot topic in communication studies in recent years. There is scant theoretical literature on crisis communication. The best example of a theoretical approach to crisis communication is W. T. Coombs (2009) argument that that the content of a company’s response to a crisis depends in part on the nature and severity of the crisis and in part on nature of the company’s relationship with its stakeholders (ie consumers, shareholders, investors, etc). Using this argument, W. T. Coombs (2009) developed a method for categorizing potential crises into several broad types and paired these with response strategies.  

After reviewing the life of this crisis, I will use Coombs’ findings to help me analyze how the crisis went from bad to worse and was ultimately successfully resolved by the Smithsonian.



On October 23, 2010, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery hosted its first major exhibition of gay art, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Featuring more than one hundred art pieces from 19th, 20th, and 21st century luminaries such as John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the provocative exhibit explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender, paying careful attention to gay/lesbian artists. “Hide/Seek” included a four-minute video, Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, which depicts ants crawling on a crucifix, symbolizing the suffering of AIDS victims. The artist himself died from the disease in 1992. (Trescott, J., 2010)

Daring to dream, co-curator Jonathan Katz told The Guardian, “If we’re a hit, then I think we’ll start seeing a different political atmosphere in American museums.” (Logan B., 2010)


The Crisis Takes Shape

The story would end here if things went as Katz had wished. Unfortunately – unsurprisingly – America’s first major gay art exhibit created a crisis of social values.

When certain Christian organizations found out about the video and the exhibit, they were deeply offended, not because the exhibit’s homosexual theme, but because of the video showed ants crawling upon and sullying a religious symbol. Protesters organized by groups such as the Catholic League began daily rallies outside the National Portrait Gallery. These rallies received the attention and attendance of key conservative politicians such as Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, senior Republican congressmen Eric Cantor and Jack Kingston, who called for a congressional review of the Smithsonian’s funding. (Trescott, J., 2010)

On December 1, under the prolonged pressure from the rallies, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough felt he could resolve the crisis by withdrawing Fire in My Belly from “Hide/Seek.” (Trescott, J., 2010) While generally appeasing conservative protesters, this decision outraged the art community, artists, and proponents of freedom of speech and sparked even larger protests against art censorship. On December 5, two activists stood inside the Portrait Gallery and showed the withdrawn video on an iPad. For this display, they were detained by police and banned from the gallery for 12 months. (Trescott, J., 2010) On December 9, James T. Bartlett resigned as the Portrait Gallery’s commissioner in protest of the art removal. (Green, T., 2010)

Artists and the art community perceived that in pulling the video, a prestigious, national art institution, the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian, were acquiescing to censors and giving ground on an issue many artists and purveyors of freedom of expression had fought hard to gain. Art censorship opponents parked a trailer outside of the National Portrait Gallery for weeks made to look like a prison with bars across its windows and featuring a sign reading “Museum of Censored Art – showing the art that the Smithsonian won’t”. (Ulaby, N., 2011) Inside the trailer Fire in My Belly played in a continuous loop. The Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian were losing credibility in the art community.


(Photo: Erin Schwartz, NPR)

            The action of the protesters also overwhelmingly attracted negative media attention. The Washington Post published over 30 articles covering the protests, including the commentary entitled After removing video from ‘Hide/Seek,’ Smithsonian chief should remove himself. (Kennicott, P., 2011) The Huffington Post published an article by Cat Weaver titled Shame upon Shame: The National Portrait Gallery Is Pummeled by Protest. (Weaver, C., 2010) National and international press outlets, such as NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Guardian, NBC News and many more, all released high profile reports covering the crisis. (Trescott, J.,  2010) Even Steven Colbert commented sharply on the incident. (Trescott, J.,  2010)

            How could the Smithsonian resolve its crisis, regain its credibility in the art world and reform its badly damaged public image?



To resolve the larger crisis over art censorship, the Smithsonian began producing a confluence of crisis response efforts. First, the secretary Wayne Clough took full responsibility and attempted to explain his actions by separating the crisis from its larger context of art censorship and dissociating the Smithsonian institute from his individual decision to withdraw the video. “I had to respond quickly,” he said. The reaction from Capitol Hill came so fast and strong. Congress funds 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget. He acted alone in what he thought was the institution’s best interests at the time. (Trescott, J., 2010)

Second, on December 6, the Smithsonian released statement “Smithsonian Stands Firmly Behind “Hide/Seek” Exhibition,” clarifying its standing point.

