Thirty Years After The Perfect Moment

Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, looks at a case containing several controversial photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, Thursday, April 5, 1990. (AP Photo/David Kohl)

Dennis Barrie was director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center when he and the museum became the first in the US to face obscenity charges over the art they exhibited–a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s provocative photos, titled The Perfect Moment. He went on to serve as executive director of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and subsequently the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. He spoke with Case Western Reserve University Professor Henry Adams about this earlier battle in the culture wars, in which Congress threatened the future of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Interview by Henry Adams

Henry Adams:

It’s now thirty years since the Mapplethorpe Trial took place, and it seems a good time to reflect on how the controversy looks to you in retrospect. It’s probably the most important American art-related trial of the 20th century and as director of the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art—the CAC—you had a ringside seat on the affair. In fact, you would have gone to jail if the trial had gone differently.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved with the Mapplethorpe exhibition?

Dennis Barrie:

I saw the show of Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Whitney Museum in New York and thought it was quite stunning. The CAC has a special relationship with the Whitney, and I asked the director if we could take the show after its run there. He said the show was not traveling, but a similar exhibition organized by the University of Pennsylvania would be. I called the director, Janet Kardon, and she indicated that they had an open slot so I said, “We’ll take it.” Of course, I needed to present a proposal to our exhibition committee, which was composed of members of the staff, of the board, and people from the community. They all thought it was a knock-out and agreed to take it on.

ADAMS: Did you think the show would cause controversy?

BARRIE: I didn’t set out to create a controversy. Mapplethorpe had just died of AIDS, and some of his photographs of naked men and S & M paraphernalia were clearly edgy. But the CAC had always shown provocative, cutting edge work, and Mapplethorpe’s work had been shown many times without creating an uproar.

The controversy erupted because people in Congress, particularly Jesse Helms, were working to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, which periodically they try to do. The NEA had given the University of Pennsylvania $30,000 for the Mapplethorpe catalogue. Helms was starting to foment his fake anger about money going to this kind of trash. Janet Livingston, who was curator of photography at the Corcoran, had booked the show, and they were about to put it up, when Tina Orr-Cahall, who was the director, became afraid of the political fallout and nixed the exhibition. That happened in the May/June period of 1989.

I was at the AAMD, the Association of Art Museum Directors meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, and we’re in an auditorium, say 100 of us, with the big guys from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the little guys like me, and everyone in between. I was sitting there, it was just going to be a general meeting, and then John Walsh walked in and made the announcement that the Corcoran had withdrawn from the exhibition for fear of political consequences if they showed the work. There was this totally audible murmur from the audience. It was something that hadn’t happened in everyone’s lifetime since the Red Scare. I was sitting next to Hugh Davies, who ran the Contemporary Art Center in La Jolla, California, and he turned to me and said:

“Do you know anyone who’s taking that show?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“You are so fucked.”

That’s an absolutely direct quote. And I knew I was fucked. It was totally upsetting. The whole session was thrown upside-down. I don’t remember it very clearly because my head was swimming. I don’t even remember where we had dinner that night, but I do remember on the way back to Cincinnati that I just couldn’t do what had just been done by the Corcoran. I was pretty sure that I was going to lose my job.

ADAMS: Did the CAC consider dropping the show?

BARRIE: I remember talking to my wife Diane. I told her that I couldn’t cancel the show. And I pulled some of the board together and told them what happened. We had some very knowledgeable people on the board, but Cincinnati is not New York, and we had people who were there because they were an attorney, or from a prominent family, or someone thought they should be on the board. Even our core leadership on the board was a mixed bag. I told them what had happened, I told them the work was very controversial, and I told them that I was not willing to censor the show. If they decided to do that I would resign. We then looked at the catalogue and at every photograph that was going to be included in the show. We had a session in our boardroom where we laid out every image on the table. I give my board credit. These were people from all sorts of backgrounds and this was Cincinnati, not Los Angeles or New York. But they said, “Okay, we’ll go forward with it.”

ADAMS: Why did the battle over the show take place in Cincinnati?

BARRIE: Before the show came to Cincinnati, it went to a series of other museums without creating very much stir: The Washington Project for the Arts, The Contemporary Art Center in Hartford, and the Contemporary Art Center in Berkeley, California. But Cincinnati was a different community. Cincinnati was going to be the flashpoint. We all knew it. It was like Waterloo. We knew where the battle was going to take place.

