An Act of Nature Brought Down Lou Stovall’s Backyard Studio. Now What?

After a tree fell, the backyard studio where artist Lou Stovall screen printed his own and others’ artwork for nearly 50 years had to be razed—but his legacy persists.

I wrote this for print in the Washington City Paper and it is online on their site here.

Artwork from Lou Stovall’s print studio, Workshop, Inc., is ubiquitous in local galleries and museums. Pieces populate institutions like the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as the American University Museum, D.C.’s Art Bank, the Phillips Collection, and Addison/Ripley Gallery. But unlike many of the artists he created prints for and with, including Sam GilliamJosef AlbersAlexander CalderGene DavisElizabeth CatlettLois Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence, Stovall’s name has yet to seep into the mainstream. And though Stovall has produced his own artwork—mainly silk-screen prints, but also collages and assemblages—along with prints for other artists from his backyard studio for decades, now, due to the artist’s age and an act of nature, his future output is in jeopardy.

During a rainstorm on the evening of May 8, 2020, a large tree fell through the Workshop, Inc. studio, which is located behind Stovall’s Cleveland Park home. Branches penetrated the roof, and the overall weight crushed in the ceiling, leaving the space open to the wind and rain. In addition to the printing stations, the studio housed walls of flat files storing hundreds of artworks by Stovall and the artists he has worked with over the last four decades. The impact was so shattering that the building was razed five months later. His wife Di Bagley Stovall, an artist herself, described the loss as “devastating.”

Stovall, who moved to D.C. in 1962 to study fine arts at Howard University, is a master of silk-screen printing. A 1998 New York Times profile of Stovall quotes Lawrence, one of the most important 20th century creators of narrative artworks, describing Stovall as “a craftsman who is also an artist.” 

The volume of Stovall’s output—which includes prints for other artists, his own artwork, and prints made for commercial and community use—is vast and diverse. But, as Lawrence’s description reinforces, evaluations of Stovall have commonly centered on him as a craftsman more than as an artist. In 2001, Paul Richard wrote in the Washington Post that “As a printer of his own art, and of the art of many others, as a framer and installer and shepherd of collections, Stovall has inserted more art into Washington than almost anyone in town.” The Workshop, Inc. space was also a frame shop for fine art for many years, and Stovall was available to install and maintain fine art collections.

Now, Stovall is increasingly getting his artistic due; for example, there’s a current solo show of Stovall’s artwork at the Columbus Museum in Georgia. Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, says, “He took color screen-printing, which is often regarded as a more commercial form, to new heights, both in his own work and that for Sam Gilliam.” Cooper also noted Stovall’s “gift for delicate line and bold color, and an elegance that pervades even his most energetic abstractions.” 

Born in Athens, Georgia, Stovall earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Howard in 1965. Having worked his way through school at a commercial print shop, he was able to set up the Workshop, Inc. studio in 1968 with support from a Stern Family Fund grant that required him to also use the studio to teach printmaking, which he continued to do into his 80s. A multi-year Stern Fund grant was also made to Gilliam, a longtime Stovall collaborator. Gilliam says the grant provided him with the resources to work full-time as an artist.

Stovall’s output over the years is varied, including works with text, flowers, landscapes, and abstract color work. “First known for his activist posters, Lou’s art has long embraced elements of nature in parallel with a complex of abstract principles of image-making, with one or the other of these concerns taking priority at different times,” says Ruth Fine, a curator at the National Gallery of Art from 1972 to 2012, who was involved in several acquisitions of Stovall’s work. Stovall’s flowers are reminiscent of fellow D.C. artist and Corcoran benefactor Lowell Nesbitt’s, but tend to have more breathing space around the main subject. Recent color forms easily remind one of similar work by Gilliam. 

When evaluating any artist, the knowledgeable viewer commonly finds influences. But critiques of Stovall’s work may have suffered through the years because those influences can be so readily identifiable. Depending on the decade, critics have described his work as “intricate and refined” or evaluated it as “serene abstractions.” Undeniably, his own artwork is compared to his most famous and consistent collaborators—Gilliam and Lawrence—and deeply linked with the craft of silk-screen printmaking.

