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Members of Richmond's art community offer their take on - and take Gov. Gilmore and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to task over - the Sally Mann flap. 

Shock of the Few

A woman urinated in a bucket at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this year and no one cared.

No one complained. No one called the governor's office. No so-outraged-they-had-to-remain-anonymous citizens wrote him demanding something be done about it - or about the woman who had lain on a table and simulated masturbation, either.

"No one in the audience was offended because they understood what the artist was doing," says Margo Crutchfield, associate curator of modern and contemporary art. The Feb. 12 performance of Compagnie Marie Chouinard, part of the museum's popular "Fast/Forward" performance art series, "had everything to do with sanctifying the body in everyday actions.

"There's no way that anybody who hadn't been there could understand."

Fast-forward, then, to the May 10 Sally Mann lecture, which included a slide of Mann and her children out on a rock, urinating. Gilmore wasn't there; could he understand?

Enough, apparently, to demand in a May 17 letter that the museum "immediately put policies into place that will prevent these kinds of displays from occurring again on state-owned property."

Christina Newton, director of the co-op gallery Artspace, calls Gilmore's letter "outrageous."

"But the museum didn't stand up for its own programming, and I thought that was weak," she says. "I'm sorry that the art community here didn't stand up for the museum, but I think the museum kowtowing to his statement and saying, 'Yes, we'll take care of that right away,' was disappointing."

Did it? And "immediately," as the governor said?

The museum released the new policies Aug. 4. That's 11 weeks after the governor's request. Museum spokeswoman Suzanne Hall says the guidelines were developed by about 10 staffers, who "went through a number of dialogues and initial drafts" in June. In July, the executive committee of the museum's board of trustees edited and sent the final draft to the state. The policies will go into effect in September.

That may not matter. The policies are vague and upon careful reading will not necessarily meet Gilmore's demand to "prevent these kinds of displays from occurring again on state-owned property." The policies do not address artistic content issues (such as nudity or bodily functions) or particular kinds of displays or performances. Hall says the committee will meet four to six times a year to review and approve the "hundreds and hundreds of programs" the museum sponsors or co-sponsors throughout the state.

Hall says this is not a new committee. What is new?

The policies state the museum will clarify offerings for the public "to make sure that we communicate content and … if it's adult material or not," Hall says. "It's an area that we realized we needed to develop."

But the committee will not review offerings it does not sponsor or co-sponsor, such as those produced by outside organizations and only presented at the museum. And others don't see the policies as much of a change at all. Says Artspace's Newton: "They have a thin line to walk. I appreciate that. As a state institution, they have to reach a broad audience, and you're always made aware if the exhibition has … explicit material. The viewer has to take responsibility."

Crutchfield agrees. "This is a continuation of the way we've been planning exhibits and programs for years," she says. "We're always very mindful of the community … and these things have always been in place. We have all operated on a set of criteria that are based on artistic excellence."

So what are these policies, then?

"I'm sure it's lip service, in a way," Newton says. "I just hope they don't change their programming in terms of provocative materials in any way. That would sadden the art community, I'm sure."

Whether this meets with the governor's satisfaction or not will have to wait; Gilmore spokeswoman Lila Young says he has not reviewed the guidelines yet and that the office could not comment on them.

Richmond artists say it may not matter; a chilling effect already has set in. "At some point, unfortunately, our role has shifted to the worst side - of being our own censors," says Sally Bowring, an artist, former director of the 1708 gallery, and currently the public art coordinator for the city.

"But I hope that there are enough very good people at the museum … who will use every bit of their integrity and intelligence" in reviewing and approving programming, and that provocative art will not be "taken out of context and used divisively" by politicians, she says.

Other members of the Richmond art scene are adopting a wait-and-see approach to the museum's new policies. "I think that they seemed to handle it in an appropriate way," says Bev Reynolds, director of the Reynolds Gallery, "and I think it will be interesting to see what the committee will do. I think what comes forth from the committee and the museum's programming will be more reflective of where they're going to go."

Sally Mann's "was the most highly attended lecture that I've ever been to at the museum," Reynolds says. "They've done a tremendous job with the Fast/Forward series. There's a tremendous artistic community here that is very interested in seeing contemporary work."

For some, however, contemporary has too often become equated with indecent and even obscene. "All of these things are personal values," Crutchfield says. "Everyone comes … with a different set of criteria and a different set of values."

But such relativism may not fly with the governor, who appoints museum trustees from a museum-suggested slate and wrote that "[o]utrageous displays that push the envelope of decency and challenge the values of our society are simply unacceptable ..."

Stay tuned. "We're an institution of higher learning, we're a forum for ideas," Hall says. "Without pushing the envelope," she says, "we wouldn't be performing our
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