Cincinnati was famous for its right-wing organizations and anti-pornography organizations. The sheriff, a former Marine named Simon Leis, had made his reputation by busting Broadway shows like Oh Calcutta! and proudly stating that there were no X-rated bookstores, no burlesque shows, no strippers in Cincinnati. But if you just went across the river into Kentucky, everything was there. There were illegal gambling dens, there was all sorts of prostitution, and it’s where everyone went to drink. So you could say that there was no porn store in downtown Cincinnati, but there was one that was a two-minute drive away.

Remember Charles Keating who created the first home savings crisis with his bank, Lincoln Savings? Hundreds of thousands of people lost their savings because of his corrupt dealings. Anyway, Keating started Citizens for Decent Literature. By that time, Keating had left Cincinnati, but a successor organization, Citizens for Community Values, took up the cause of crusading against the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Ironically, they had what may well have been the biggest collection of pornography in the country. Citizens for Community Values sent out 30,000 letters throughout the community saying “This is what the Contemporary Center is going to do.” They had these terrible, grainy xeroxes with one or two Mapplethorpes and five or six images of child pornography. Real child pornography. It really created quite an uproar—that we were bringing child pornography to Cincinnati and that it had to be stopped at any cost. It really did have an impact on the city and on Cincinnati leadership. They became more corporate and governmental, and they became scared. They began to waver, as did members of our board.

ADAMS: Was pressure put on you to cancel the exhibition?

BARRIE: At this point, Board President Roger Ach and I were summoned to a meeting at the palatial home of an individual who worked for Carl Lindner, who was probably the richest, most powerful man in Cincinnati—a billionaire. Lindner had many businesses. He owned Chiquita Banana, American Financial, and Providence Bank. He owned United Dairy Farmers. Jim was basically there to bribe us. The deal was something like this—not his exact words, I’m paraphrasing, but I’m very close. “You don’t put up the show. Dennis pleads guilty. Okay? It’ll be guilty for just a misdemeanor, like a parking ticket. He will be given a $100 fine and no jail time. And we’ll give the Center $100,000.”

Roger and I looked at each other and said, “Well, we can’t do it.”

About a week or so later, I was going to the Mayor’s Breakfast at the Convention Center, which is a big event—about 500 people. I was in the parking garage and Jim came up to me again and said, “Take it, or this could be very bad.” I didn’t say it to him, but I was thinking, “What are you going to do? Break my legs? Is this some mob threat in the parking garage of the Convention Center?” He didn’t break my legs, but clearly I was on a list.

ADAMS: Was that the end of it, or did things escalate?

BARRIE: It turned into corporate warfare against our board members. Chad P. Wick, who was president of American Savings, which later became Central Bank, had to step down and was then fired. He ultimately got a job with one of our trustees and became head of his foundation, but Wick’s career as a banker was over. Another board member was fired by the accounting firm he worked for, though he landed on his feet—he married a Scripps Howard. This is the stuff you never hear about, but it happened. Some of them were more vulnerable than others. Some of them were independently wealthy, or retired, or didn’t give a flying leap. Especially on the Contemporary Art Center Board, there were people who would just say, “I’ve been swimming against the waves all my life.”

It kept building to the point where threats were being made against people’s lives—including my life and that of my children. Kevin was eight or nine, and Ian was eleven or twelve. We would get calls at home. You know in those days we didn’t have cell phones; we actually had a landline. My wife was a homemaker and was at home, and she’d get these calls and they’d say, “We’re going to kill your children.”

Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, talks with his lawyer Marc, Mezibov, during a break in hearing, Tuesday, June 19, 1990 in Hamilton County Municipal Court in Cincinnati where judge David Albanese ruled that Barrie would have to face a trial on obscenity charges stemming from his center?s showing of photos by the late Robert Mapplethorpe recently. (AP Photo/David Kohl)

ADAMS: When did you get indicted?

BARRIE: The show opened to the public on April 5 [1990], and the night before was our members’ opening. We had a staggering surge in membership, and so many people showed up for the opening that they couldn’t all fit in the building. The opening lasted three or four hours, and afterwards I remember celebrating with some family members and friends and maybe a board member or two in a restaurant downtown. I remember thinking, “That’s it, we’ve dodged the bullet.” When I went to bed, I felt an amazing sense of relief.

