'Our Lady' controversy still chills Santa Fe museums
By The Associated Press
SANTA FE, N.M. — It has been more than two years since a Roman Catholic outcry over Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez's digital collage of the Virgin of Guadalupe clad in flower petals with a bare midriff.
The chilling effect is still felt in Santa Fe, where officials at state-run museums say pressures not to offend viewers have been acute since the "Our Lady" controversy.
"It's not whispered — it's intense," said Marsha Bol, director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Lopez's "Our Lady," a computer-generated collage of a model wearing a floral garment resembling a bikini, was part of a Cyber Arte exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art.
Roman Catholics were offended by the bared midriff on so sacred an icon and asked a judge to order it removed from the wall of the museum. The exhibit was open from February through October 2001. It closed four months early to appease protesters, museum officials have said.
"There was the sense that there might be internal censorship that descends on curators and others," said Tom Wilson, former head of the Museum of New Mexico. "I think it has happened."
In this climate, curators might exclude works if expressions were "too hot to handle or more cutting-edge," he said.
Curators avoided placing work by potentially controversial artists in the upcoming exhibit "So Que," a showcase of work by living New Mexican artists residing south of Interstate 40. The exhibit is scheduled to open at the Museum of Fine Arts in January.
Even in the midst of the Our Lady controversy, museum officials were concerned about a possible future chilling effect, Wilson said. He recalled the threatening phone calls and hate mail sent to Tey Nunn, curator of the exhibit that included Lopez's "Our Lady."
"Who would want to go through that?" Wilson asked.
Asked if curators have been practicing self-censorship since "Our Lady," Bol acknowledged, "it's a fight."
"My intention is to try to fight against this as an undue influence," Bol said.
During a recent interview in Santa Fe, when So Que curator Betty Gold was asked whether viewers could expect to see any "edgy" work in the show, she responded: "I just want to have a nice show and not cause problems for the museum."
After "Our Lady," the Museum of New Mexico revised its policies for handling sensitive materials, allowing more opportunity for public input without setting new standards for selecting objects for an exhibit.
The Sensitive Materials Committee, originally created to deal with issues arising out of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, still has responsibility for potentially controversial artwork. But now the committee meets quarterly, and any staff member can bring an issue before the committee at any time, from the planning stage of an exhibit to its opening.


N.M. museum to keep bikini-clad Virgin on exhibit
Roman Catholic parish vows to fight committee’s decision to retain controversial artwork. 05.23.01


Public funding of controversial art

By Kyonzte Hughes
Contributing writer
Artists frequently test society’s standards of decency with works that outrage people. Society, or parts of it, may respond with harsh criticism and scorn. Artists are free to outrage people, and people are free to be outraged, but First Amendment issues may arise when art is publicly funded. Must the public, through the taxes it pays, subsidize art that offends people?In a 1998 case that initially seemed a heavy blow to the First Amendment as a bulwark protecting free artistic expression, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decency standard enacted by Congress. In National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) v. Finley, the Court held that the NEA may consider public standards of decency in deciding which artists should receive federal grants.
However, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, took the sting out of the law. She explained that the decency standard was merely advisory and simply added one more consideration to a variety of pre-existing subjective criteria.
Though some might argue that the decency standard infringes upon free speech because it allows the NEA to favor certain viewpoints over others, the consensus is that the law poses no real threat given that the high court has characterized it as a mere piece of advice rather than a law that must be enforced.
In 1999, the city-funded Brooklyn Museum of Art came under fire when it exhibited a painting by Chris Ofili of the Virgin Mary that featured sexually explicit cutouts covered with elephant dung. The Catholic Church was outraged. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani denounced the exhibit as morally offensive. Giuliani had been enraged over other pieces of controversial art, such as “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” a 15-foot-tall photograph of a nude African-American woman portraying Jesus surrounded by disciples.
In response, Giuliani appointed a 20-member “decency commission” to review publicly funded art and determine the works’ moral content. If the commission deemed an artwork offensive to any religious, racial or ethnic group, the city could withdraw funding. Giuliani based his authority to form the commission on an obscure section of the City Charter that allowed him to appoint members of a cultural-affairs committee to review art subsidized by the public.
Giuliani also cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. However, a federal court ruled that doing so violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression. Consequently, the court forced the city to restore the museum’s funding and stop eviction proceedings against it.
In another instance of art-rage in 2001, artist Alma Lopez portrayed the Virgin of Guadalupe in a floral bikini. The collage was displayed in a state-run museum in Santa Fe, N.M. Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan, finding the portrayal insulting, expressed frustration that Catholic images were being singled out by artists. “No one would dream of putting Martin Luther King in Speedos and desecrating his memory by putting him in some outlandish outfit ... . But somehow it seems open season on Catholic symbols.”
Although efforts were made to banish “Our Lady” from the museum, a state judge refused to order its removal.

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