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Cover Story: Then and Now: Mapplethorpe CAC

What was it like 10 years ago? What does it mean today?

By John Fox · March 30th, 2000 · Cover Story
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  Dennis Barrie faced the media when Cincinnati police entered the CAC on April 7, 1990
Jon Hughes/photopresse.com

Dennis Barrie faced the media when Cincinnati police entered the CAC on April 7, 1990



Ten years ago, Cincinnati police officers walked into the Contemporary Arts Center and presented CAC Director Dennis Barrie and board members with four indictments against Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, which had opened to the public that morning. Barrie would later say the police had symbolically walked into every arts institution in the country. When they demanded that we take the photos down they had found offensive, they were seeking the censorship of all art that was challenging, provocative or not politically correct.

Hundreds of people waited in the arcade outside the CAC while police closed the facility and videotaped the exhibit to use as evidence in criminal cases against Barrie and the center. The crowd became agitated, chanting and booing the cops who remained stationed at the center's front doors. Rumors flew that the police would seize the objectionable art and that Barrie would be led out in handcuffs.

Barrie finally emerged from the galleries inside to address the crowd. He was visibly shaken, filled with outrage at the CAC having been violated by the police. Everyone hushed to hear him speak. He put his hands over his face, later admitting, I thought I'd lose it right there.

Barrie urged the crowd to be patient and said everyone would be admitted to the show once the police were finished with their business. It was the lowest moment for him in the entire Mapplethorpe ordeal.

Mary Magner ran the CAC bookstore, where the exhibition catalog was sold containing the same images in the galleries. When the board decided not to let anyone under 18 into the Mapplethorpe exhibit, the same rule applied to people wishing to view the show catalog. One day a woman brought her 5-year-old daughter into the store, then located on the arcade level at the foot of the escalators, to show her the Mapplethorpe catalog so the girl could see what the controversy was all about.

I told the woman that she could buy it and take it home, but if they looked at it in the store I could go to jail, Magner says.

A few days after the exhibit opened, plain-clothed Cincinnati Vice Squad officers walked around the CAC store for about 30 minutes. It ended up being the only time they staked out the store.

As I watched them watch me, Magner says, it hit home that the Mapplethorpe controversy effected all of us, not just Dennis. It was my moment to face going to jail.

Carolyn Krause, then the CAC's director of publications and merchandise, remembers Magner nervously calling her while the vice cops were in the store.

She finally blurts out, "I can't go to jail. I'm wearing pearls!', Krause says.

One day, after the exhibit had been open a few weeks, a man in overalls walked into the CAC. He had mud on his boots, mud on his overalls and a weathered, suburned face. He said he'd just gotten off his tractor in his fields, jumped in his car and drove to downtown.

He presented a check for a small amount, $20 or $25, and explained that he'd fought in World War II for the freedom for people to do what they want.

The person working the front desk asked the man if he wanted to come in and view the Mapplethorpe exhibit, and he said no. I just want to support my right to see it, he said, then turned and left.

Most Cincinnatians know Robert Mapplethorpe's name, but they probably couldn't tell you why. Many people around the country connect Mapplethorpe with Cincinnati, but again the details are fuzzy.

Next week will mark 10 years since a traveling retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work opened at the Contemporary Arts Center. It also marks 10 years since Dennis Barrie became the first American museum director indicted for hanging art on a gallery wall.

And it marks 10 years since one of the two defining battles -- the other being Barrie's trial later that fall -- between Cincinnati's conservative establishment and its arts supporters and First Amendment activists.

Myths abound about what happened in 1990: that Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was a last-minute addition to the CAC season intended to provoke religious conservatives; that the exhibit was shut down and art removed; that Barrie and the CAC lost the trial; that the entire episode ultimately was meaningless.

In fact, the CAC didn't do anything to anyone -- it did its job, which is to present challenging contemporary art that examines issues and raises questions. When local law enforcement tried to corrupt the center's mission, record numbers of Cincinnatians attended the Mapplethorpe show, became CAC members and marched in the streets to support Barrie's decision not to back down.

