New Mexico Museum to Continue Display of Scantily Clad Virgin Mary

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

SANTA FE, N.M. — A collage of the Virgin of Guadalupe clad in a flowery swimsuit — a work both denounced as disrespectful and defended as free expression — will stay on the wall of a state-run museum. A committee of museum officials recommended Tuesday that "Our Lady," by Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez, remain on display at the Museum of International Folk Art.

The museum, however — "in the spirit of reconciliation" — will close the exhibit that includes Lopez's work nearly four months early, on Oct. 28, said Joyce Ice, the museum's director.

Ice said the early closing of the "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology" exhibit is an acknowledgement that the work is controversial, but without censoring it.

"The committee's recommendation will stand unless it's appealed," said Tom Wilson, director of the Museum of New Mexico, under which the folk art museum falls.

An appeal would go to Wilson, whose decision in turn could be appealed to the Museum of New Mexico's seven-member Board of Regents.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who condemned the image as sacrilegious and insensitive, said Tuesday he would continue to oppose the display of the image, and would not oppose efforts by Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Santa Fe if it decides to pursue a lawsuit.

Sheehan said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the committee's decision to leave the collage up at the museum.

As to ending the exhibit early, he said, "half a slice of pie is better than none."

"I'm very committed to the arts. There should be respect for religious people, though," he said.

The collage will "continue to hang there, kind of like an open sore," but he asked Catholics not to overreact. He said there's a misperception protester against the collage are "a small group of conservative Hispanic Catholics," but said those who find the image offensive "are legion."

The image is "sacriligious to many thousands of New Mexicans," Sheehan said. He said it depicts the mother of Christ "I think as a prostitute — a not, indeed, becoming way to show the mother of our Lord."

The exhibit opened Feb. 25, and Lopez's work drew attention after it was featured in a museum mailing.

The collage includes a photograph of a model portraying the Virgin of Guadalupe, a representation of the Virgin Mary, wearing a computer-generated two-piece floral outfit that leaves her midriff bare. Her image floats above that of a bare-breasted angel.

Lopez, a Catholic, has said she meant to portray the Virgin as a strong, independent, modern woman -- and meant no disrespect. She has said "Our Lady" is an expression of her admiration for Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She said Tuesday she was pleased by the committee's decision, and expressed her thanks to museum officials who "are right in the fire where everything is going on."

"I almost see it as the only fair decision for them, to acknowledge that some people in the community were offended, but that the work needed to remain on exhibit," she said in a telephone interview from California.

Lopez said the museum would have set a bad precedent if it had removed the collage, and that it would have been wrong for her as the artist to remove it because she would have been "a Latina artist, a chicana, pressured into silence."

She said she hoped the opponents would recognize the compromise represented by the exhibit's early closing, and compromise likewise.

The committee said the artists selected for the exhibit "have rights under the First Amendment to have their works displayed free of censorship or other interference."

Many Roman Catholics demanded the image's removal from the museum wall. Others among the 600 people who attended an all-day forum in Santa Fe last month objected that removing the piece would amount to censorship and violate the artist's rights.

"I can see how it would be offensive to some people, but it's important that it be allowed to remain here," said Michael Robbins, 20, of Albuquerque, who stopped by the museum Tuesday for his first look at the work.

"I believe it's important to be able to express your beliefs," said Robbins, who was home for a visit after finishing his sophomore year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"We feel our recommendations balance the interests of all concerned," said Anita McNeece, who headed the Committee on Sensitive Materials, made up of representatives of various museums in the state system.

The committee met 11 times in the past month to discuss the artwork.

It said in its letter to Wilson that "neither the artwork at the heart of the controversy nor the exhibition were created as gratuitous insults to faith, but were created instead as valid expressions of contemporary art in a Hispanic tradition."

The panel acknowledged the "depth of feeling and emotion" behind the protests, and respected the fact that protesters felt their faith is being treated disrespectfully.

But their feelings conflict with those of others in the community "who see this as a legal issue of First Amendment rights, irrespective of cultural or religious concerns," the committee said.

The panel said it's clear "Our Lady" has taken on a symbolism not intended by the artist or the museum — becoming a focus for "deep resentments within the community at what they see as anti-faith messages in contemporary society."

The protests over Lopez's work "have become an opportunity to release frustrations that have been building for quite some time," the committee wrote.

Ice said correspondence from the public on the controversy will be placed in the museum's Hispanic Heritage Wing for visitors to read, and that both Lopez and a representative of the Catholic Church would be invited to write a statements to be placed by the artwork.

Donald A. Meyer, former director of the Western States Arts Federation and a member of several Santa Fe arts organizations, said he had not read the decision but was "particularly pleased and glad they could make the only decision they could make based on the facts, the law and the process."

The Guadalupe phenomenon originated in 1531 when the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a Christian Aztec, three or four times near Mexico City. As word of the apparition spread, miracles came to be associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and her image now appears practically everywhere, from religious items to tattoos and decorations on low-rider automobiles.

More than 35 New Mexico churches are dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.