Silk-screen printing is easy to understand but difficult to master. Stovall’s creations from the 1960s to the present show mastery of the form and experimentation with its limits. The practice of creating fine art silk-screen prints entirely by hand, as Stovall did, has all but disappeared with new, computer-aided production methods. But during the decades of his greatest output, if an artist wanted a hand-inked version of their work that they could sign and sell as original artwork, silk-screen printing was perhaps the best option. Working with his artist colleagues, Stovall would begin either from an existing artwork or fully from scratch to match ink colors brought or described to him, to cut the stencils, and to create the image in layers by squeezing ink through a silk screen, one color at a time. Each color added to a print has to be allowed to dry because the paper, which is laid underneath the stencil and screen, will otherwise smudge the ink. To produce just 50 prints of an artwork including 10 colors requires 500 individual passes, with time to dry between each, and only that few if each pass is completed perfectly. Some pieces Stovall produced required more than 100 colors. Any imperfection, whether it appears on the first or last pass, means the piece is discarded. The painstaking attention to detail required to produce silk-screen artwork at scale is stunning.

Interest in Stovall’s output has increased over the last two decades, along with interest in other African American artists, including Alma Thomas and GilliamAaron Brophy is a sculptor and teacher of visual arts at the nearby Sidwell Friends School who also curates exhibitions for the school’s Rubenstein Gallery, including recent shows of works by Gilliam and Carol Brown Goldberg. In 2018, Brophy curated a two-part solo show of Stovall’s artwork: One section featured works created by Stovall alone; the other showed art in which Stovall was a collaborating printmaker.

“And one of the early pieces was a poster he made for [Dance Theatre of] Harlem,” Brophy says. “And that made me realize, there’s really a kind of throughline in Lou’s work from the Harlem Renaissance and his work with Jacob Lawrence and his connections with Sam Gilliam, all the way through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Looking across his output, we see Lou has literally been relevant for 50 years, as an artist and also as a collaborator with other artists.”

“Sam Gilliam’s very first international retrospective wasn’t until two years ago,” Brophy continues. “It’s interesting to watch this resurgence of artists from the ’60s and ’70s … to see curators and museums picking up this thread and finally recognizing artists like Lou, like Sam.”

In 1968, Stovall took over the lease of a closing gallery to start the Workshop, Inc. business. In that Dupont Circle space, he created commercial prints, taught, made frames, worked on his own art, and helped others make their own silk-screen artworks. Lou and Di Stovall married in 1971; in 1972, they moved to the Cleveland Park home where they still live and brought the business with them. Eventually, they set up the print shop in a detached garage in the back, and over time the space was modified and expanded to better meet the needs of the business.

Three categories of visitors have consistently trafficked Workshop, Inc.: collectors, artists, and students. And while Stovall built an American art institution, one ink layer and one print at a time, he and Di raised their son Will in a creative and community-minded Cleveland Park that has slowly changed around them.

Even as Workshop, Inc. rose to prominence within the national art scene, Stovall remained an active participant in the D.C. and Cleveland Park communities. In addition to serving as a commissioner for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, he regularly made prints for community organizations, concerts, and benefits. Judy Hubbard, a Cleveland Park Historical Society tour guide, longtime community activist, and retired director of constituent services for Ward 3 councilmember Mary Cheh, describes an early 1970s Cleveland Park community campaign asking drivers to slow down on Reno Road near John Eaton Elementary School on Lowell Street NW; Stovall created the campaign poster. And when collector Susan Talley, a longtime Cleveland Park neighbor, decided to see if there might be interest in starting the now-influential unincorporated Friends of Alma Thomas group, “the first person I went to visit, called and went to visit, was Lou and Di,” she says. “And they were very supportive.” The pair helped connect Talley to David Driskell and the Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland and to other collectors of Thomas’s artwork. 

The creative back-and-forth among neighbors was once one of the draws of moving to Cleveland Park, a neighborhood that has a long history of artistic and intellectually engaged residents. One of the Stovalls’ notable Cleveland Park neighbors was photographer and sculptor William Christenberry. And, like Stovall, Christenberry made his artwork in a studio attached to the family home—in his case, not an expanded detached garage, but an addition. “It was a very interesting, vibrant neighborhood,” his wife Sandy Christenberry says. 

Hubbard, the community activist, started her career as personal secretary for Helen “Leni” Stern, the influential artist and philanthropist. A Cleveland Park resident since the early 1970s, Hubbard says the neighborhood has always included authors, activists, intellectuals, and visual artists, mentioning David IgnatiusChristopher BuckleySusan ShreveMilton and Judith ViorstPeter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman, and Dickson Carroll. “This is a very intellectual activist neighborhood,” Hubbard says. Still, as the city as a whole has gentrified, the neighborhood has become less economically diverse, and it’s hard to imagine working artists being able to move into the community today. According to U.S. census data, median income for a Ward 3 household has risen from $45,000 in 1990, to more than $126,000 in the most recent data. 