It was a short-lived moment of euphoria, however. Once Barrie and the center were acquitted of all charges, CAC attendance and membership fell back to pre-Mapplethorpe levels. Local law enforcement continued investigating artists. Barrie eventually left town to run the fledgling Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At the 10-year anniversary, many Cincinnatians are left with two questions: What was it like back then, and what's it like now?

Dennis Barrie calls from his office in Cleveland, where he's an executive with the Malrite Company and spends part of his time consulting with museums. When asked if people who meet him for the first time recognize him as "the guy from Mapplethorpe" or "the guy who opened the Rock Hall of Fame," he laughs.

It's about 50-50, he says, noting that the Mapplethorpe questions are increasing now as publicity mounts about the Showtime film, Dirty Pictures. James Wood plays Barrie in what Barrie calls "a very serious and thoughtful" look at the events of 1990. (See "Mapplethorpe/CAC Story Makes It to the Movies" on page 22.)

"The film will provide closure for a lot of people over the Mapplethorpe ordeal," he says. "It is for me and my children. We watched a rough cut of it the other night, and it's helping bring closure to that time for us.

"No one in Cincinnati or anywhere should be in denial over what happened 10 years ago. The CAC came out of it a stronger institution. It's going ahead with the new building. It's more robust than ever."

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, a retrospective of the artist's 20-year career comprised of 175 photographs and sculptural objects. Much of the work had been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1988. The Philadelphia show was held from December 1988 to January 1989 to critical acclaim.

Curated by the ICA's former director, Janet Kardon, the exhibit featured controversial photos depicting Mapplethorpe's life and friends in New York's gay subculture in Greenwich Village as well as portraits, still lifes and flowers. The show was to appear in six other cities over an 18-month period: Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Hartford, Conn.; Berkeley, Calif.; Cincinnati; and Boston.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment would be the fourth major exhibition in the Contemporary Arts Center's five-slot 1989-1990 season. The season opened in September with Encore II, previously exhibited work celebrating the CAC's 50th anniversary.

Few people connected to the CAC thought, as they marked the center's golden anniversary, that the 1989-1990 season would come close to being the institution's last.

The first stop on the show's tour was Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where it was exhibited in March and April 1989. The city's daily papers and the Chicago Reader printed glowing reviews.

In the same month it opened there, Robert Mapplethorpe, 42, died after a bout with AIDS.

The show then moved to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, was waging another of his high-profile battles against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). With the work being exhibited within view of the U.S. Capitol and with its artist having just died from AIDS, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment became Helms' target of the moment and reason No. 1 to cancel all federal funding for the NEA.

Officials at the Corcoran, thinking they could deny Helms ammunition to use against the arts, pulled the plug on the Mapplethorpe show, which was to have opened in June 1989. Instead of closing ranks around the NEA, however, the move opened a huge can of worms.

Artists, museum directors and arts supporters everywhere criticized the Corcoran for caving into Helms. A Washington non-profit arts group hastily organized a venue to present Mapplethorpe's work for interested local residents.

The Corcoran's director, Christina Orr-Cahall, resigned six months later after intense second-guessing from inside and outside Washington.

The Corcoran's cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment put the artist's work on the map and put the show squarely in the sights of NEA foes across the United States. It also put the four museums still to exhibit it on notice that Mapplethorpe's work would not arrive in their cities as just another contemporary art show.

Conservative forces in Cincinnati, seeing Helms' success at intimidating the Corcoran into shutting down the exhibition, quietly started organizing their opposition to the Mapplethorpe show at the Contemporary Arts Center. Certainly, with their ties to local law enforcement, the dominant Republican Party and the media, they anticipated building a solid front against the CAC.

Meanwhile, CAC staff saw the Corcoran debacle as a marketing opportunity. Come see the show banned in Washington, they envisioned saying in promotional materials.

