A Robert Mapplethorpe photograph projected on the side of the Corcoran in 1989, as memorialized on the cover of Artforum. © Artforum, September 1989 [cover]
COURTESY EMP/SFM

Last week, Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame announced the hiring of a new director and CEO: Christina Orr-Cahall. A press release detailed "Noted Museum Leader" Orr-Cahall's efforts in the last 19 years at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, where she more than doubled the size of the permanent collection, quintupled the endowment, built two new wings, and won a National Medal for Museum and Library Service. What it did not mention (and what the Seattle Times failed to report) is that Orr-Cahall is famous—or infamous—in the art world for quite another reason.

It happened overnight, on June 12, 1989, when her name hit the news as the Washington, D.C., museum director who shut down a traveling Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition rather than tangle with the religious right. The outcry made world news. Giant Mapplethorpe images—the most explicit of the more than 100 photos of flowers, celebrities, and homoeroticism in the show—were projected on the sides of the museum's walls at night, and the exhibition itself went to another venue in the city anyway. Artists who had been scheduled to show at the Corcoran dropped out in protest. Membership fell. The museum lost a $1.5 million gift, and its chief curator resigned. After six months of turmoil, Orr-Cahall finally resigned. Her new employer, the Norton Museum, declared the situation "a nonissue" when she was hired there. EMP trustees seem to feel the same way; they did not respond to requests for their opinion of the events, only releasing this collective statement: "We are aware of Christina Orr-Cahall's full résumé, including her exemplary record of achievement and success at the Norton Museum of Art. She is one of the country's leading museum professionals, and the museum is confident that she will be an excellent leader for our institution."

In a way, Orr-Cahall's story is ancient history. And while the job in Seattle may be plum in some respects—interim EMP director Josi Callan made $339,192 in fiscal year 2007, according to tax records—it's also about as far as you can get from respected centers of culture without getting out of the museum business entirely. (A commenter on Slog, The Stranger's news and arts blog, recently compared EMP's relationship to museums with Geraldo Rivera's relationship to journalism, and that's not far off.) EMP is its own form of exile, not so different in some ways from South Florida. Orr-Cahall continues to serve her term for the crime of abandoning the art she was charged with defending when it needed her most (her job in Seattle starts July 1). Seattle contemporary art museum directors don't want to touch the subject: Both Henry Art Gallery director Sylvia Wolf, who curated a show of Mapplethorpe's Polaroids that comes to Seattle this fall, and former Henry director Richard Andrews, who worked as director of visual art for the National Endowment for the Arts—the agency most directly affected by the Culture Wars that began that spring of 1989—refused to comment on Orr-Cahall's imminent arrival in Seattle.

Decorous silence is one option. But why not give Orr-Cahall a chance to answer the lingering charges against her in a new city? If she had it to do over, would she do it differently?

Orr-Cahall said through a spokeswoman that she was too busy for a phone interview, but she wrote via e-mail that she had nothing to add to what was printed 20 years ago. (She also wrote that she didn't know yet whether EMP will focus more on art under her direction.) When she told the Seattle Times about EMP, "I really am interested in the whole visionary side, the fact that it pushes boundaries," Tyler Green fired back on his blog Modern Art Notes: "Back in 1989, Orr-Cahall wasn't as interested in 'the whole visionary side,' or in 'pushing boundaries'... The Corcoran—and in some ways the art world—still hasn't recovered."

Just as Orr-Cahall continues to live with what happened 20 years ago, so does American art.

The NEA has been in the news lately because its opponents didn't succeed in cutting the cultural workforce out of the Obama stimulus package. In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed by the House and Senate with $50 million to be funneled to arts workers through the NEA. The passage was important not just for the money, but for the symbolic realignment of the arts with basic American interests—the same interests that became so deeply divided in the Culture Wars, when Jesse Helms and his cronies, like Hitler before them, succeeded in linking artistic progressiveness with moral decay. Critic Christopher Knight at the Los Angeles Times led the charge in advocating for the symbolic readjustment, writing under the politically charged heading "Arts jobs are real jobs."

But this is only a fledgling start at repairing the profound damage done by Helms and company during the Culture Wars, when American culture was first neutered and then sent on a rightward drift. The NEA stopped giving grants to individual artists, turning its support to institutions, which are governed in part by business interests. More broadly, the legacy of the Culture Wars—which culture lost—was the implantation of anxiety in arts presenters and suspicion in audiences, creating a self-perpetuating chilling effect that still affects how art is exhibited across the country. In 1978, when Mapplethorpe photographed himself as a demon with a bullwhip dangling out of his ass like a tail, he was drawing attention to the demonization of the gay man. What he couldn't have known—he died just months before his show, which had already been exhibited without incident in Philadelphia and Chicago, was canceled in D.C.—is that artists were about to join the ranks of the demonized. Artists were an expedient way for right-wingers to get at the real targets: the same uppity women and gays who Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell would later say brought on September 11.

"It was nasty," said Stephan Salisbury, a Philadelphia Inquirer cultural affairs writer who covered the Culture Wars, by phone this past week.

He describes Orr-Cahall's place in the chain of events this way: "The primary function of a museum when you get beyond continuing the institution is to organize exhibitions that engage the public and perhaps educate, excite the imagination, stimulate discussion, enrich people's lives, you know, all the litany of clichés. Here she had the ultimate opportunity to do all of those things, and what did she do? She said no. She failed the test.

"What the Corcoran did by canceling that show was create an effect, the desired effect of the right... Once that happened, the entire right began jumping on every conceivable grant, every artist, every show you could imagine, looking to promote a similar effect: Shut it down, create a lot of noise, and do so while seeming to be defending American decency and values. But how do you defend American values, a core value being freedom, by shutting things down? It's an oxymoron. But we've been ruled by oxymorons for a couple of decades now."

Orr-Cahall is not the real villain of the Culture Wars: That role must be reserved for the bigots who fomented the backlash that eventually led to the strategic fracturing of the American populace and the election of George W. Bush. But she occupies the role of the stranger in the house of culture, and this house still needs defending.

So what did she learn all those years ago? Without the benefit of an interview with her, all we have are the public records in newspaper archives. She defended her decision at first by saying she and Corcoran trustees were trying to keep the art and the museum (which was federally funded) from becoming politicized. Shortly after that, under fire, the museum issued a cool statement of regret, but no concession of wrongdoing. That only angered art supporters more.

Some of her final words on the subject came out a short time later, in a sympathetic Washington Post feature that failed to generate much attention. Here there's a glimmer of a real apology: "Now I think we should have done it, we should have bitten the bullet, we should have stood up for artistic rights. We should have done the show and seen what happened." When she was hired by the Norton in 1990, she told the Miami Herald, "You take with you what you as an individual would do. You leave behind what you had to do as an administrator."

In the Post, Orr-Cahall spoke of the moment as a crossroad, and said she often wondered what would have happened if she'd taken the other path. There was a museum director who did: Dennis Barrie at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. When the Mapplethorpe exhibition made its next stop after D.C. in Cincinnati, the far-right group Citizens for Community Values was waiting to pounce. Under direct pressure, Barrie and his trustees refused to cancel the show, and when it opened, the police swept in. Barrie became the first museum director in American history indicted for putting on an exhibition. By a jury of his peers, he—and Mapplethorpe—were exonerated. In the movie version of the trial, James Woods plays Barrie. And in a strange coincidence, Barrie went on to become director of a rock-and-roll museum: He was the first head of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

What a difference a "nonissue" makes. recommended

More details about Orr-Cahall's decision and the unbelievable mess surrounding which photograph accompanied this story are here and here.