Tuesday, April 17, 2001

'Lady' Draws a Crowd

By Morgan Lee
Journal Staff Writer

In three-minute speeches, focus groups and group prayers, New Mexico residents broadcast their opinions Monday about a state museum exhibiting "Our Lady," an image of the Virgin Mary in a bathing suit of rose petals.

Deacon Anthony Trujillo of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish of Santa Fe opened the daylong forum with a plea for Museum of New Mexico regents to remove the photo collage by California artist Alma López, prompting complaints that no "keynote" speech was allowed for proponents of keeping the artwork in place.

"Who authorized this offense on faith?" asked Trujillo, who helped design the format for the meeting with city of Santa Fe officials and the museum administration. "Who authorized this offense on nuestra raza (our race)?"

Trujillo's opening speech included a rallying cry for the faithful.

"We're not the powerful; we're not the rich. We do not belong to museum boards and philanthropic communities," Trujillo said. "We're simply the people who have a strong belief in Our Lady."

Deacon Trujillo's cousin Marion C. Martinez is one of four female artists featured in the "Cyber Arte" show that includes "Our Lady." She urged the Museum of New Mexico to resist compromising the artistic integrity of the show of devotional art.

Tom Wilson, Museum of New Mexico executive director, opened the meeting with a plea for tolerance, only to be heavily criticized later by members of the audience who took to the microphone.

Wilson had apologized last week to Archbishop Michael Sheehan and others who may have been offended by "Our Lady" but did not move toward removing it.

"(Wilson) reminds me of a person who beats their spouse, apologizes and continues their abuse," said Mardell Trujillo of Santa Fe, a florist who belongs to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.

People clutched numbered cards and waited hours for their turn to speak to a crowd that nearly filled the 1,200-seat hall to capacity in the morning and trickled away to half the size by afternoon.

Middle school and high school students signed out from classes to attend and address the crowd on an issue that has divided New Mexicans, Santa Feans and even family members.

"Our Lady" critics and defenders of free speech issued dueling Bible quotes; speakers led group prayer from the podium or led chants of "Take it down!"

Natalie Fitz-Gerald of Santa Fe recalled her youth under oppressive speech restrictions in South Africa, urging the museum regents to keep "Our Lady" on display in defense of freedom of speech and artistic expression.

An art collector and philanthropist, Fitz-Gerald has been a member for eight years of the board of directors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. That museum resisted calls by Catholic leaders and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to remove a depiction of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung.

Fitz-Gerald said: "I urge all of you to realize how lucky you are when you have this extraordinary freedom."

The museum regents are not likely to make any decision for more than a month. In accordance with written museum policies, a nine-member Sensitive Materials Committee must first request to remove the work.

Appeals to the committee's decisions are made to Wilson and then the regents, with 30-day deadlines in between.

Several speakers during the open-microphone session objected to the museum spending tax dollars to display "Our Lady."

"We insist that taxes be spent in a morally correct way, and this certainly is not morally correct," said Sandra Jiron, who identified herself as a member of Santa Cruz de La Cañada Parish outside of Española.

Pastor Terry Brennan of Holy Trinity Parish of Arroyo Seco urged the museum to remove "Our Lady," using as an example of sensitive restraint a recent decision by Wal-Mart to not sell a book about Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. He compared the museum treatment of the Virgin of Guadalupe to a sports team callously using Indian mascots.

"I do not need state funds to deconstruct my church," Brennan said.

Speeches that followed Deacon Trujillo's were limited to three minutes, with the microphone often turned off in midsentence.

Four out of seven regents from the Museum of New Mexico were present so that comments from the meeting would become part of the public record and the basis for later decisions by the museum.

Several uniformed police officers stood guard at entrances.

Retired University of New Mexico professor Ida Carrillo said the police made her feel uncomfortable.

"These are our weapons," she said, clutching a string of rosary beads, a tiny cross hung from her neck.

Many visitors to the forum posted their comments on a wall reserved for notes of opinion. One person chastised the Museum of New Mexico and artist López.

"Alma, your soul is a high price to pay for money, recognition and attention," one person wrote anonymously.ss

Copyright 2001 Albuquerque Journal