The CAC's board of trustees questioned Barrie several times in the period after the Corcoran cancellation about how the center would deal with negative publicity surrounding Mapplethorpe but voted unanimously to go forward with the show in Cincinnati. Privately, board members wondered how they would have reacted if they'd been advising the Corcoran's director.

Soon enough, they'd find out for themselves.

Charles Desmarais has been director of the Contemporary Arts Center for almost five years. In 1990, he was heading an art museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., and following the news out of Cincinnati about the indictments.

He remembers the media in Southern California being heightened about anything involving sex and art, controversial artists and public funding of the arts. Every museum director suddenly was put on notice to some extent that they were being "watched."

"I never thought it would turn out badly for the CAC," Desmarais says. "From a distance, I always thought it would turn out in favor of the Constitution."

Desmarais sits in his office in the back corner of the CAC administrative space. Offices were relocated here, just down the Skywalk from the galleries, some time after the Mapplethorpe controversy died down.

He says that many people he meets for the first time bring up the Mapplethorpe connection to the CAC. But within day-to-day interactions among staff, board and members, the subject seldom comes up.

"Mapplethorpe is not a blemish on Cincinnati or on the CAC," Desmarais says. "Democracy is about having conversations like what happened back then. Even in New York City, with the Brooklyn Museum controversy, you can have a difference of opinions."

The role of the CAC in 2000, he says, is to encourage discussion about important issues through art.

"Maybe the CAC is like that courtroom back in 1990," he says. "They showed the jury the Mapplethorpe photos and debated them. That's the same thing we do here."

(See full interview with Charles Desmarais on page 24.)

Louis Sirkin says he first heard about Robert Mapplethorpe in late 1989. His law partner, Marc Mezibov, had been invited to participate in a First Amendment conference at the University of Cincinnati but had to back out, and Sirkin appeared instead.

Also on the panel were Cincinnati attorney Allen Brown, famed for his obscenity defense work for Larry Flynt and others; Cincinnati City Councilman Peter Strauss; and Thomas Grossmann, attorney for Citizens for Community Values (CCV), the Sharonville group that specialized in anti-pornography crusades.

The conference dealt primarily with First Amendment issues surrounding the Ku Klux Klan, Sirkin remembers, but during its course a TV reporter asked him about how the law covers sexually explicit images by artists such as Mapplethorpe.

Sirkin says he doesn't remember his specific response to the question, but Strauss said he'd seen Mapplethorpe's work and raved about it. Grossmann showed Mapplethorpe's photo of a young girl named Rosie posing in a way that reveals her genital area, prompting a discussion of protected speech, community standards and the legal definition of obscenity.

Sirkin found out later that Barrie and the CAC's director of communications, Amy Banister, were in the audience at the conference.

In early 1990, when it became obvious to the CAC board that CCV was beginning to mount a concerted effort to disrupt the Mapplethorpe show in Cincinnati, Barrie and Stuart Schloss -- a local attorney who served on the CAC board of trustees -- approached Sirkin and Mezibov about representing the Contemporary Arts Center if legal maneuvers were required to keep the show open. They readily agreed.

From October to December 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was hosted by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Banister sent an internal memo to all CAC staff on Oct. 23 to report that the exhibition's opening night attracted 4,500 people, four times the museum's normal attendance for an opening, and that it had attracted a good deal of positive media coverage.

At the time, the CAC staff consisted of 10 full-timers: Barrie, Banister, Krause, Magner, administrative assistant and membership coordinator Jennifer Adams, receptionist Kathryn Diamond, associate curator Jan Riley, curator Jack Sawyer, business manager Barbara January and preparator Robert Swaney.

Several staffers remember Barrie explaining in staff meetings that many of the Mapplethorpe images were tough but that art often isn't just pretty when it's about the human condition.

Dennis told us that Mapplethorpe spent a lot of time documenting life in Greenwich Village during the 1980s, when AIDS was epidemic in the gay community there, Magner says. Most of the subjects in the Mapplethorpe show were dead by then, as was Mapplethorpe.

