This spring, Tacoma is playing on a level with Washington, D.C., and New York – at least in the art world.
The ground-breaking show “Hide/Seek,” which examines 120 years of American portraiture through a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender lens, opened Saturday night at the Tacoma Art Museum, the show’s only West Coast venue after mountings at the National Portrait Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year.
The show, which will run through June 12, represents an artistic coup for the museum.
“We’re extremely proud to bring this to our community,” said TAM director Stephanie Stebich. “It talks about the best of what we can do in our museum and our community.”
But the show’s controversial nature also has been in the spotlight since one work was protested and removed during its display in Washington, D.C. It has helped put art at the front of the current political gay rights agenda – and alienated some of the community.
“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” was organized and first mounted in October 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Ranging from 1890s figurative painting through modernist photography, abstract art, pop art and multimedia installations to contemporary work, the show examines portraits by and of many of America’s best artists in light of their, or their subjects’, gay, lesbian or other identity.
Artists include Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin. Themes cover repression, persecution, liberation, the AIDS crisis and contemporary LGBT identity.
“It is way past time for mainstream art history to acknowledge the shaping role of sexual difference in modern art,” New York Times critic Holland Cotter said in a December 2010 review. “And ‘Hide/Seek,’ with its many strengths, begins to do so in a persuasively accessible way.”
A month into the “Hide/Seek” exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery received protests and threats of withdrawn funding from conservative politicians and prominent Catholics about one particular work: the video “Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch).
The video – which is being shown at TAM – features rapid cuts between images of death, societal destruction, oppression and religious symbolism, such as ants crawling over a crucifix.
“Wojnarowicz was using crucifixion imagery in the way it had traditionally been used, as a metaphor to articulate human suffering,” TAM stated in an information leaflet about the show.
The Catholic League didn’t interpret it that way.
“We call it hate speech,” said President Bill Donohue in a release in November 2010, adding that, despite an exhibit plaque committing to include all Americans in “equality, inclusion and social dignity,” that “somehow Christians didn’t make the cut.”
Soon after, Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough pulled the video.
The censorship drew counterprotests by art supporters in New York, and museums around the country showed their support by screening the video. As a result, “Hide/Seek” was remounted in 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in complete form.
Both museums saw the numbers of visitors increase during the show’s run.
“Hide/Seek” was never intended to travel, but thanks to TAM’s connections and hustling, it has – to Tacoma.
Rock Hushka, TAM’s senior curator, was present at the show’s initial opening in Washington and had been working closely with its co-curator, Jonathan Katz, on “Art AIDS America,” a major survey that will be shown at TAM in 2014.
At the same time Stebich, who knew the Brooklyn museum’s director professionally, called to ask if the show could be recomposed in Tacoma.
“We were the first museum to express interest,” she said.
After lengthy discussions, the TAM board also got behind the project, which included the Wojnarowicz video.
“To a one (the board) was very enthusiastic,” said Stebich, adding, “I had to prepare them on what had happened, and on LGBT community sensitivity.”
“We’re very excited about this opportunity,” said Kathy McGoldrick, board president. “We decided it was an important show, and an amazing thing for Tacoma.”
One year and many phone calls later, “Hide/Seek” opened in Tacoma with a party that attracted more than 650 RSVPs. With 95 of the original 105 works, and the rest as reproductions and substitutes, it represents the full spectrum of modern American work with most major artists.
It is also, organizers say, the first such museum show ever to look at American art history through the LGBT lens.
“All of these works represent the forefront of American modernism – (these artists) changed American art over and over,” Hushka said. “Part of that is how they dealt with desire and sexuality, signifying big changes in American culture. This is some of the best American art ever.”
MONEY, TOURISTS, PROTESTS
Such a show, supporters say, will draw more than just the LGBT community to the museum.
“This will bring in significant tourist dollars, and out-of-town visitors who’ll stay and see what else Tacoma has to offer,” said Ryan Mello, Tacoma’s first openly gay city councilman and a member of the museum’s advisory and fundraising committee for “Hide/Seek.”