Stovall’s commitment to teaching neighborhood children, including students from Sidwell Friends School and fine art students from area colleges, models how an artist can be a positive influence on a community. Poet E. Ethelbert Miller, Stovall’s longtime friend and colleague, says “I’ve always felt that Lou having a workshop behind the house was very special, especially for young people … I always felt that this is the type of artist I aspire to.” 

Andrew Christenberry, the son of William Christenberry and a sculptor and furniture-maker in his own right, grew up aware of his influential neighbor’s work. “Lou is an absolute master printmaker, and he was quite known for that,” he says. “If you’re a painter or draw and you want to work in the print medium, you often need help because it’s very technical.”

It’s not uncommon to think of artists of Stovall’s caliber as bold and full of ego, but his neighbors describe him as anything but that. Susan Talley says Stovall “sort of subverted his own ego in some ways to other artists … They were the stars, and his skill is immense in what he was able to help them accomplish.” And Anthony Gittens, a longtime friend and colleague who worked with Stovall when Gittens was executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, remarked, “You go into Lou’s studio and his art is there, but you also see so many other excellent artworks. Lou talks about other people’s work as much as he does about his own.” In the 1998 New York Times profile, Stovall himself is quoted saying, “The most important part of what I do is to give artists who have ideas they want to express in a silk-screen a way of doing it.” 

Walking through the wreckage of the space with Di Stovall before it was demolished, she recalled hurriedly removing art from the studio after the tree’s fall in the tones of someone recounting saving a child from the path of a landslide. She also confirmed that the Workshop, Inc. studio will be rebuilt, but it’s unclear where Lou’s future artistic process will take him. Now that he is 84 years old, the work of cataloguing, displaying, and preserving artwork may become a bigger part of what’s accomplished in a future space.

Sorting through nearly half a century of artistic output is no easy feat. Since William Christenberry died in 2016, his wife Sandy has slowly confronted reconfiguring the space in their home that includes her late husband’s work. For now, his studio space is less of a work space and more a storage unit. “You know, it’s been four years since Bill passed away,” she says, “and I’m still trying to figure out what to do … Because I want to have people come to visit the studio again.”

In November 2020, Stovall’s damaged studio was razed. Decades of brilliant output currently have no permanent home. As Stovall’s work is sent out for upcoming exhibitions and becomes a part of the narrative of art history, the studio’s destruction is likely to remain a marker—though not an end point—in an artist’s exceptional career.

DC theaters face ‘catastrophic’ economic impact if coronavirus causes prolonged ticket sales decline

Written for The DC Line and published on that site here.

DC theaters may soon be struggling with the economic impact of the new coronavirus as theatergoers choose to stay at home or are forced to do so. 

In San Francisco, municipal officials ordered a 14-day halt to performances and other large events at theaters and other facilities owned by the city, and many nonprofit and private operators followed suit. The San Francisco Chronicle compared the impact on local business to “an immediate recession.” Restaurants and bars near the shuttered theaters are nearly empty.  

Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights, said a two-week closure like the one in San Francisco would have severe effects, potentially wiping out the entire run of a show years in the planning.

“A 14-day closure would be extremely damaging for GALA [right now] because we are opening our GALita children’s theater world premiere this week,” she said. “We would lose the entire projected income for this production.”

Representatives from several other DC theaters did not respond to requests for comment.

Thus far, theater professionals are having to wait and see whether the spread of the coronavirus results in government-ordered closures, reduced ticket sales or empty houses. Even if theaters aren’t forced to close, box office receipts will be affected if individuals and institutions alter their routines.

Amy Austin is CEO of theatreWashington, the industry association for DC-area theaters. “The potential spread of the virus could impact ticket sales. [But] it’s too early to tell since we have very few reported cases in the region.”

Austin said that on Friday. As of Tuesday afternoon, four cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in DC, and about 22 in the greater region.

Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, said that even a 20% reduction in ticket sales for an extended period of time would be “catastrophic” for the fiscal health of area theaters.

Closures to prevent community spread of the coronavirus are now being implemented across the country. Late last week Austin canceled the widely popular South By Southwest technology and entertainment festival despite the expansive economic impact for the Texas capital. The NCAA is making contingency plans to play its annual “March Madness” basketball tournament without a live audience, and the NBA is similarly preparing for the possibility of games with only essential personnel in attendance

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities and companies have canceled employee travel and conferences, and today American University announced plans to conduct its classes online for two weeks. Locally, cancellations have included the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which was scheduled to start Thursday and will instead highlight selected films online next week.