“We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition…. ‘Hide/Seek’ is scheduled to continue as planned until Feb. 13…. Acknowledging that some visitors may prefer not to encounter some of the subject matter in the exhibit, the museum installed signs at both entrances, reading ‘This exhibition contains mature themes’.” (Smithsonian, 2010)

Third, the Smithsonian stayed in communication with the public. After its initial statement, a series of other press releases addressing various issues around the crisis were released to the public, including a Q&A, a statement from the Smithsonian Secretary W. Clough, an announcement of the Gallery keeping one of the art works from the exhibition, and an announcement of the formation of the advisory panel for future exhibitions. The Smithsonian also hosted a series of forums and events to allow the public to voice its opinions on museum curation and censorship and a comment book was placed in the Portrait Gallery where people could register their opinions freely. (Trescott, J., 2010)  In April, the Gallery hosted a public forum named “Flashpoints and Fault Lines: Museum Curation and Controversy”, discussing the lessons they had learned from the crisis.

After the official statement “Smithsonian Stands Firmly Behind “Hide/Seek” Exhibition” released on December 6, the Portrait Gallery experienced months of protests and unexpectedly large crowds. From December to February, the Gallery’s visitor count went up 75% compared to the previous year. Fire in My Belly has been viewed online more than a million times. (Ulaby, N., 2011) The show continued until Feb 13 as planned. A few months later, the controversy faded away.

During 2011, “Hide/Seek” traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum. The controversy at the Portrait Gallery made it one of the country’s most popular art exhibits. (Kinnecott, P., 2011)


Analysis: First Crisis Response: Out of the Pan into the Fire

            In attempting to appease the first protesters’ demands and resolve the initial crisis, the Smithsonian made three colossal blunders. First, it neglected the keystone in the foundation of its legitimacy. The Smithsonian’s Secretary apparently forgot Rule Number One by which all museums live by: all art is worthy of exhibition and should never be censored. “Pulling art work is a huge no-no in the art community. You just don’t do it!” Allison Peck, the Head of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Smithsonian’s Freer│Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, told me in a 2013 interview.

            Second, the Smithsonian also ignored its relationships with other groups of stakeholders besides Congress and conservatives. This is a key tenet of crisis communication The Smithsonian has a vast consumer base with multiple groups of stakeholders having many different needs met by the works on display in the Smithsonian’s museums. The Smithsonian’s crisis, which involved multiple stakeholders having specific, unique communicative demands, required the museum “to produce a number of different communicative responses designed to address each demand.” (Coombs 2009, pg 177) The institution failed to recognize that its response to conservative opponents of the Wojnarowicz video would affect the interests of more of its stakeholders than simply the conservatives.

            Third, the institution’s initial crisis response was hardly a communication campaign at all. There was no effort to explain its decision to remove the work or to inform its stakeholders of anything but the withdrawal of the video. It also lead to gossip, hearsay, and ultimately conflation of the director’s decision, which apparently was entirely based on financial constraints, with a larger order issue of art censorship. In an information vacuum, stakeholders were left many scratching their heads and speculating as to why a bastion of American arts would censor its own exhibits.


Analysis: Crisis Resolved by Pinning It on a Scapegoat

The Smithsonian’s response can be described in terms of Situational Crisis Communication Theory. (Coombs 2009, pg 183) From this theoretical perspective, the amount of responsibility an organization takes for its mistakes and manner and content of its response depend entirely on the severity of the crisis and the organization’s past history of crisis and good works. In this case, the crisis was made worse by the Smithsonian’s initial response and given how common art censorship as a concern has been in the museum world’s past, the crisis was clearly quite severe and the historical precedence the Smithsonian and museums like its Portrait Gallery faced in the past in dealing with this kind of crisis did not lend the organization the benefit of the public doubt. In short, the institute had to accept a great deal of blame for the crisis.

The crisis communication campaign the Smithsonian ultimately undertook to resolve the crisis was a classic corporate apologia campaign as outlined by Keith Hearit (1994) and W.T. Coombs (2009), which is designed to rebuild an organization’s social legitimacy diminished in a crisis. Organizations taking at least some responsibility for a crisis must have five elements in their response: (Hearit 1994, as cited in Coombs 2009, pg 178)

–        “The organization presents its account of the crisis by offering its frame for the crisis events.

–        “A statement of regret is issued ….