When I got up, I put on a pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt. It was a Saturday. I remember telling Diane, “I’m just going to go down and see how things are.” When I got down there a bit before 9:00am, it was quiet as could be, with a few reporters lingering around—not many. A couple of board members. And then one of the news people said that he’d just gotten a report that the authorities were massing to make a bust. They were bickering over exactly how to go about it and who would get to play John Wayne.

At 10:00am, the museum opened to the public and hundreds of people came in. But shortly afterwards the vice squad showed up—two vice squad officers who were very polite. They told us, “There will be no arrests. There will be no confiscation of the artwork. We are going to close the building down, and we are going to videotape all the artwork for later evidence.” But they were very polite. They also said, “You have to clear everybody out, and you need to give us time to do what we need to do.”

So I made the announcement that everybody had to leave. Today the Center is in a big building, but it was tiny at the time, only about 20,000 square feet. So the galleries were packed.

The police did their thing. There clearly was an element of theater because they could have come at a time when the museum was closed to the public. After the police left, we reopened again. There were reporters everywhere. We were then indicted, not in federal court but in the local court—the museum on two counts and I as director on two counts: specifically showing five photographs of a homosexual nature, and showing two nude images of children. I was the one with the most to lose. The museum faced a $10,000 fine. I faced a year in jail. This was clearly a major test case for artistic freedom. It was the first time in the history of the United States that a museum director had ever faced trial over an exhibition.

We in turn went to federal court and got an injunction stating that the police could not seize any photographs until a trial had established that they were obscene. On the advice of our lawyers, we did not allow minors to enter the exhibition, and we put the controversial photographs in an area that was marked with warning labels. The fact is that most of the exhibition was completely innocuous: very beautiful photographs of flowers, portrait photographs of people like Debra Harry—things like that.

What was the public reaction to the show?

If the prosecution was trying to keep Mapplethorpe under wraps, they didn’t succeed. The Mapplethorpe exhibition became the most popular art show in the city’s history. We had 83,000 people attend the show and membership in the arts center more than doubled. Most contemporary art centers, unless they’re in Chicago or New York, are pleased if they hit 20,000 in a year. All sorts of people came from all walks of life. Julia Child, of the famous French cooking show, came and she absolutely loved it. The tap dancer Gregory Hines. I remember he was in town making a movie. I got to know him a little bit later, after the trial. He was such a lovely man.

Many of those who attended were not regulars at art galleries and reported that they did not particularly want to see graphic photos of homosexual acts. They went to register their opposition to censorship. People who had never heard of Mapplethorpe a few weeks before went around with his name and photographs on their T-shirts. We sold hundreds and hundreds of Mapplethorpe catalogues and T-shirts, and several thousand buttons. To get into the Contemporary Art Center you needed to be an adult, and we kept the books in a glass case; but other bookstores in Cincinnati did a booming business as well, including catalogues that reproduced the photographs named in the indictment against us. They all had their books available on open shelves.

At this point demonstrations started to take place all over downtown, in the streets and so forth. A demonstration in front of the courthouse, for example, in which people were arrested for “endangering traffic.” Not that it was a huge thing. It wasn’t like Hong Kong—it was hundreds, not thousands. I don’t recall much in the way of counter-demonstrations, despite Citizens for Community Values. I don’t remember them being a big force on the street.

Was there legal maneuvering before the trial?

The judge for the trial, David Albanese, had gone to school with Sheriff Simon Leis. They were buddies and used to exercise together and hang out in the hot tub together. Albanese issued two rulings before the trial that were not in our favor. First, he ruled that we were not a museum, but a “gallery,” and therefore did not have the legal protections that would be provided to a museum. In addition, he ruled that the jury would not be shown the exhibition as a whole, but only the seven photographs that the prosecution had singled out.

It seems pretty far-fetched to rule that the CAC was not a museum. You were a member of the American Association of Museum Directors and were regularly described as a museum director in publications like Time Magazine and The New York Times.

That’s true. Our contention was that placing these works in a museum had an effect on how people regarded them, and also that the individual photographs had artistic significance within the exhibition as a whole. Context makes a difference. The same photograph would carry quite a different meaning if it were in a medical textbook or a first-grade reader. One of the defenses against a charge of pornography is that something has artistic merit, and that’s only evident if you view it within the context of an artistic statement as a whole.

What about the jury?

