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Supporters Overwhelm Protesters at Robert Mapplethorpe Opening

August 1, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ A controversial exhibit including explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe opened Wednesday as scores of placard-toting supporters and a handful of vastly outnumbered opponents staged competing demonstrations.

About 200 supporters, chanting and carrying signs with such messages as ″No Censorship,″ began gathering at the Institute for Contemporary Art around 8:30 a.m.

As dozens of patrons lined up to buy tickets, an angry crowd of supporters surrounded one of six protesters opposing the exhibit that helped spark a nationwide debate on freedom of expression.

″These people are trying to force their morality on the rest of us,″ Jim Edgerley of the conservative American Freedom Coalition said as he stood among demonstrators, patrons, police and reporters on te museum steps.

While Edgerley spoke, two men deliberately stood in front of him locked in a deep, passionate kiss.

″See, this is the kind of behavior this is promoting,″ Edgerley said.

Beside them stood a man who identified himself as Abe Rybeck of the United Fruit Co. theater group, dressed in a black beehive wig, leopard striped tights, red tap shoes, garter and short black camisole dress.

Brandishing a fake microphone of tinsel and silver, Rybeck told the crowd, ″Robert Mapplethorpe is exhibiting what is really going on in his community. He is celebrating his life, his friends, his sex.″

Later, the crowd drove Edgerley away by surrounding him and chanting so loud reporters couldn’t hear him.

Less than an hour after the museum doors opened, an estimated 200 visitors were lined up outside, said museum marketing assistant Denise Spencer.

Some held tickets purchased in advance. The small museum allowed just 75 people every half hour to view the 124 photographs taken by Mapplethorpe from 1969 until shortly before he died of AIDS last year in Boston at age 42.

Eleanor Bleakie, 70, of Cohasset and her friend, Margaret Mooney, 41, of Chicago were among the first to get a look at the show.

″I’d read a lot about it and I was curious,″ said Bleakie. ″I went to see what was objectionable, but I didn’t find it objectionable. I thought it was interesting.″

″I knew he was a good photographer but I didn’t know he was that good,″ said Mooney. ″I wanted to see how his talent measured up against all the hype.″

She said she didn’t mind the sexually explicit, homoerotic pictures included in the exhibition. ″They were off to the side so if you didn’t want to look at them, you didn’t have to,″ she said. They’re part of life.″

Public television station WGBH - which telecast the most explicit photographs on its newscast Tuesday night - said Wednesday morning it had received 100 calls about the broadcast, most of them supportive. However, several people said they were swearing off public television forever.

A coalition of 13 pro-Mapplethorpe groups promised not to demonstrate at the museum on Tuesday, but gay rights groups and individual activists were out in force Wednesday.

The demonstrators included about 100 people from the gay rights group ACT- UP and the group Freedom of Expression who walked a picket line across from the museum.

Many carried elaborate creations protesting Sen. Jesse Helms, N.C., who has led the fight to restrict federal funds for art he branded obscene.

The creations included a twin bed with the faces of Helms and Adolf Hitler nestled on the pillows and a fake coffin labeled ″Casualties of Censorship″ which contained such books as ″Lolita″ by Vladimir Nabokov.

Museum Director David Ross stood at the entrance, wearing a button reading ″Fear No Art.″ Ross said he was unafraid of the controversy surrounding the show. The show, which runs through Oct. 4 and is expected to draw at least 50,000 people, is the last of a six-city tour.

A Mapplethorpe exhibit scheduled in June 1989 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington was canceled after Helms objected.

Helms’ protests prompted Congress to limit National Endowment for the Arts grants. Before those limits, the Mapplethorpe tour had received about $30,000 from the NEA, about 10 percent of the cost.

A showing in Cincinnati led to obscenity charges against the director of The Contemporary Arts Center, but a federal judge barred police from confiscating photos from the exhibit.

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