–        “The organization uses one of three dissociation strategies to separate itself from the crisis and its root cause”: opinion/ knowledge dissociation, individual/group dissociation, act/essence dissociation.

–        “An organization takes action to identify and to resolve the problem, which caused the crisis.

–        “The organization explains how it has acted to restore the values violated by the crisis.”

The Smithsonian Secretary’s acceptance of blame simultaneously presented the organization’s account of crisis, and dissociated his individual decision to withdraw the video from the institute’s overall business practices ­– an exercise in both individual/ group dissociation. The institution’s statement in support of the exhibit further reinforced the dissociation strategy of the secretary by introducing a second act/essence dissociation strategy in which an organization states that the crisis is a deviation from the normal and not indicative of the organization’s overall actions. and further described how the organization had acted to resolve the crisis and restore its values violated by the crisis. (Hearit 1994, as cited in Coombs 2009, pg 178)

The museum also made up for its neglect of its multiple, differing stakeholders by making added efforts to hear out public opinions on the museums, on museum curation, and on art censorship issues in general. These public outreach efforts showed that the Institute respected the public’s opinion. The reason why people protest is in no small part because they want their opinion for or against an issue heard. When the organization opens the door to get people in to speak their minds, they would be less angry than if they were ignored and shut out.



This crisis response effort is typical in the museum world. The Smithsonian largely receives public funding. The public’s perception toward the organization was central issue because “THE people pay your bills.” The crisis could have gone worse if the sincerity in solving the problem was in doubt, or if the public could smell any kind of denial or effort to deflect the crisis.  

An interesting part of this story is the unintended consequence of this controversy, that gaining lots of attention, negative though it was, attracted so much coverage internationally and drew people to the exhibit and the museum like it might never have if there had never been a crisis. Even people outside of the United States who have never been to Washington could have heard the National Portrait Gallery’s existence for the first time. The Gallery’s visitor numbers soared to record highs during the month of crisis. This is absolutely the silver lining side of the story.

After its initial, total failure, I believe the Smithsonian handled the situation very wisely. The results turned as successful as they could.



Coombs, W. T., (2009), Crisis Management: A Communicative Approach. Public Relations Theory 2, 171-197. Taylor & Francis e-Library.

deGategno, S. Z., (2013), Interview with Alison Peck, Director, Public Affairs, Freer | Sackler Galleries of Asia Art, Smithsonian Institute.

Green, T., (2010), NPG commissioner resigns to protest removal, Artinfo.com, Retrieved from http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2010/12/npg-commissioner-resigns-in-protest-of-video-removal/

Hearit, K. M., (1994), Apologies and public relations crises at Chrysler, Toshiba, and Volvo, Public Relations Review (20) 2, 205-242.

Kennicott, P., (2011), Commentary: After removing video from ‘Hide/Seek,’ Smithsonian chief should remove himself, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/23/AR2010122304708.html

Kennicott, P., (2011), ‘Hide/Seek’ one year later: The world moves on, and sometimes forward, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-11-23/lifestyle/35284471_1_secretary-g-wayne-clough-wojnarowicz-video-culture-wars)

Logan, B., (2010), Hide/Seek: Too shocking for America, The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/dec/05/hide-seek-gay-art-smithsonian

Smithsonian, (2010), Smithsonian Stands Firmly Behind “Hide/Seek” Exhibition [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/smithsonian-stands-firmly-behind-hideseek-exhibition

Trescott, J., (2011), National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Hide/Seek’ visitors register their reactions, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/10/AR2011021006449.html.

Trescott, J., (2010), Ant-covered Jesus video removed from Smithsonian after Catholic League complains, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/30/AR2010113004647.html

Trescott, J., (2010), After Smithsonian exhibit’s removal, banned ant video still creeps into gallery, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/06/AR2010120607328.html

Trescott. J., (2010), Colbert donates his rally suit, and some opinions to the Smithsonian, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/arts-post/2010/12/colbert_donates_his_rally_suit.html

Trescott. J., (2010), Smithsonian Secretary Clough stands by decision to pull ‘Fire in My Belly’ video, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/18/AR2011011805097.html

Ulaby, N., (2011), As ‘Hide/Seek’ Ends, A Step Back To Look For Lessons, National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/02/10/133622745/as-hide-seek-ends-a-step-back-to-look-for-lessons

Weaver, C., (2010), Shame Upon Shame: The National Portrait Gallery is Pummeled by Protest, The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cat-weaver/national-portrait-gallery_b_795600.html