Albuquerque Journal

Wednesday, February 27, 2002
'Our Lady' Opponents Receive Mixed Ruling

By Morgan Lee
Journal Staff Writer

A state museum committee was subject to the state Open Meetings Act, but the curator's work was not, according to a final court order dismissing a request to remove a controversial exhibit from the state Museum of International Folk Art.

The exhibit titled "Cyber Arte" contained the image of a scantily clad Virgin of Guadalupe — "Our Lady" by California artist Alma López. Tey Marianna Nunn curated the exhibit.

Three northern New Mexico residents in October asked a judge to remove the exhibit, arguing that a review by the Museum of New Mexico Sensitive Materials Committee violated the Open Meetings Act, a sunshine law guaranteeing public access to certain government decisions. The folk art museum is a division of the Museum of New Mexico system.

First Judicial District Judge James Hall rejected taking down the exhibit before its closing date in October on principle and technical grounds.

In a clarification of earlier oral and written statements, Hall responded Friday to accusations that the museum violated the Open Meetings Act.

"The Court concludes that the initial determination by the curator to display the exhibit is not the type of meeting or policy decision covered by the Open Meetings Act," Hall wrote in a final court order published Friday.

"Therefore, plaintiffs cannot obtain any relief relating to the decision to display the exhibit."

Plaintiff Terrence Brennan, a Catholic priest and former attorney for Santa Fe County, had asked for a ruling that made the Sensitive Materials Committee responsible for approving potentially offensive artwork before the curator placed it on exhibit.

The wording of the final court order upholds an important privilege for curators, according to Museum of International Folk Art Museum Director Joyce Ice.

"I don't know how a curator could possibly do her job, if that initial determination were subject to this kind of review" before exhibits open, Ice said. "Upholding that prerogative is important for curators as well as the museum as an institution."

While relieving the "Cyber Arte" curator of direct public oversight, Hall's decision treated differently the Sensitive Materials Committee, a staff committee that heard appeals to take down "Cyber Arte" in private.

The committee recommended that "Cyber Arte" remain intact and on display, and subsequent appeals to the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents were never heard.

"The Court concludes that the Sensitive Materials Committee is a 'delegated authority' under the Open Meetings Act," Hall's order states.

According to the state Open Meetings Act, "A public body may not evade its obligations under the Open Meetings Act by delegating its responsibilities for making decisions and taking final action to a committee."

Hall stopped short of directing the museum to comply with the Open Meetings Act, noting that such an action wasn't requested by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiff Anthony Trujillo last week submitted a written request directly to the Museum of New Mexico, demanding the Sensitive Materials Committee follow all Open Meetings Act statutes.

The Sensitive Materials Committee originally was created to help the Museum of New Mexico comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which provides for the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects from federally supported institutions.

Opening all Sensitive Materials Committee meetings because of a conflict about modern art could have unforeseen consequences for American Indian decision, Ice said.

"My sense is that there would be many people who would not be interested in entering into discussions under those circumstances," Ice said.