Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati: The Controversy, the Myth, and the Legacy

A lecture by Dennis Barrie, the first presentation in the Winter 2007 lecture series, Exhibiting Controversy: From Mapplethorpe to “Body Worlds” and Beyond.

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was confronted with a crisis that nearly meant its demise. In that year, the Center came under attack for exhibiting the photography of the late Robert Mapplethorpe. His works were deemed pornographic by members of the Christian Right and, in an organized campaign, they pressured the law enforcement bodies of Cincinnati to take action against the exhibition and indict the Center and its Director. The result was the “art trial” of the Century “” one in which the First Amendment Rights of a museum were at stake.

Dennis Barrie, the Director of the Contemporary Arts Center from 1983-1991, will discuss how this crisis in the arts came about, how it tore apart a community, and how the trial played out. He will give insights into the impact it had on the national art scene, how it nearly destroyed the NEA, and the response of the museum world to controversy since that time.

The Mapplethorpe controversy remains one of the great battles of the continuing Culture Wars in American society. It is a frightening look at how intense and long-reaching those battles can be.

Dennis Barrie is director of cultural planning for Westlake Reed Leskosky, a museum-consulting firm. He was director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center for eight years and was the first executive director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. In April, 1990 Dennis Barrie became the first American museum director to be criminally prosecuted for the contents of an exhibition. The exhibit was a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center were charged with “pandering obscenity” and showing minors in a state of nudity. A jury acquitted Barrie and the Arts Center of all charges.