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April 1, 2002

Conference explores culture wars fought on arts battlefield

By Michael Terrazas


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 Library’s Jones Room, March 22–23.

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 venues.

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 wishes—indeed, the demands—of 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 nation’s 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 management”—“how much money do [corporations] have to give to get their logo where.”

“It’s not unusual for museums to be named after people,” Kurin said. “The Smithsonian itself is named after an Englishman. But now we’re getting the ‘new corporate rich,’ and the new corporate rich want their vision and their results for their money. That’s 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 they’re 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 Battlefields” workshop.