Arts controversies and the very nature of public cultural institutions
were two of the main subjects under discussion at the two-day workshop,
Cultural Battlefields: The Changing Shape of Controversy in
Exhibition and Performance, held in the Woodruff Librarys
Jones Room, March 2223.
Organized by the Center for Study of Public Scholarship (CSPS)
and sponsored by more than a dozen departments and divisions across
campus, the workshop featured scholars and officials not only from
the United States but around the world.
In the United States, the last two decades have been marked
by a series of debates over museum exhibits, displays and the cultural
politics of representation, said Corinne Kratz, CSPS co-director
and associate professor of anthropology and African studies, in
her opening address. Associated with and often triggering
battles in the so-called culture wars, certain exhibits
have become icons of the dangers, debates and repercussions associated
with such controversies, demarcating positions twoard the definitions
of culture and person in a society whose diversity is open to question.
Examples of these exhibits, Kratz continued, include the famous
(or infamous) Robert Mapplethorpe photography retrospective of the
mid-1990s, as well as less publicized events at the Smithsonian,
the Museum of International Folk Art (in Santa Fe, N.M.) and other
But beyond controversies over single exhibits, the workshop also
touched on the current plight of museums themselves. The need to
make ends meet financially has increasingly forced museums to balance
their artistic and scholarly integrity against the wishesindeed,
the demandsof benefactors.
And the problem is not restricted to smaller museums. Richard Kurin,
director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage,
spoke the morning of March 22 about recent developments at the nations
most prestigious and venerable cultural institution.
One potential benefactor recently withdrew her planned donation
of nearly $40 million to the Smithsonian, Kurin said, because the
museum balked at her plans to dedicate a wing to American high
achievers such as television personality Oprah Winfrey. It
has become virtually de rigeour for big donors to request that buildings
or galleries be named for them, and Kurin said a large portion of
his (and nearly all Smithsonian directors) time is dedicated
to logo managementhow much money do [corporations]
have to give to get their logo where.
Its not unusual for museums to be named after people,
Kurin said. The Smithsonian itself is named after an Englishman.
But now were getting the new corporate rich, and
the new corporate rich want their vision and their results for their
money. Thats how they made their money, and they see no difference
between how they made their money and how they use their money.
Ivan Karp, CSPS other co-director and NEH Professor of Liberal
Arts and African Studies, said the workshop is part of CSPS
work under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The grant supports
programming and cultural and academic exchange between Emory and
institutions in Cape Town, South Africa.
Part of our mandate is to do programming of interest to both
communities in Atlanta and in South Africa, Karp said. Obviously
the issue of arts controversies is one that is very important to
our South African participants because theyre trying to find
a place for the role of culture in a democratic society.
Ciraj Rassool and Leslie Witz, visiting CSPS Rockefeller fellows
in residence this year at Emory from the University of the Western
Cape in Cape Town, were featured speakers in the Cultural