LGBT art show spikes attendance
A controversial art show at the Tacoma Art Museum that has boosted attendance levels by 30 percent ends its run this weekend.
The gay/lesbian-themed art show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” ignited a storm of fury when it opened at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010. The reaction in Tacoma has been mostly positive, said TAM director Stephanie Stebich.
“We’re very proud that the community has embraced the exhibit and there haven’t been any protests,” Stebich said. “Frankly, it could have backfired on us in a real bad way.”
The show focuses on lesbian- and gay-themed portraits, most created by LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgendered) artists. It opened at TAM on March 17 and closes on Sunday.
TAM saw attendance increase 30 percent after the show opened, compared to the months immediately prior, with many visitors traveling from out of the area, Stebich said. Interest in the show prompted the museum to extend its hours on Thursdays, doubling attendance on those days.
Though there were some negative reactions to TAM hosting the show, they were far outweighed by the positive feedback: Stebich said the museum received 11 negative emails and 141 positive ones.
“Hide/Seek” also raised the stature of TAM to a leader among regional art museums, Stebich said, because it has now played a role in art and social history. “It’s helped us be a player on the national stage,” she said.
The show has been a hit with members of the LGBT community. Michelle Douglas, executive director of the Rainbow Center, a downtown Tacoma LGBT resource center, has seen “Hide/Seek” four times.
“My favorite thing about the show are the stories that go with it,” Douglas said. “There’s a hidden lexicon that was revealed in that show that opened up my eyes. Our stories have often been cloaked behind multiple doors and this brought it out.”
Douglas cited Marsden Hartley’s 1914-15 abstract memorial portrait of his lover, a German military officer killed in World War I, as an example. “That’s the history of the queer community: love, loss, beauty and pain,” Douglas said.
When “Hide/Seek” opened in October 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian), it drew some Catholic ire, mostly over two pieces. The first was a video, “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz which at several points briefly shows ants crawling over a crucifix. The other was a portrait of TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres holding her breasts (covered by a bra), created by photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The Smithsonian eventually pulled the video and thus ignited more ire, this time from the arts community. Despite the controversy – or perhaps because of it – it was one of the most seen shows ever mounted at the National Portrait Gallery.
Both the video and the DeGeneres portrait are in the TAM show.
After opening with the largest party in TAM history, “Hide/Seek” spawned twice the usual number of programming events associated with an exhibit. One of those, a discussion on faith and sexuality, was led by the Rev. Chris Morton, executive director of Associated Ministries. The “fishbowl” session featured five religious leaders of different faiths.
“It was a dialogue,” Morton said. “It was more about growing in our understanding of one another and our different views even though we come from different faith-based religions. We helped bring people together and talk about it in a meaningful way – not debate what was right or wrong.”
Morton calls “Hide/Seek” a good experience for anyone. “I’m really grateful Stephanie took the risk and brought this (to Tacoma).”
“At one level it might have been somewhat shocking because it portrays the bodies of males and females,” Morton said. But, like Douglas, what he found most meaningful were the stories behind the art, particularly how LGBT artists were forced to hide their sexuality and the creative ways in which they revealed it. “Which had to be really painful. When you have to hide the very essence of who you are, that’s sad.”
For Morton, it raises the question: “What’s the religious community’s contribution in forcing people into hiding?”
During its run, the show was awarded “Best Thematic Museum Show Nationally” by the International Association of Art Critics as well as other awards.
The success of “Hide/Seek” gives a boost to what could be another controversial show in TAM’s future. TAM curator Rock Hushka is working with “Hide/Seek” co-curator Jonathan Katz on “Art, AIDS, America.” That show will open at TAM in 2014 or 2015 and then travel to other museums.
If you go
What: ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. today through Sunday
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Admission: $10 for adults; $8 for students, military, seniors