At one staff meeting, while discussing the show's controversial images, Swaney said, Maybe it'll help get some people in the door. We could hire some pickets for the publicity.

We had no idea what we were in for, Magner says.

After Hartford, the show moved to the University of California-Berkeley's University Art Museum from January to early March, 1990. After a generally quiet, positive run there, Mapplethorpe's 175 photographs and constructions were crated up and shipped to Cincinnati.

On March 7, 1990, Citizens for Community Values members met to formulate a strategy for halting Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, which was to run at the CAC April 6-May 26. The group said it objected to nine images in the show that depicted sexual or sado-masochistic scenes.

In memos to his board and membership, CCV President Monty Lobb Jr. said the organization would adopt a low profile in taking action against the exhibit because prosecution of the most objectionable and possibly obscene photographs will occur....

While local law enforcement was scheduled to handle the dirty work, Lobb still encouraged CCV's 16,000 members to write anti-Mapplethorpe letters to the CAC and local newspapers and to contact corporations and individuals connected to the exhibit to express CCV's concerns about their involvement.

A critical public salvo in the campaign, Lobb wrote to his members, was a planned guest editorial in The Cincinnati Enquirer from three local physicians decrying the harmful effects of pornography.

We don't want cancellation of the entire exhibit, Lobb told The Cincinnati Post when confronted with the memos. We do want to educate the public about the exhibit, bring it to a public debate and let the public decide if the (nine) photos should come to Cincinnati.

Out of sight of the public eye, however, the quantity and quality of CCV's membership rolls worked to wear down the opposition.

CAC staffers remember receiving tons of mail protesting the exhibit, much of it form letters featuring similar wording. Protest calls came in daily, again featuring similar wording; some callers complained about the Apple Bee or Maple Tree show.

Dozens of customers of Central Trust Bank (now PNC) cut up their bank-issued credit cards and mailed them back to the company to target Chad Wick, a Central Trust executive who served as chairman of the CAC's board of trustees. The bank -- which didn't sponsor or have any official connection to the exhibit -- also was threatened with the loss of millions of dollars in deposits.

George Ballou II, owner of West Shell Inc., and Carl Lindner III, who served on CCV's advisory board, helped organize behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the Mapplethorpe show. One avenue was through the Fine Arts Fund, Cincinnati's annual fund-raising campaign that provides unrestricted operating revenue to the city's Big Eight arts institutions, including the CAC.

Ballou announced in March that his company -- one of the largest corporate contributors to the Fine Arts Fund -- would withhold its donation to the 1990 fund unless the CAC was cut off. The fund allocation represented 17 percent of the CAC's total income the previous year.

I think the exhibit is wrong, Ballou told The Post. It's not something that should be in this community. I think it should be stopped. I think it's pornographic. ... The real shame is how it has polarized this community.

CCV had set the battle lines. On one side were Barrie, his staff, his board and its attorneys. On the opposite side, heavy economic pressure was put on one of the CAC's primary sources of income, the Fine Arts Fund, and on its board chairman via one of the city's big banks.

At least the area's arts institutions would stand united against this serious threat to artistic freedom, right? Well, not exactly.

Lou Sirkin and Marc Mezibov sit in the library of their Fourth Street law firm, Sirkin Pinales Mezibov & Schwartz. Their feet are propped up on the heavy conference table as they help each other remember details of meetings and motions from 10 years ago.

Mezibov had joined Sirkin's firm just a year before they took the CAC assignment. Each had plenty of experience defending obscenity cases but, like friends do, they'd argue at almost every step of the way trying to figure out how to fend off the legal threat to Barrie and the center.

Sirkin laughs when he reveals the pair's main motivation to succeed back then: fear.

"We always felt a New York law firm would be brought in to take the case away from us," he says. "This was a huge deal nationally and internationally. We worked our asses off."

And, against long odds, they beat the charges.

