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April 7th, 2010 By | Arts & Culture | Posted In: Visual Art, Arts community

Mapplethorpe & the CAC: 20 Years Ago Today


Twenty years ago today one of the most significant moments in modern-day Cincinnati occurred: 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 (pictured) 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."

Most of you know the rest of the story about how the Mapplethorpe exhibition went on as planned, how record attendance greeted it, how the CAC was put on trial in Hamilton County Municipal Court and how a jury ultimately acquitted Barrie and the CAC of all charges. Many of you might be a little fuzzy on the details. Some of you are too young to know anything about the controversy.

But April 7, 1990 was a memorable day for everyone involved and for anyone who cared about art and about democracy. It was a different time in Cincinnati, as you can imagine, and I'd like to think we've all come a long way in 20 years.

On a personal level, I wasn't at the CAC the day the police raided it, but I saw the show shortly after it opened. I ended up writing a cover story about the controversy for Everybody's News, the city's only alt weekly newspaper back then — it was the first significant piece I wrote for the paper, and in many ways that story set me on a path that led to my becoming its main editor the following year and eventually founding CityBeat in 1994.

Ten years ago, I wrote another cover story about the controversial exhibition, this time a retrospective for CityBeat, "Then and Now: Mapplethorpe and the CAC." I interviewed all the key players, from Barrie to attorneys Louis Sirkin and Marc Mezibov to CAC staffers from 1990, and I interviewed the then-current CAC director, Charles Desmarais, about how the institution had fared in the 10 years since The Perfect Moment. My story (which ran on March 30, 2000) is in our web archive here if you want to check it out; forgive the old HTML formatting and lack of photos.

One of my favorite photos from April 7, 1990, was on CityBeat's cover with my anniversary story. It shows a mob of people in the breezeway in front of the main entrance to the old CAC on Fifth Street, protesting the police raid. People in the front row are holding a hand-written banner that says, "If you give artists freedom of expression, soon every American will want it!"

That anti-censorship sentiment still send chills up my spine. I'm going to try to find a scan of that cover and post it here.

I ended my 2000 story with a sentence that applies to the past 20 years as much as it did then:

Over the next 10 years, Cincinnati artists and arts supporters would dance back and forth, in and out of those two interpretations (of what the Mapplethorpe controversy means today) — 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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