“We did not come to this decision lightly, but the safety of our audience, local and out of town participants, volunteers, partners, and staff is our number one priority,” the film festival’s executive director, Christopher Head, said in a press release. “Given the situation, we felt this was our only viable option.” 

Long-term planning is proving difficult given uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus, so it’s not surprising that Capital Fringe Festival executive director Julianne Brienza declined to comment on the potential impact on that event, scheduled for July 7 to 26.

“We understand the concern regarding the potential impact on the creative and entertainment industry,” John Falcicchio, DC’s acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told The DC Line in an email Friday. “However, in line with the latest science-based guidance available at this time, we encourage our residents, employers and visitors to go about their daily lives while following all of the safety tips provided at”

Already the DC government is feeling an economic impact, related primarily to tourism. Initial projections suggested the outbreak could cost the District $52 million in lost sales tax revenue from hotels and restaurants, according to DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt’s revised revenue forecast released Feb. 28. 

Much of the initial impact has centered on events dependent on international travel. At least one major area conference, a gathering of the International Association of Dental Research, has experienced registration cancellations, NBC4 reported. North Carolina-based SAS Institute canceled a global forum at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and the International Monetary Fund dropped plans for its spring meetings in DC, the Washington Business Journal noted. Thus far, organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival have said events will proceed as planned March 20 to April 12, with appropriate health-related precautions. 

The financial effects on the tourism and hospitality industry, however, do not translate squarely into the theater community. Most ticket buyers are locals, not tourists, according to theater professionals — a key reason that DC’s theaters were spared much of the impact from DC’s tourism slowdown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This time, the impact could result from local residents who are told to — or who decide they want to — stay home.

“We didn’t take as much of a hit as you might think after 9/11,” said Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre and artistic director from 1978 to 2010.“Studio Theatre overwhelmingly serves DC residents and the region, and we found people really wanted to be together. But this is a different kind of situation. People may decide not to buy tickets, to stay out of crowds.”

Kaiser, now president of the DeVos Institute, headed the Kennedy Center from 2001 to 2014. “The vast majority of Kennedy Center tickets were sold locally, so the loss of tourism post-9/11 did not affect ticket sales substantially,” he told The DC Line. “What was affected more was attendance at educational programs as schools cut back on travel to DC that year (which also included massive snowstorms, the anthrax scare and the DC sniper).”

As far as the bottom line for DC’s theaters, costs will still mount even if performances are canceled. Medrano noted that GALA would incur significant production costs in the event of a forced closure during a play’s run. “Due to contractual agreements with artists, we would have to pay them 45% of their contracted pay if we cancel with less than a week notice,” she said.

Celebrated artist Robin Bell helps Corcoran look back on tumultuous time

This article was written for The DC Line and you can read it on that site here.

Sitting in the rotunda of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s renovated Flagg Building across from the White House hours before the highly anticipated opening of artist Robin Bell’s exhibition Open, Corcoran director and curator Sanjit Sethi reflected on the show’s inspiration. “I think it’s important for us to have dialogues about what happens when cultural institutions get something wrong,” he said.

Sethi was commenting both on Bell’s artworks in Open, which reflect on themes of transparency and dialogue, and the stimulus for the exhibit: a troubling episode of censorship at the Corcoran back in 1989, long before its transformation from an independent institution to a school within The George Washington University.

Unusually for a fine art exhibition, Open is described as a “prelude” to another show. The upcoming 6.13.89, curated by Sethi, will encourage investigation of the Corcoran’s fateful decision on June 13, 1989, to cancel its planned display of The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The Perfect Moment’s first stops — in Philadelphia and then Chicago — spurred growing protest from people who decried the exhibition as an example of government funding for artwork they deemed immoral. The show included gay-themed works that socially conservative politicians and “family values” advocacy groups lambasted as pornography masquerading as art.

Open is Bell’s first solo museum show, and it includes more than the political text-based artwork the artist is best known for. With its scrolling text and blinking lights, the exhibition is engaging and self-aware — like a massive resistance group selfie. Bell’s works float in and balance through the various atrium and first-floor gallery spaces. In one section of the atrium, lights that blink and change colors hang on either side of a black video screen with white text that reads, “It is happening here.” The statement might be interpreted as the artist’s opinion about the Corcoran, and the District, or as an ironic reference to the canceled 1989 exhibition that did not happen.