"The overwhelming feeling afterwards was relief," Sirkin says. "The CAC board was like a parent whose child climbs out on a dangerous ledge and survives: 'Whew! I'm glad you're OK, but don't ever do it again.' "

"It was like Bastille Day," Mezibov says of the board's desire to quickly sweep the Mapplethorpe experience away. "The prisoners worked hard to get released, left the prison, looked around and went back inside."

The result of the CAC leadership's immediate push to "move on," the attorneys feel, was the sense that CAC supporters won the battle but ultimately lost the war.

"Groups like CCV have grown in size, get their nose into every issue and get a lot of press coverage from The Enquirer," Sirkin says. "The threat of prosecution and high-cost legal battles has led to self-censorship in the local arts. The CAC has changed, in my opinion, and now is more interested in fund-raising and corporate support of the board."

"Nothing's changed in Cincinnati in 10 years," Mezibov says. "To get ahead you still have to get along."

On March 21, the CAC held a press conference to confirm that Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment would go forward as planned. Barrie had invited representatives of Greater Cincinnati educational, religious and cultural institutions to appear in support of the beleaguered CAC.

Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Ivan Nagy said he'd been pressured not to attend the press conference but did anyway because I'm not into blackmail.

Others appearing included Cincinnati Playhouse Executive Director Kathleen Norris, Ohio Arts Council Vice Chairman Bing Davis and Bishop William Black of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.

Cincinnati Art Museum Director Millard Rogers and Taft Museum Director Ruth Meyer also appeared, helping to offer the impression that the city's main visual arts organizations were in solidarity in fighting the Citizens for Community Values campaign. In fact, Rogers and Meyer represented only themselves, as their respective boards refused to take an official position to support the CAC and Mapplethorpe.

CAC staffers say the lack of official support from the Art Museum and the Taft dealt a blow to staff morale. Barrie, after the obscenity trial ended that fall, said the split in support from other arts institutions was one of the low points during the Mapplethorpe ordeal.

I understand fear and intimidation, and I understand some of those places might have thought we were wrong, Barrie told Channel 9 in a post-trial interview. But, in the end, you must stand up for the principle. And if you as an institution don't do it, eventually they'll hang you like they hung us.

One of the high points during that time was when Art Museum staff took up a collection and donated it to the CAC to show their individual support. The days leading up to the exhibit opening were like that, staff members recall -- one moment calling the bomb squad to investigate a suspicious package, the next getting a $400 check from fellow arts organization staffs.

In the days following Barrie's press conference, the psychological and legal battle over the CAC's right to show Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment broke into a full-scale war. The first casualty was Wick, who resigned as board chairman on March 22 to ease the pressure on Central Trust.

It was an emotional decision for everyone involved, but Wick's fellow board members understood that his departure was the right thing for him to do. There were no hard feelings.

After realizing that other board members were as vulnerable to pressure as Wick, the board decided to leave the position of chairman open, putting the reins in the hands of board president Roger Ach, who ran Chicago West Pullman and was still relatively new to Cincinnati. He'd been recruited to the chairman-in-waiting position by Wick a couple of years earlier.

Ach later said he'd joined the CAC board under one condition -- that Wick promise to serve as chairman throughout his term as president so Ach could learn the ropes. With less than three weeks until opening night of the Mapplethorpe show, Ach was going to have to learn on the run.

The second casualty was the CAC's Fine Arts Fund allocation. After Ballou's threat of withholding his corporate donation, the CAC board decided to voluntarily withdraw from the fund's 1990 campaign so as not to harm the campaign's success.

The Fine Arts Fund had allocated $279,500 to the CAC in 1989. That income was now gone.

The CAC further decided to segregate all income -- NEA funds, state funds, previous Fine Arts Fund money and private and corporate gifts -- away from Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. The exhibit, which cost the CAC $50,000 to present, would be funded entirely by ticket sales and by one corporate sponsor, Lightborne Communications -- and no other government entity, person or company could be targeted for financially supporting the show.

