BOSTON — The Institute of Contemporary Art is small by most museum standards. Technically it isn't a museum at all, since it doesn't have a permanent collection. It's located in the Back Bay section of town, adjacent to a brownstone firehouse that was once a police station.
Right now, the institute's gallery space is in shambles as it prepares for a new show. The place is a clutter of letters and paint buckets, exposed electrical outlets and barrels of litter. Still on the walls are remnants of "Diamonds Are Forever," a show dedicated to stylish baseball memorabilia. But there won't be many Little Leaguers at the next exhibit, which opens Wednesday. It's titled "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment."
Boston is the final destination of a seven-city tour that has aroused bitter controversy and a major political row in Washington. In the balance hangs artistic freedom and even the very existence of the National Endowment for the Arts. And worse, the last institution to house the Mapplethorpe show--in Cincinnati--now has its director facing a trial on misdemeanor obscenity charges. Yet the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center attracted the largest attendance in its history for the Mapplethorpe photographs.
One thing is sure: the ICA and its director, David Ross, are on the right side of the law in Boston. On July 3, Massachusetts Atty. Gen. James Shannon was asked by a reporter whether the Mapplethorpe show was obscene and he opined, after viewing a catalogue of the show, that it wasn't. Shannon's official declaration effectively precluded any prosecution by zealous local officials. During the first week of July, a private group also asked Mayor Raymond Flynn to cancel the show. The group calling itself the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights charged that the ICA was housed in a city-owned building.
However, Bruce Rossley, commissioner for the mayor's office of arts and humanities, denies that the building belongs to the city, and adds that no taxpayer money--even for police--will be used in the Mapplethorpe exhibit. (Rossley added, for the record, that Mayor Flynn will not attend the show.)
Despite having the upper hand, the ICA's director believes that the Mapplethorpe exhibition has been damaged.
"The big lie of the radical right is that this exhibition is homosexual pornography and pedophilic pornography," said Ross. "It's been told so many times that, like all the big lies in history, it's begun to take place as a truism. It's not even a debated issue among people of a broad range of intellectual and ideological backgrounds."
Exhibit organizers may still have to face a battle from the state legislature. With the Mapplethorpe show and the controversial photographs of Andres Serrano (whose photograph of a crucifix dipped in a glass of urine sparked earlier local protests) in mind, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a last-minute amendment to bar state funds to any institution that displays artwork that is "offensive" to a religious group or depicts the sexual exploitation of children.
The legislation written by Rep. Thomas Finneran (D-Dorchester) was passed by a 2 to 1 margin in a late-night vote on May 22. It is currently bottled up in conference with the state Senate, which defeated the measure. Finneran's legislative aide, John Regan, said, "I venture to say this will not be a high priority" at ongoing conference sessions.
In the Boston City Council, conservative councilman James Kelly wrote an open letter to Mayor Flynn declaring that the Mapplethorpe photographs are designed "to stir the minds of pedophiles." Kelly asked that the directors of the ICA be charged with violations of the child pornography laws if they don't comply with police demands to remove the photographs of nude children. So far, the mayor has not responded, but a spokesman from the attorney general's office said that the photos violate child pornography laws only if they are "lewd and lascivious" and that the attorney general doesn't believe these photographs are.
Even moral support for the opponents of the Mapplethorpe show--who say they "want the same thing to happen in Boston as in Cincinnati"--has been lagging. The archdiocese newspaper, the Pilot, condemned the exhibition but acknowledged Mapplethorpe's artistic abilities. Even the conservative Murdoch-owned tabloid, the Boston Herald, long the champion for conservative causes, wrote an editorial on July 10 that stated "No one--repeat--no one is going to take people by the hand and force them into Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. No one is going to impress innocent bystanders."
And recently, eight managers and directors from Boston's oldest and largest arts institutions wrote to "affirm our support for the Institute of Contemporary Art."
With their legal strategies blocked, opponents of the Mapplethorpe show only have acts of civil disobedience and vocal demonstrations left in their arsenal. Already there have been arrests at the Robert Klein Gallery, located near Boston's South Station where Serrano's "Piss Christ" was on display.
Lisa Murphy, assistant director at the gallery, said that she was present on June 19 when "five individuals came into the gallery and stood in front of 'Piss Christ' with their rosary beads and stood there silently and prayed. They wouldn't speak to me. At the end of the day they went home. But they were standing directly in front of the photograph. On Wednesday, three people came back and again were standing in front of the photographs. They were trespassing and Robert (Klein) called the police to have them removed. They didn't acknowledge the policemen and they ended up being arrested. But we didn't press charges."
The protesters failed to identify any group affiliations.