One section of the atrium features lights that blink and change colors alongside the video screen with text that reads, “It is happening here.” (Photo by Robert Bettmann)

Bell’s art works, several of which have gone viral since President Donald Trump’s election, are equal parts humor and anger. His best-known works are guerilla outdoor projections of text, which he and others capture in short videos distributed on social media. One of his early viral works projected the words “INSERT EMOLUMENTS HERE” on the side of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with a large arrow under the words pointing at the doorway into the hotel.

While Bell’s well-known guerrilla displays are sometimes 50 feet tall, conceptually the work is compact. The artworks in Open reveal more of Bell’s technical range, as well as a more complex and allegorical relationship to his subject matter.

A projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening (Photo by Flavio Cumpiano, used by permission.)

Bell’s works don’t usually articulate the artist’s own voice, but one projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening — “I Was Protesting Before Trump” — playfully did just that. The exhibition also features a video that rolls like fog across the atrium steps, a projection of overlapping 10-foot faces, and scrolling phrases that hang across and beneath the upper balustrade in the foyer. There’s something familiarly peripatetic and temporary about Bell’s work, even in this museum space, where the art’s existence doesn’t cause threat of imminent arrest (as one of his unlicensed public artworks did last week, resulting in a misdemeanor citation from U.S. Capitol Police for one of Bell’s projectionists).

Sethi said Bell’s exhibit is the museum’s latest effort to dedicate its atrium to “exhibition projects that involve critical social dialogues … that we think need to be part of a broader context.”

When asked if he condemned the Corcoran’s 1989 decision to cancel, Sethi explained, “I’m less engaged in the forensic examination of who did what and what the cause was. The question for me is the fidelity of the Corcoran Gallery to the commitment they had made to show this work… The question for me is about how do cultural institutions handle controversy?”

In an interview prior to the opening, Bell was less equivocal. He called the 1989 cancellation “a disservice not just to the institution, but to the entire arts community.” In interview with the university prior to the opening Bell said his Open is about asking the audience to reflect on closure, and cancellation. “As thinkers, as people and as educators we want to talk about openness,” Bell said.

Open — on display through March 31 — and the upcoming 6.13.89 — the dates for which have not been announced — reflect on a darker part of the Corcoran’s history. “It’s important to go ahead and exhume one of the greatest ghosts of the Corcoran’s past,” Sethi said.

Looking back to summer 1989

In the summer of 1989 the District was the center of what came to be called “the Culture Wars,” a series of impassioned, high-profile debates about arts funding, morality, censorship, and homosexuality.

Curated by Janet Kardon and developed under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, The Perfect Moment was scheduled for display in five cities after its winter 1988 debut in Philadelphia. Conservative groups including the American Family Association began to protest the exhibition soon after its opening, saying the exhibition included “indecent” images. The Perfect Moment exhibition was developed in part through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the exhibition’s scheduled arrival in DC coincided with some Republican members of Congress urging elimination of all arts funding after seeing federal dollars go to some projects out of step with their values.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s decision to cancel its display of A Perfect Moment just weeks before the planned opening led to intense public scrutiny and prompted mentions in scores of newspaper articles, editorials and opinion pieces that have been preserved in the Corcoran’s archive.

The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama ran James Kilpatrick’s June 1989 column for Universal Press Syndicate under the headline “When porn passes for art.”

It’s nearly unimaginable that any museum decision today would make headlines over an entire summer as the Corcoran decision did, but national interest was fomented in widely read political opinion pieces. One column by conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan — who backed the cancellation and said the show never should have received any government funding — was published in more than 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Europe between June 16 and June 25. The various headlines included “Obscenity at the Taxpayer’s Expense” (The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C., June 16), “A Mere Label Can’t Turn Pornography Into Art” (The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Fla., June 20), and “No Censorship Involved Here” (Taunton Daily Gazette, Taunton, Miss., June 20).

Two major newspaper editorial boards weighed in subsequently, criticizing the Corcoran’s decision-makers. The New York Times published an editorial headlined “Caving in at the Corcoran” on June 23, 1989. “The Corcoran unwisely chose to repudiate its own artistic judgment. Instead of helping to avoid controversy, the gallery’s cave-in only attracted it,” the newspaper wrote.

The Washington Post’s editorial board agreed days later: “They scheduled the show without adequate understanding of what was in it … and then, at the first sign of trouble on Capitol Hill, panicked and canceled with much hand-wringing about not wanting to get into politics or to give government an excuse for cutting funds.”

