Sunday, May 27, 2001
Los Angeles Times

Santa Fe Museum Offers Compromise

Tey Marianna Nunn hesitated--briefly--before including a semi-nude image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in an exhibition of some 30 digital works by four Latina artists at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

What gave her pause, she says, were the bare breasts of the female angel holding up the modern Madonna clad in a floral bikini.

In the end, the museum's curator of contemporary Hispano and Latino collections decided the breasts were maternal, not sexual. So she allowed Alma Lopez's "Our Lady" to take her place in "Cyber-Arte: Tradition Meets Technology."

It turned out to be the most controversial artistic choice ever made by Nunn, or anybody else at the museum.
Nobody anticipated the slow-boiling outcry for the work's removal or the "offerings" it attracted--a dead fish, car tires, a toilet bowl sprouting a tree branch with sanitary napkins hanging from it. "Sometimes it's an explosive situation here," says Barbara Hagood, the museum's public relations director. "We have never been up against anything like this before."

On Tuesday, museum administrators bowed to community pressure by announcing the run of "Cyber-Arte" would be cut short by four months, ending in late October rather than February. "It's just a gesture of goodwill," said Thomas H. Wilson, director of the Museum of New Mexico, which oversees the state's network of public museums and monuments.

The announcement coincided with the release of an exhaustive review of the controversy by the museum's Sensitive Materials Committee, composed of curators and other museum employees. Poring over protesters' statements and museum procedures, the nine-member committee last week recommended "Our Lady" should stay up, asserting the museum's "responsibility to represent folk art in the context of cultural change in communities throughout the world."

The museum on Tuesday also turned over hundreds of pages of the committee's deliberations to community members who had filed a Freedom of Information request for the documents, hoping to uncover alleged bias by museum staff. "The museum is very proud of its deliberations, and they gave them every single [allowable] page," said Wilson, a committee member. "We feel that we have nothing to hide."

The developments are not likely to appease die-hard protesters, who immediately reaffirmed their intention of getting the piece removed. For her part, Lopez said Tuesday that she could live with the early-close compromise even though it could be considered a victory for her critics. "I hope they let this go so it will be over soon for all of us," she said. "I'm kind of tired of this whole thing."

But the beat goes on.

The public can now appeal the committee's ruling to Wilson, who has 30 days to respond. (The deadline for appeals is not clearly defined, Wilson said, but the museum will be liberal in accepting them.) Ultimately, the final say rests with the appointed board of regents, the museum's seven-member governing board.

The controversy started brewing slowly after the exhibition opened Feb. 25, with a panel discussion attended by Lopez. Nobody complained about her piece at the time. In March, protesters held a rally and vigil, emboldened by Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan's public demand for a museum apology. After an overflow crowd forced cancellation of a public hearing April 4, some 750 people, mostly critics, packed a larger convention hall for an all-day forum April 16.

On the bright side, Nunn says, the controversy has sparked healthy debate on deeper issues sensitive to New Mexicans--like the struggle to protect age-old local traditions against outsiders.
Does Nunn have any regrets about her decision to show the work? "I am first and foremost an artist advocate," she says. "But would I ever want to go through this again? Never, never, ever, ever."