Lightborne is owned by Thomas R. Schiff, at that time a CAC board member (who's also chief executive officer of Lightborne Publishing, which owns CityBeat). The video production company had signed on as a secondary sponsor of the Mapplethorpe show -- at a sponsorship level around $10,000 -- but became its sole sponsor when no other local companies came forward.

With the loss of its Fine Arts Fund allocation and the risk of paying for the exhibit through ticket sales, the Contemporary Arts Center faced a potential net loss of almost $320,000 out of a total budget of $1.3 million. Would the public respond by attending the show?

Would local law enforcement even allow the public an opportunity to attend the show?

Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, known for his prosecution of Larry Flynt and other pornography cases over the previous two decades, was asked by the local media if he was going to move against the CAC because of some of the Mapplethorpe photos. He said his office was reviewing its options, adding, The pictures I have seen certainly have been criminally obscene.

Inside the CAC, staffers were concerned about what Leis would do. Outside the center, representatives of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the late artist's estate were concerned as well. Rumors were flying that police would confiscate some of the photos to use as evidence in an obscenity case against the CAC, but those photos were worth a lot of money and were due in Boston for the next leg of the exhibit's tour.

Leis wanted to smash the photos, Sirkin says. But he couldn't, because he needed them as evidence. Then the foundation sent someone here with a lawyer to watch out for the art. They were afraid of losing their artwork.

On March 27, the CAC and the Mapplethorpe Foundation made a preemptive move to force the issue with local law enforcement. They filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Municipal Court requesting a judgment that Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment didn't violate Ohio obscenity statutes. Named as defendants in the suit were Leis, Hamilton County Prosecutor Arthur Ney, Cincinnati Police Chief Lawrence Whalen and Cincinnati Soliticitor Richard Castellini.

We were in a no-lose situation at that point, Sirkin says. The whole case could have been tried and solved before the show opened, and if they'd ruled against us we would have been in the same boat anyway.

Around this time, The Enquirer weighed in with a Sunday editorial recommending a calm resolution to the all-too-public feud. The Mapplethorpe mess, like earlier tangles with Flynt, was giving Cincinnati a bad name nationally, the paper argued, and nobody can feel very good about it.

The Enquirer's editorial page, of course, was run then by Publisher William Keating -- former Republican Congressman and brother of Charles, the man who helped make Cincinnati a center of the anti-pornography universe in the 1960s and '70s.

The editorial considered the freedom of expression issues raised by CAC backers but ultimately dismissed them as beside the point. Isn't the issue, rather, who should be allowed to speak for Cincinnati in the matter of community standards?, it concluded.

The CAC made a few more decisions in response to public concerns about the show. First, the more explicit photos -- organized into what were known as the X, Y and Z portfolios -- were separated into their own corner of the show's exhibition space to allow visitors to avoid seeing them if they didn't want to. And no one under 18 would be allowed into the show without a parent. (That decision was later amended to no admission to anyone under 18, period.)

In a conciliatory effort, the CAC's curator invited Cincinnati police officers to view the show's contents after they were placed in the galleries, walking them through and explaining the work on April 2. The police took no action.

With the show hung and a lawsuit filed against local law enforcement leaders, CAC staffers could do nothing but wait for opening night. Two days before the show was to begin, a crowd of 1,000 or so rallied on Fountain Square to support the CAC, the Mapplethorpe show and artistic freedom.

On April 5, Sirkin and Mezibov filed a motion for summary judgment in their lawsuit. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was to open the next night with a members' preview party and would open to the public the following day.

Among the tight-knit CAC staff, there was a sense of anticipation that, one way or another, the next two days would be a time they'd never forget. There also was a sense that history would be made.

At 2 p.m. on April 6, a Hamilton County Municipal Court judge dismissed the CAC's suit without comment. Four hours later, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment opened to members, invited guests and the media.

More than 4,000 people paid $10 a head to attend the preview party, and CAC staff -- fearing even the smallest breach of law -- carefully controlled the number of people in the galleries at any one time per the center's fire code allowance. Some visitors had to wait in line for nearly three hours, but everyone who showed up got in to see the exhibit.

