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Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Richard Koshalek of the Hirshhorn Museum makes a stand against censorship

“Censorship has no role here... the only way to deal with these subjects is through dialogue"

Richard Koshalek, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, appears to have set himself in opposition to the Smithsonian’s secretary, G. Wayne Clough, who in December controversially removed a work of art from the National Portrait Gallery.

Koshalek, who is planning a series of debates on topical issues at the Hirshhorn, said that he anticipates controversy and plans to address issues head on. “We have taken a firm position that censorship has no role here,” he said. “We are not going to be reactive, but proactive. We look forward to the challenge because the only way to deal with these subjects is through dialogue.”

The “Art and Destruction” forum and an exhibition of the same title is due to take place in October 2012. This will be the first in a series that will be staged in an inflatable auditorium designed for the modern art museum’s rotunda.

David Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, 1987, was removed from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery by the institution’s secretary after complaints from a religious group and politicians (The Art Newspaper, January, p16).

The Hirshhorn’s board of trustees appears to back Koshalek. At the end of January the board published an open letter expressing its concern at events in the portrait gallery. The letter denounced any attempt to restrict the content of exhibitions, adding that it ran counter to the spirit of inquiry at the core of the Smithsonian’s mission. “Hence we are deeply troubled by the precedent the Institution’s leadership has set with its decision,” the trustees wrote.

An independent committee appointed by the Smithsonian in the wake of the controversy recommended last month that changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens “without meaningful consultation with the curator, director, secretary, and the leadership of the board of regents”. It also suggested staff training in dealing with controversy.

The Hirshhorn’s inaugural debate will focus on cultural diplomacy. Due to be held in its Diller, Scofidio + Renfro-designed “bubble”, possible speakers include Daniel Barenboim, the lead conductor of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, the artist William Kentridge and the historian Simon Schama.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“Censorship has no role here”'