When Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in March, 1989, at age 42, only a small percentage of the people in the United States had heard of him. Since then, his reputation has spread nationwide, due to his controversial exhibition of a number of homoerotic photographs of men and a handful of nude photographs of children.
And the National Endowment for the Arts has been in the hot seat, since it awarded a $30,000 grant for Mapplethorpe's show to tour the country.In the spring of 1989, the exhibition was scheduled to open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. But Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., spearheaded the cancellation of that show.
In October of 1989, Helms ignited the issue in Congress by showing some of the pictures from the exhibit and stating that the NEA has no business funding these kinds of projects. His protests prompted Congress to limit NEA grants.
When the exhibit opened in Cincinnati last spring, charges were immediately filed against the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie. They were charged with a misdemeanor count of pandering obscenity. It was the first time an art gallery has faced obscenity charges.
The exhibition closed May 26, after 81,000 people had visited the gallery.
A judge ruled on Sept. 6 that the art center and its director must stand trial for displaying five sexually graphic photographs by Mapplethorpe. The maximum penalty of each charge was a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for Barrie and $5,000 fine for the center.
On Sept. 27, a jury of four men and four women listened to the charges, deliberated and announced their decision. Both the gallery and the director were acquitted.
However, legal fees and the cost of staging the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition all but canceled out the $445,000 the Contemporary Arts Center took in from the show.
On Aug. 1, 1990, the exhibit opened at The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. And scores of surporters were there toting their placards. In fact, supporters greatly outnumbered opponents.
One of the opponents, Jim Edgerley of the conservative American Freedom Coalition, said "These people are trying to force their morality on the rest of us."
Less than an hour after the museum doors opened, an estimated 200 visitors were lined up outside. The small museum allowed only 75 people every half hour to view the 124 photographs by Mapplethorpe.
Those who viewed Mapplethorpe's controversial exhibit responded differently:
"They are the most bizarre, perverted photos I have ever seen," said Evelyn Dubel of Morality in Media.
Margaret Mooney of Chicago said she didn't mind the sexually explicit, homoerotic pictures at all.
Opponents of the photo exhibit submitted a bid to halt the show, but a court clerk refused the request. Museum attorney Cassandra Warshowsky said that the exhibit was fully protected under the Constitution - the First Amendment.
On Oct. 11, the House defeated - by a 245-175 margin - a move to impose strict new anti-obscenity curbs on the NEA. Instead, the House took a look at a compromise plan offered by Reps. Pat Williams, D-Mont., and Thomas Coleman, R-Mo., that would scrap current anti-obscenity curbs on spending by the endowment and instead penalize grant recipients who violate obscenity laws. The plan would shift more federal grant money to the states.
The Senate Appropriations Committee derailed that bill. However, on Oct. 24, the `revised' compromise plan developed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was approved by the Senate, 73-24. The Hatch amendment requires artists whose projects are found obscene by the courts to repay the government. And they would be barred from receiving any new NEA grants for at least three years. This compromise freed NEA from obscenity rules.