“I’m super-thrilled for Tacoma Art Museum that they’re pushing the limit, not just doing the same old noncontroversial stuff. Tacoma Art Museum is being regarded as a very highly professional, sophisticated museum bringing in relevant and high-quality work to the West Coast.”
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, the only openly lesbian member of the Legislature, points out that “Hide/Seek” is not only an exciting thing for the gay community but also a vehicle for community discussion at a time when Washington state is in debate about gay marriage.
“It’s a serendipitous thing,” said Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “Anything right now that gives people the chance to talk about gay people, gay couples and gay families – the only thing that can do is help, considering the current political situation. I’m so pleased and impressed with Tacoma Art Museum for bringing it here.”
Not everybody in the community is thrilled about the show. Apart from “Fire in My Belly,” works in the show include a photo of a newly dead corpse, a plate decorated with the artist’s lover’s ashes, homoerotic imagery and plenty of nudity.
One TAM donor and a handful of members have withdrawn financial support, though Stebich said the show has also brought new national funders, donors and members.
After the announcement that “Hide/Seek” was coming, the museum has received 128 positive and eight negative letters. The News Tribune received two negative letters, along with five positive ones.
One letter to the newspaper came from Jim and Florence Reardon, Gig Harbor residents and former museum docents.
“The leadership of our community’s oldest art museum is endorsing a direction for the museum that is not in keeping with the wishes of the membership and the predominant views of the community,” the Reardons said. “ Christians, Muslims, Jews or anyone in our community should not have to suffer disrespect of their faith because of (the museum’s) ginning up controversy to achieve its goals of revenue and attendance.”
The Rev. Bob Camuso of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Shoreline said the “Fire in My Belly” video is disrespectful to Catholics, comparing it with recent Quran burnings by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
“Just because we give something a label saying ‘art’ and put it in a museum, that doesn’t mean it’s beyond scrutiny,” said Camuso, a former Seattle arts commissioner and committee member of Seattle Art Museum. “There (seems to be) a different standard for Catholics that worries me. What if they had a Quran with ants crawling on it? Or an image of Holocaust victims? Why is it that Catholics are OK to disparage?”
The argument that the video uses the crucifix as it was originally used – as a symbol of human suffering – is false, he said.
“It’s the same with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine),” Camuso said. “Theologically, if it enlightens people to the suffering of Christ, I don’t mind. But nobody got that.”
The museum is preparing to deal with protests. Staff members have shown police and firefighters through the building, and community discussions have been programmed.
“We’re expecting protests,” Stebich said. “I respect the right for people to express their opinion, as long as it’s within the bounds of safety. We’re expressing our opinion in presenting this show.”
And while the show’s focus is as much about art as sexuality, the timing coincides with hot-button political issues such as the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy preventing gays from serving in the military, and Washington’s landmark gay marriage legislation.
“We’re bringing a project that speaks to current social and political debate,” Stebich said. “We’re doing the right thing. Where else can you go to have a civilized discussion about difference? We want to be a safe place to have that discussion.”
Added Hushka: “It’s fantastic to show people that controversy is not a new thing.”
‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
When: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays through June 12
Related events: Grand Cinema films in conjunction with “Hide/Seek” include “The Music Lovers” (1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday), “The Times of Harvey Milk” (2 and 6:30 p.m. April 10), and “Cavaraggio” (2 and 6:30 p.m. May 29) at 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma. 253-593-4474, grandcinema.com. Curator lecture “The Lavender Palette: Gay Northwest Artists” 1 p.m. March 24, $15 at TAM. Local artists exhibit queer art at TAM May 12-June 12.
Warning: The show contains naked, sexual and sometimes disturbing imagery; parents and teachers might want to preview first.
Admission: Regular admission is $10/$8/free for ages 5 and younger ,and 5-8 p.m. on third Thursdays
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.