In 1990, Art Went on Trial in Cincinnati—and Won


In 1990, for the first time ever, art went on trial.

It began in 1989 when artist Andres Serrano caught the ire of then-senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, with his artwork called “Piss Christ,” an image of a crucifix submerged in, well, you get the idea. The senator felt the piece of “art” was obscene. Soon after the Serrano debacle, acclaimed New York City photographer Robert Mapplethorpe found himself in the crosshairs of what would become a national debate far worse than “Piss Christ.”

Mapplethorpe’s retrospective photography show, “The Perfect Moment,” ran in Philadelphia from December 9, 1988 to January 29, 1989 (it was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania), and traveled to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; both shows went smoothly. But when the exhibit was supposed to show at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in July 1989, Helms used Mapplethorpe’s risqué black and white photographs of nude men and women in sometimes compromising situations as a means to spark a debate about public funding of the arts. To him, the photographs were flagrantly pornographic and not artful.

Helms didn’t like that the government-sponsored National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had granted the ICA $30,000 to help fund the exhibit (the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the City of Philadelphia, and private donors also contributed), and Helms sent a letter to the NEA, signed by 36 senators, expressing their outrage over the exhibition. “The exhibit represented a greater tug and pull of liberal and conservative values of early 1990s America,” The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in 2000. (Also in 1990, rap group 2 Live Crew went on trial for their album As Nasty As They Want to Be, which was found to be obscene—the first time a U.S. court labeled an album as such.)

Buckling under the pressure from Helms and conservative religious organization American Family Association, the Corcoran canceled the exhibit, which caused a brouhaha of national proportions. Should taxpayer dollars be used to fund the arts? Where’s the line between obscenity and art?  

Mapplethorpe didn’t live to see his art come under the microscope, as he died of complications related to HIV/AIDS on March 9, 1989. He was a gay man whose photographs encapsulated homosexuals, and in the late ’80s/early ’90s, that was much more divisive subject matter. The photos were hard to look at, but they weren’t insipid like Playboy centerfolds. “The Perfect Moment” contained three portfolios: X, Y, Z. The first one focused on homosexual sadomasochism; Y was filled with pictures of provocative flowers; and Z featured nude portraits of African American men.  

In April of 1990, the exhibit was scheduled to show in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city so conservative that it was often referred to as “the most anti-gay city in America.” Citizens for Community Values demanded Cincinnatians not attend the exhibit, but when the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) unveiled “The Perfect Moment” on April 7, all hell broke loose.

At the time, Dennis Barrie was the director of the museum. During a preview night on April 6, more than 4000 museum members showed up to see the photos. “I thought we dodged a bullet,” Barrie told Smithsonian Magazine in 2015 about the preview night. “But it was the next day, when we technically opened to the public, that the vice squad decided to come in.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer detailed the snowball effect of April 7:

“At 9 in the morning, the doors opened and the grand jurors were amongst the first to come through. By 2:30 that afternoon, the grand jury announced the indictments. At 2:50, the Cincinnati Police arrived with a search warrant and cleared out the patrons.”

Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis was on the scene and immediately declared the photos to be “smut." “This was beyond pornography,” Leis told the Enquirer in March 2015. “When you put a fist up a person’s rectum, what do you call that? That is not art.”

There were four criminal indictments: two against the museum and two against Barrie for “pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor in nudity oriented materials.” Seven photos, in particular, incited the indictments: five photos of men performing various acts of BDSM, and two photos involving naked children. Never before had a museum and its director been criminally charged for obscenity because of a public art exhibition.

The fallout was fast and furious. Protestors lined the streets outside of the museum, both in support of the artwork and in support of the city’s decision to put Barrie on trial. The exhibit didn’t close, but the museum only allowed patrons aged 18 and older in and placed Portfolio X behind a curtain. But the controversy also generated more interest in the show and Mapplethorpe’s work; an estimated 80,000 people came to see the photos.

Almost six months later, on September 24, 1990, the trial began. Defense attorney H. Louis Sirkin helped pick the eight jurors—four women and four men—to decide the fate of the museum and art itself. His tactic was, “You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to come to the museum,” he told Smithsonian. Judge F. David J. Albanese wouldn’t allow all 175 photos in as evidence; the jury only saw the seven photos in question. He told the jury to use a three-prong test of obscenity (Miller vs. California) in looking at the photos, including, “The appeal to the prurient interest must be the main and principal appeal of the picture.” A lot was at stake besides whether the jurors thought Mapplethorpe’s works were obscene or not: If found guilty, the museum would have to pay $10,000 in fines and Barrie would spend a year in a jail.

On October 5, 1990, the jury made its landmark decision: Not guilty. Barrie and the CAC were acquitted of all charges, and on that day, art prevailed.

“I’m absolutely convinced that if we lost that case in Cincinnati, the NEA would have been gone,” Sirkin told The Washington Post in 2015. “This is a great day for this city, a great day for America,” Barrie told the Enquirer. “[The jurors] knew what freedom was all about … I’m glad the system does work.” In 2000, James Woods played Barrie in a Golden Globe-winning Showtime movie called Dirty Pictures, about the Mapplethorpe exhibition.

For the 25th anniversary of “The Perfect Moment,” the CAC hosted a two-day symposium in 2015, featuring panels with Barrie and current museum director Raphaela Platow. Last year, CAC revisited some of Mapplethorpe’s work with “After the Moment: Revisiting Robert Mapplethorpe” and earlier this year, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles hosted “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.”

“The Perfect Moment” set a powerful precedent: No museum has been put on trial since.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
The Louvre Abu Dhabi Just Opened the World's First Radio-Guided Highway Art Gallery
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabi

One way to plan an epic art road trip is to drive from museum to museum, but in the United Arab Emirates, you can take in masterpieces without leaving your car. As Artforum reports, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has lined a stretch of highway with billboards displaying works by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Piet Mondrian.

The 10 works on display along the E/11 Sheikh Zayed road connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi are recreations of pieces at or on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which developed the project in partnership with three radio stations. Dubbed the Highway Gallery, it was "created to reinforce art's role in elevating everyday life into something beautiful and memorable," the museum website reads.

Like in a traditional gallery, the 30-foot-by-23-foot displays along the road are accompanied by a guided audio tour. Drivers can learn the title, artist, technique, and other details about each piece by tuning into a participating local radio station (Radio 1 FM, Classic FM, or Emarat FM). There they will hear descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, 1887, and Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black, as well as the Islamic sculpture Mari-Cha Lion and the sarcophagus of Egyptian princess Henuttawy.

The Highway Gallery will run through mid-March. After that, art lovers can drive their cars to the Louvre Abu Dhabi to see the items in person.

[h/t Artforum]

5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.


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