4:53am

Thu December 2, 2010
Art & Design

Gay Portraiture Exhibit Sparks Funding Debate

An exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington has sparked debate over federal funding for the arts. The exhibit, called Hide/Seek, features artists and cultural figures who were gay, or believed to be gay. A video in the exhibit was removed after it prompted complaints, but the debate didn't end there.

The four-minute video is about the death of the artist's partner from AIDS-related illness. It includes a shot of a crucifix crawling with ants.

A lay organization called the Catholic League protested. "The Smithsonian would never have little ants crawling all over an image of Mohammad," said Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

Donohue has some support from Congress. Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, urged the Portrait Gallery to shut down the whole show, calling it "an outrageous use of taxpayer money."

The exhibit actually was funded by private donors, but after receiving a flood of e-mails, gallery director Martin Sullivan removed the video.

"You know, I'm a practicing Christian and I think the members of the Portrait Gallery staff collectively understand that we have a real privilege to work here and to try to represent as best we can the diversity of American life," Sullivan said.

But the removal of the art may not have ended the debate. Donohue said he wants Congress to eliminate all federal funding for the Smithsonian.

"Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is to go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I'm insane. I don't go to museums any more than any Americans do," Donohue said.

The Smithsonian says about 30 million Americans each year visit its museums, which have exhibits ranging from obscure paintings to space capsules to the original star-spangled banner. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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