In a letter from the CAC's board of trustees, visitors were told of the institution's financial predicament because of the show. Many realized for the first time the threat to the CAC.

The Contemporary Arts Center and the people of Cincinnati are facing a serious challenge to our right to make our own choices about what we can see..., the letter read. Now, more than ever, we need the help of our members and our friends. ... Increased membership and special contributions at this time will help us offset that (Fine Arts Fund) financial loss -- but even more, visible support will send a strong message to our community that we will not let the First Amendment be compromised.

The members' preview finally ended at 1 a.m.

Later that morning, a Saturday, with a huge line already formed at the CAC's front door, the show opened to the public at 9:25. A reporter covering the opening had brought a police band radio that day, and shortly after the center opened an announcement came over the radio: The grand jury is out.

A grand jury had been impaneled that morning and was brought to the CAC, where each member paid full admission to view the Mapplethorpe exhibit. They mingled with other visitors, stayed in the galleries for half an hour and left.

Around noon, the grand jury issued four indictments -- charges of pandering obscenity and of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented materials against both the CAC and Barrie. The indictments named seven photographs in the show -- five featuring male sexual behavior and two portraits of nude or partially nude children, including Rosie, the image shown by CCV's attorney at the First Amendment conference several months earlier.

At a press conference at the Hamilton County Courthouse, Leis, Ney and Whalen challenged the CAC board to voluntarily remove from the exhibit the seven works named in the indictments.

Back at the CAC, the staff processed hundreds of people through the doors while still getting used to new procedures. Slightly higher admission fees were in effect for the Mapplethorpe show, as was the ban on anyone under 18.

Around 2:30 p.m., police sirens could be heard on Fifth Street outside the Mercantile Building, the CAC's home. Twenty or more uniformed and plain-clothes Cincinnati police officers walked down the building's marble-floored breezeway and parted the hushed crowd waiting in line, rode the short escalator to the CAC's front door and presented the indictments to Barrie and Ach.

No one really knew what to expect next. Would the police seize photographs off the walls of the Contemporary Arts Center? Would they chain the CAC closed for good? Would Dennis Barrie and board members be led away in cuffs?

A museum director had never been indicted in the United States before for presenting an art show, so no one -- Barrie, Ach, their attorneys -- quite knew how the confrontation with police would turn out.

The officers cleared all visitors from the CAC, closed the facility and proceeded to videotape the exhibit for evidence. Several hundred people in the Mercantile arcade, thinking the show was being shut down, began chanting, booing and waving banners and signs. They also began directing their anger at the handful of cops left outside the CAC for crowd control.

Swaney, the CAC's preparator, used a bullhorn to address the crowd, telling them that the cops in the plaza were there for protection and that everyone who wanted to see the show would be let back in after the police finished their business.

Barrie, still a free man, stepped to the top of the escalators to thank the crowd for its support and to announce the CAC would soon be open again for business.

After 90 minutes or so, the officers left the CAC with their evidence and were greeted with taunts and chants from the crowd. Several people raised their arms in a Nazi-like salute.

Later that night, Sirkin and Mezibov went to the home of U.S. District Court Judge Carl Rubin to file a civil rights action claiming bad faith prosecution. They were afraid that, with evidence now in hand, Cincinnati police would return Monday and close the CAC.

Rubin agreed to hold an emergency hearing the next morning, a Sunday, at the University of Cincinnati School of Law. He issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the police from seizing works or closing the CAC until after a decision could be rendered in a criminal trial -- which effectively meant the Mapplethorpe show would be allowed to run its full course.

Judge Rubin was a hero that day, Sirkin says.

No one on the CAC's current full-time staff worked at the center 10 years ago. The last employee with first-hand Mapplethorpe experience, Carolyn Krause, departed a few years ago.

Just because he wasn't at the CAC in 1990, Charles Desmarais says, he can still appreciate what happened. The center is now its 61st year, and he sees himself and his staff as the caretaker of all that history.