After the Corcoran’s cancellation, The Perfect Moment was shown in the District by last-minute arrangement at the Washington Project for the Arts, and the tour proceeded to other cities amid continued controversy.

A full understanding of the Corcoran’s decision requires a value judgment on whether the cancellation in fact amounted to censorship of Mapplethorpe’s artwork based on its homosexual imagery.

Mapplethorpe had died three months earlier of complications from AIDS. Reacting to the cancellation, Urvashi Vaid, a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the Washington Blade at the time, “It is appalling that [Sen.] Jesse Helms succeeded in having a pre-emptive impact on homoerotic art.”

But objections to the exhibition were more complex than simply objecting to any depiction of homosexuality.

The Perfect Moment was a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work, including 125 images. While the majority of the images were from Mapplethorpe’s more commercial work — including pictures of celebrities and flowers — the exhibition also included depictions of naked children and homosexual sadomasochism. One well-known image shows the photographer’s buttocks in profile, a bullwhip protruding like a horse’s tail. Another displays a young girl seated on the floor, her white dress pulled up to her knees exposing her naked groin as she looks innocently into the camera.

Even though the photographer had parental permission, several of the images from this series are no longer exhibited as art in adherence to 21st-century standards of child protection. Critics of the exhibition, and federal funding of the show, charged that Mapplethorpe’s images were criminal, not art. A June 22, 1989, commentary by The Miami Herald’s editorial board referenced Mapplethorpe’s work to bolster objections to government funding of artist Andres Serrano’s artwork “Piss Christ”: “Also disturbing is the traveling exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that include explicit sadomasochism and child nudes.”

Uproar over the Corcoran’s decision to cancel the exhibit required a villain — a censor. That person was identified as the museum’s executive director — Christina Orr-Cahall, who resigned later that year — even though it was the Board of Trustees that canceled the show. When consultants performed a subsequent audit of the Corcoran’s decision-making process, they attributed the unanimous decision to the board being too large to keep its members well-informed. In response to the audit’s recommendation, the Corcoran reduced the size of its board by two-thirds. The presence of fewer board members — along with dwindling commitments from outsiders soured by the controversy — had a predictable impact on the institution’s coffers, and it’s not a stretch to argue the Corcoran’s demise as an independent institution can be traced to the summer of 1989.

Ironically, given the hatred poured on her as a “censor,” Orr-Cahall’s action may have saved the National Endowment for the Arts as we know it today. By proposing to the board members that they not display the controversial photographs in DC while Congress was debating restrictions on or outright elimination of federal arts funding, she created a major new issue in the debate. On the day the Corcoran announced the cancellation, then-U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, called images by Mapplethorpe “morally repugnant trash” and Hugh Southern, the acting head of the NEA, told Congress that he would “try and weed out” objectionable artwork. The cancellation decision prompted such a strong backlash against censorship, and in support of free expression, that federal arts funding continued.

The relevance of Robin Bell

Now, 30 years later, the works of another artist some see as courting controversy occupy the Corcoran, communicating a related message. Bell’s art, including his work in Open, encourages transparency and holding power to account.

The history of Washington, DC, is alive in the memories of longtime residents, and the legacies of hometown artists like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Alma Thomas exist like small bonfires around which residents warm. But other memories live on as deep scars, occasionally causing a collective hiccup, and the cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran the summer of 1989 is one of those.

A few months ago, when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities pushed a new contract out to grantees attempting to restrict funding for political or offensive works, The Washington Post reported “the short-lived controversy sent shock waves through the city’s arts community and had many recalling the 1980s culture wars.” And for one summer, the summer of 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art served as a battleground in those culture wars.

The new exhibit, according to Sethi, reopens a dialogue set to continue with 6.13.89, which has not been announced in detail but which will include documents from the Corcoran’s archive.

“This institution has an opportunity to talk about its values,” Sethi said, “and to talk about ways that we can talk about critique. Critique of systems. Critique of individuals. Critique of policy. And to do so in provocative manners. And that’s what you start to see here.”

Robin Bell was sanguine about what Open might mean for him personally. “The biggest difference,” he said, “is that people will be able to see [my artwork], to come over the next two months and see it as opposed to seeing it online and appreciating it that way.”

In Open we find Robin Bell and the Corcoran looking back on what went wrong and are encouraged to look back with them.

The exhibition continues through March 31, with public access from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Flagg Building, 500 17th St. NW.