Of the fifty people interviewed, other than three who had seen the Mapplethorpe show, none attended museums. Most of them had no contact with the arts at all. Not just the visual arts. They didn’t go to the ballet. They didn’t go to the symphony. It was a pretty stunning indication of the failure of our arts organizations, and it made the outcome of the trial pretty hard to predict.

Describe the Trial.

We had to decide who our witnesses would be—which is a crucial thing. One was from the Eastman Kodak House, which is a great collection of photographs. I think the guy from Eastman House was good. He talked about the history of photography and what photography does. Also, the director of the Berkeley Museum. She looked like mom and apple pie—such a sweet woman. She didn’t look like a crazy Berkeley fanatic. She really did look like the girl next door.

The third was Janet Kardon, who was the director of the Contemporary Art Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who had organized the exhibition. We almost had to subpoena Janet to come because she was so frightened of being arrested when she got to Ohio. She was just thoroughly frightened.

Evan Turner came from the Cleveland Museum and Martin Friedman, the famous director of the Walker Art Center. So opposite poles of the art world came in. The Cleveland Museum of Art is very traditional; the Walker Art Center was devoted to things that are cutting edge. To their credit, they argued that this is what a museum does. They both spoke very eloquently about the responsibilities of a museum, and the programing, and why this fit right in and was part of a museum’s purview. They were quite good.

The prosecution had only one real witness besides the police officers who went into the museum and gathered evidence. Their primary witness was a woman, who claimed to be an expert on photography and culture and the visual arts, who had been a songwriter for the children’s TV program Captain Kangaroo. I don’t think she was a very good witness. On a critical point, she undercut the prosecution’s case. She complained that she was often quoted out of context, and on cross-examination clearly stated that it was necessary to carefully consider context to determine the real meaning of something. Of course, this was exactly our contention with regard to the Mapplethorpe photographs: that they should be seen within the context of the whole exhibition.

Finally, Lou and Mark decided that I needed to testify. I was very hesitant, and very nervous. I was very conscious that what I said would probably have more impact than anything from the other witnesses. And it was all being recorded on camera. Lou and Mark painted me as what I was, a family man and a good citizen that wasn’t there to burn down Cincinnati. They did a pretty good job of that. They made it clear that I truly believed in the value of the work.

What about the verdict?

It was a Friday, and we all assumed that the jury would be deliberating for the full weekend. We all went our different ways. My attorneys, Marc Mezibov and Louis Sirkin,  went back to their office. I went with my wife Diane, some board members, some staff members, back to the Contemporary Center. We were sitting around and then, just two hours later, we got the call to reconvene. We all rushed the five blocks back to the courtroom. I’d have to confess I felt a lot of anxiety and was wondering whether it’s really good that it took them just two hours to come to a decision, or it’s really bad. Fortunately, we were acquitted. It was amazingly quick. Really a stunning victory. The jury had about fifty things to go through. I don’t think anyone expected the verdict. They thought that we would be convicted in Cincinnati and would then have to appeal. I think most people thought that it would go right up to the Supreme Court.

And the public reaction?

The public response was very positive. In fact, for the next several months, on a daily basis, people would recognize me and applaud, or come up to congratulate me. At one point, as I was crossing the street, a group came out of the baseball game, recognized me, and started cheering and shouting, “Thank you!”

I think the politicians and business leaders also felt a sense of relief. It would have been nothing but bad for the city to condemn a museum and put the museum director in jail. What kind of look is that for a modern American city? I think they were all happy to lose the case and get on with business.

Why do you think you won the trial?

After the trial, some members of the jury arranged to come down to the Center for Contemporary Art, which they hadn’t been allowed to do at the time of the trial. They all expressed displeasure that they hadn’t been allowed to see all the works which were included in the exhibition. They didn’t find the controversial photographs erotically titillating. Everyone knew that Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. It was a bit ambiguous as to whether they were sexually provocative or sexually chilling. They weren’t impressed by the nude photographs of children, since everyone takes nude photographs of their children, and we had affidavits from both the children and their parents giving us permission to show them. Interestingly, if you had the trial today, I think the focus would shift a little. At the time, it was the height of the AIDs crisis, and gay marriage was still illegal. And this was before cell phones made it possible for anyone to get instant access to photographs much more shocking than anything we were showing. In many ways, the trial was about homosexuality and whether it should be acknowledged. Today the homoerotic images wouldn’t cause any fuss, and the photographs of children would probably be at the center of the conservative attack.

