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Mapplethorpe Display Brings Smut Charges

April 08, 1990|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CINCINNATI — A county grand jury Saturday indicted a Cincinnati museum and its director on charges of violating Ohio obscenity laws by exhibiting works by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Police did not confiscate the photographs, some of which depicted partially clothed children. Other photos showed men in sadomasochistic poses.

But Hamilton County Prosecutor Arthur Ney urged the downtown Contemporary Arts Museum to voluntarily take down seven works that the grand jury deemed obscene.

"There's always a possibility that each day this continues could be an added criminal action or sanction," Ney told reporters. "I'm not saying there will be; I'm saying there could be."

Museum officials vowed, however, that the photographs would not come down.

"There is nothing wrong with the exhibit," said Dennis Barrie, director of the 50-year-old arts center. "The show will continue."

Barrie and the arts center were each indicted on two misdemeanor counts of pandering obscenity and illegally using a minor in nudity-oriented material.

Barrie, who is to be arraigned next Friday, faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine of $2,000. The arts center faces a maximum fine of $10,000.

Amid the shouts of angry arts patrons, police temporarily closed the exhibit Saturday afternoon for about 90 minutes while they videotaped the show's contents for use as evidence. A crowd of several hundred people, including a number of sign-carrying students, sang patriotic songs, jeered at the police and chanted slogans such as "Gestapo go home!" and "The whole world is watching you."

Officials of the arts center had been expecting the police to take some action.

Since Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery canceled a showing of the Mapplethorpe photographs last summer the exhibit has contributed to a national debate on freedom of expression and federal funding of the arts. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has lead the opposition to exhibiting the photographs.

Cincinnati has long had a reputation for strict anti-pornography enforcement, and both Police Chief Lawrence Whalen and Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. had previously called some of the photographs obscene.

Fearing that the police might shut down the exhibit or remove some works, the arts center filed a lawsuit last month, seeking a ruling that the photographs are not obscene by community standards.

Hamilton County Muncipal Court Judge Edward Donnellon dismissed the lawsuit for lack of legal standing last Friday.

"I'm in the position of being a conservative spokesman in a very conservative town, but I believe in freedom of expression," said Roger Ach, president of the arts center board.

"The mission (of the arts center) is pretty clear," he said. "We have a mission to bring the best and try to exhibit the best, the leading edge of contemporary art. Certainly Robert Mapplethorpe and his photographs have been right on that leading edge since his work was first recognized."

Citizens for Community Values, a local anti-pornography group, was behind much of the uproar over the exhibit.

In recent weeks, the chairman of the arts center board resigned because of boycotts against his employer, a local bank. A second member of the board also resigned "because he had difficulty with the work," Ach acknowledged.

Controversy over the show, which has been brewing for several weeks, raised attendance levels to extraordinary levels. The 1,600-member arts center also got 500 additional members in the two weeks prior to the opening, spokesmen said.

An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 people paid $10 and stood in line for hours to view the exhibit during a private opening Friday night. Arts center spokeswoman Amy Bannister said the usually free openings normally draw from 600 to 1,100 people.

Another 1,700 people poured in during the five hours the show was open to the public Saturday before the police arrived.

One viewer, Marvin Melzer, said he had never heard of Mapplethorpe before the controversy started.

"With all the tragedies going on in the world, people dying, people out of work and wondering where they're going to get their next meal, for them to be screaming about nine or 10 naughty pictures seems to be something incredible," he said.

The viewers Saturday morning included the nine members of the Hamilton County grand jury, county prosecutors and several plainclothes policemen, who paid an admission fee to view the show along with members of the public.

Museum officials, who recognized some of the law enforcement officers, watched the detectives anxiously as they inspected the art.

Returning to the courthouse, the grand jury determined by early afternoon that seven of the 175 photographs on display were obscene. The museum was temporarily closed shortly after 2:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor was holding a press conference at the court house.

"Although I find the pertinent photographs personally offensive and obscene, my personal feelings have no legal consequence on the grand jury and its decision," Ney said in a statement. "The nine members of the grand jury, chosen at random from our community, viewed the exhibit as a whole and determined that seven photographs violated the obscenity law."

Because of concern over the show's content, explicit photographs depicting sadomasochistic sex are being shown in a separate gallery and no one under age 18 is being admitted. Nudes and photographs with sexual content, however, are scattered throughout the exhibit.

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