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Corcoran Gallery Director Resigns in Dispute Over Show Cancellation

December 18, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Christina Orr-Cahall resigned Monday as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art because of a barrage of criticism over her decision last summer to cancel a photography exhibit containing sexually explicit pictures.

The board of trustees of the 120-year-old gallery, the oldest in Washington and third oldest private museum in the country, agreed overwhelmingly to accept the resignation in the hope of laying the controversy to rest.

In a letter to the 54-member board, Ms. Orr-Cahall said she was resigning effective Feb. 1 ″in the hope that my decision will help to eliminate or abate those extraneous and disruptive difficulties″ that have plagued the Corcoran for the past six months.

Gallery president Freeborn G. Jewett Jr. said at a news conference that ″in all of Dr. Orr-Cahall’s actions and recommendations to the board of trustees, she acted in the utmost good faith″ and had ″displayed qualities of professional skill, courage and loyalty.″

The Corcoran became the target of nationwide criticism in June when Ms. Orr-Cahall canceled a traveling exhibition by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe two weeks before it was scheduled to open July 1.

The Corcoran trustees subsequently twice endorsed her decision.

Ms. Orr-Cahall said she canceled the Mapplethorpe show, which contained homoerotic and sadomasochistic images and pictures of nude children, to avoid embroiling the Corcoran in a looming congressional battle over the grant- making policies of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The endowment, an independent federal agency, had partially financed the Mapplethorpe exhibit’s national tour, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia. The show had appeared in Philadelphia and Chicago without incident.

Ms. Orr-Cahall’s decision, however, brought the wrath of the artistic community, which accused the Corcoran of stifling freedom of expression. Artists withdrew plans for two exhibitions of contemporary art at the Corcoran, and a third exhibition was left in limbo.

Artist Lowell Nesbitt announced he had withdrawn a $1.5 million bequest to the Corcoran from his will and would give the money instead to the Phillips Collection, another private Washington art gallery.

Staff morale at the Corcoran plunged with the resignation of Jane Livingston, the museum’s chief curator who had arranged for the Mapplethorpe show to appear there.

Ms. Orr-Cahall, former chief curator of the Oakland Museum in California, previously had rejected a request by a representative of the Corcoran staff that she resign.

But in her resignation letter Monday, she said that ″the time has arrived for the Corcoran to turn its eyes to the future and to make every effort to assure that it is not consumed by the kind of contention that distracts the institution from achieving its goals.″

The controversy also was noted by Jewett.

″Events of the past several months have embroiled the Corcoran in continuing public controversy, a controversy that has interfered with the Corcoran’s capacity to address its full energies and attention to the curatorial and educational tasks of the museum and the school that are the institution’s fundamental responsibilities,″ he said.

Board Chairman David Lloyd Kreeger, a member of a special trustees’ committee appointed Sept. 25 to study ways to repair the damage, said the panel was split on whether Ms. Orr-Cahall should leave the gallery or remain.

He said the panel was ready to leave the decision on her fate up to the full board, which he said also was divided over the issue. Kreeger and Jewett said the director signaled her intention to resign during negotiations with board members last weekend.

Kreeger said the trustees were not concerned about the Mapplethorpe cancellation, but were upset by the ″continued barrage″ of criticism that dogged the Corcoran.

The director’s decision, he said, ″was blown into a symbol ... of repression, or pornography vs. license, freedom of speech, political issues, the future of the endowment″ and other issues.

″Mapplethorpe no longer is the issue because the director has resigned,″ said Kreeger, who vowed that ″there is going to be a resurgent and a new and dynamic Corcoran.″

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