A Fire in My Belly

As the director of the Seattle Art Museum, I am concerned about the recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” from an exhibition in Washington, DC.  Wojnarowicz, who died of complications from AIDS in 1992, made two versions of the film between 1986 and 1987.  Holland Cotter’s thorough discussion of the history of this particular work, the sources of its imagery, and Wojnarowicz’s life, which appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 10th, is worth reading.  The decision to withdraw this politically-charged, intentionally-troubling imagery from public view in Washington DC serves to remind us that controversy can ignite at almost any time, that it is almost always painful, and that those of us who are lucky enough to work in the arts need to be prepared to stand up for what we believe is right, if we are going to maintain democracy.  

Controversy of this kind does not play itself out in the same way in every place, however.  This community is different than Washington, DC, and not just because it is located at an extreme distance from the nation’s capital.  In the short while I have lived here, I have come to know Seattle as open-minded, intellectually-engaged, politically progressive, and eager to enter into public sphere debates.   We can be grateful about these qualities, since having earned them, they equip us to think deeply about the implications of showing (or not showing) a work that offends some and inspires others.   The goal of presenting the visual world to Seattle, and doing so as generously and broad-mindedly as possible, resides at the core of SAM’s mission.   We can’t afford to be inhibited in performing this role.   

I can only guess at the political pressures brought to bear on leaders of the National Portrait Gallery that might prompt the exceptional act of removing an object from an already-open-to-the-public exhibition.   Nobody I know would take lightly such a profound step.   Once taken, that decision feels like censorship, and because of this resemblance, we deplore it.   Together with my colleagues at other museums throughout Seattle and Tacoma, I’ve signed a letter which states clearly our group’s fundamental opposition to that decision.  Speaking as a museum director, it feels reassuring to be part of a professional community that can come together to emphasize solidarity around this important topic.  I am proud to stand with Sylvia, Barbara, Stephanie, Jo-Anne, Tim, Mark, and Beth on this and other critical issues.

What else can we do?  In the days since this issue has gained momentum, I’ve listened to my colleagues at this museum and at others.  I’ve talked with artists, trustees, journalists, gallerists, members, friends, and my family.   Virtually everyone I’ve spoken with agrees that SAM should do something to help the public better understand this complex problem.   Next week, SAM will put three works by David Wojnarowicz on view , including “A Fire in My Belly” (one of these works was previously shown here in 2002) along with a curatorial text that outlines the controversy for members of the public.  I will participate in a public program that the Henry is hosting on January 9th.    Precise time will follow.  The fact that we can have a civil discourse about tough issues is what makes us a truly great community.   I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue and welcome your comments. 


Derrick R. Cartwright