He says he'd rather look ahead and plan for the center's future than dwell on the past, which is why the CAC has scheduled no official activities to mark the 10th anniversary of the Mapplethorpe show.

"I don't want everything here to revolve around one moment from 10 years ago," Desmarais says. "I knew when I first started here that the CAC needed to have an image larger than just Mapplethorpe. I didn't know it at the time, but that image is the new building."

Designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, the new Contemporary Arts Center at Sixth and Walnut streets is moving ahead with support from city officials and state lawmakers. An ambitious capital fund-raising campaign is inching closer to its goal.

"We want to change the whole concept of what a museum can be with this building," Desmarais says.

The next seven weeks passed relatively uneventfully at the CAC -- except for 16-hour days, jam-packed galleries, constant media attention and strategy sessions to prepare for a trial.

Attendance numbers piled up to incredible levels, setting records that still stand. Almost 30,000 people saw the show in the first 13 days; 48,000 saw it in the first 27 days; more than 81,000 saw it during the entire run.

Membership also exploded, from 1,600 before the exhibit to 2,800 a month after opening to a peak of 3,500.

(For comparison, the best-attended CAC show in the past five years has been the current one featuring David Byrne, with 15,100 visitors so far; total attendance for the 1998-99 season was 49,000; current membership is 1,710.)

The Fine Arts Fund broke with tradition and allowed donors to designate which institution would receive their funds, helping both those who wanted no money to go to the CAC and those who wanted all their money to go to the CAC. In the end, the center received almost $260,000 from the 1990 Fine Arts Fund campaign -- 20 percent below what had been budgeted when the season began, but a whole lot more than nothing.

Helped by the Mapplethorpe show, ticket revenue for the 1989-90 season increased almost seven times over the previous season; membership revenue almost doubled. But gifts, pledges and grants during the year were cut by more than half.

The bottom line was that the CAC increased revenues over the previous season but was faced with huge legal bills to defend both the institution and its director against criminal charges.

To many museum directors, board members and arts supporters, Barrie had taken the anti-NEA and anti-free expression heat for all of them. And he wasn't finished yet -- the trial loomed, and with it the possibility of conviction and jail.

Dennis Barrie's thoughts are with many people in Cincinnati as the 10-year anniversary approaches and the Showtime film gears up for release. That period was a difficult time for a lot of people, he says, for the CAC's staff, its board and its supporters.

Perhaps it's easy for people to forget what happened in 1990, he says, and perhaps it's natural for artists to grow weary of fighting the power structure. The willingness to take artistic risks has diminished across the country, he says, producing fairly tame art these days.

But, Barrie feels, people should try to remember when the arts mattered to them. And Cincinnatians should remember Mapplethorpe.

"The CAC should be proud of what happened 10 years ago," he says. "The city of Cincinnati should be quite proud of itself for those days."

The story of the criminal trial of Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center must be left for another time -- perhaps its 10th anniversary this fall. The short version is that the trial was held in Hamilton County Municipal Court from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5, when a jury of eight men and women acquitted Barrie and the CAC on all four charges.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was shown at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art Aug. 1-Oct. 4, the final stop on its national tour. In September, a Boston judge ruled against a request from the American Family Association to halt the exhibit, quickly ending that city's only significant protest against the show.

In an editorial after the CAC verdict, The Post hailed the jury's finding: The four men and four women on the jury have moved the debate from the courtroom back to the public arena, where it belongs.

The Enquirer, meanwhile, offered the opinion that people simply were glad to see the Mapplethorpe ordeal finished and that it probably would be a long time before anyone made a stink about freedom of expression again: The hope must be that Cincinnatians of all persuasions will think less about what is their due and more about what they can do to maintain a community in which the rights and sensitivities of all are respected. That's the kind of community in which most Cincinnatians want to live.

Over the next 10 years, Cincinnati artists and arts supporters would dance back and forth, in and out of those two interpretations -- that public debate of art's role is healthy, and that Cincinnati works best when everyone marches to the same beat.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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