It seems to me that at a sort of basic human level the jury saw you as a regular guy who was doing his job. They couldn’t see putting you in jail.

Yes, in the end I think I’m the guy who won the trial. In fact, I know I am.

What do you see as the significance of the verdict?

I think the trial was important for establishing the freedom of art museums and art institutions to present what they felt was valuable to present. That was a very big victory. I also think the victory saved the National Endowment for the Arts, which was being targeted by reactionary forces. It continues to come under attack, but it survived. That’s very important. That was a positive thing.

I always felt that this was just one battle in a much larger cultural conflict. The art world is more important to the art world than it is to the rest of the world. Once this push for censorship was defeated in the art world, the forces of repression would just go elsewhere. They would just shift to other political and social arenas: they would shift to censoring textbooks and controlling schoolboards and taking over the media—and they did.

Now let’s be frank about the art world. I knew that I would be a pariah in the art world, and that I wouldn’t be a hero. Once it was over, nobody wanted to be seen with Dennis Barrie. John Walsh and Arthur Lehman and all these other wonderful people were supportive at the trial. But do you think they wanted a Mapplethorpe controversy at the Getty? In Cincinnati, it was clear I had to go. While they had won the trial, the CAC had been cut from the art fund and had lost much of its corporate support. We had $350,000 in legal bills to pay off. It was time for wounds to heal. They wanted me out of the way. I personally was disillusioned with the art world at that time. The pettiness, the lack of vision.

But you kept going.

Mapplethorpe sent my career in a completely different direction. Shortly afterwards, I left the art world to become the founding director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The rock world, the music world, is much more tolerant. Then, after working at the Rock Hall, I ended up working for Milton Maltz, who was on the board of the Rock Hall. He had me create a museum division for his company, and we created the Spy Museum, which was a big success. It attracted 600,000 paying visitors a year in Washington DC, where all the museums are free. It just printed money. I now do museum consulting, including work for the History Center here in Cleveland.

What about Cincinnati?

I think in the end the Mapplethorpe trial made Cincinnati a better place. After I left the CAC, there were several directors. Some of them weren’t right for the community or had personal problems. Then they hired Charles Desmarais, who is now an art critic in San Francisco, and they commissioned a building from Zaha Hadid—it was her first North American building. It was an ambitious project: I think the building cost $38 million. It’s a great achievement. Today if you go to the Contemporary Art Center, amazingly enough, the vestibule is named for Carl Lindner and his wife—the very people who were trying to put me in jail. So clearly after I left, the board made a concerted effort to get back with the community, and they created this beautiful building. They had a race riot in Cincinnati in 2001, after an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by the police, but then they put a lot of money into creating the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004. I think the high-handedness of the judge and sheriff over the course of the Mapplethorpe trial made people in Cincinnati, including business people, realize that they needed to clean up their act a little if they were going to survive in the modern world.

What about larger cultural shifts?

One of the most eloquent and prophetic comments on its impact was a cartoon by Jim Borgman of the Cincinnati Enquirer showing a bored guard in the near-empty Contemporary Art Center, with a solitary old lady looking in bewilderment at a near-empty abstract painting, with a blotch of color in the right corner. The caption: “I miss Mapplethorpe.”

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the seemingly incomprehensible abstractions of Jackson Pollock and the Color Field Painters, stirred up intense controversy and debate. By 1990, no one really cared. If you wanted to stir up controversy, the game had shifted from making art that was seemingly about nothing, to making art that was very much about something and about something controversial, such as homosexuality, gender identity, race, social class, police repression, or some other topic with a political punch. I think the Mapplethorpe trial marked a point in which the role of the arts went through a major cultural turn—which perhaps even changed the very nature of art-making. It’s an event whose repercussions are still echoing today.

Clearly, conservative and reactionary forces are still actively trying to push forward censorship of all sorts. But the trial was important in establishing that art museums can be a place for serious dialogue about controversial topics. Ironically, today it is artists and denizens of the art world that are most active in pressing to destroy statues and other works of art and to limit public discussion. But, of course, the role of art and artists keeps shifting.

The battle for free expression hasn’t ended. It will surely go on forever as boundaries are defined. I hope that museums can continue to be a place where controversial work can be shown—can be a place that stimulates lively, and hopefully sometimes thoughtful conversation about some of the difficult issues that we generally try to avoid.