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October 23, 2015

Washington Post Remembers Mapplethorpe Persecution

CINCINNATI—We're guessing it's an incident that the conservative city of Cincinnati would like to forget, but today, the Washington Post published a remembrance of Hamilton County's prosecution of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) for the Center's having had the temerity to mount an exhibition of the works of internationally renown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The time was 1990, and an exhibition of Mapplethorpe's work, titled "The Perfect Moment," was traveling around the country, and at least one possible venue, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had cancelled a planned showing due to protests from, among others, conservative members of Congress, who were also trying to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. "At the start of 1990, Barrie knew he risked controversy by bringing the Mapplethorpe exhibit to Cincinnati," wrote journalist Grace Dobush for The Post. "The artist, who had AIDS, had died just months after Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art put together 'The Perfect Moment,' and his homosexuality was a focal point for Republican senators who were taking the NEA to task for funding art they considered obscene. "Hamilton County prosecutor Simon Leis—who later was sheriff during the Mapplethorpe events—had famously prosecuted Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in the 1970s, and there was a strong anti-pornography movement in the area led by the Christian organization Citizens for Community Values. Knowing the heat the Corcoran had faced for 'The Perfect Moment,' [CAC director Dennis] Barrie preemptively enlisted lawyer H. Louis Sirkin, who specializes in First Amendment defense cases." The "problem" was that along with some very classical shots of people, buildings and flowers, Mapplethorpe's camera had also captured his fellow gay men performing sexual acts on each other, and while that was a small part of the exhibit, it's what the Hamilton County Sheriff focused on—and shortly after the exhibit opened, the CAC was served with notice that it was to be prosecuted for obscenity. Early on, Sirkin filed a Motion for Declaratory Judgment, arguing that under Ohio law, a museum could not be charged with obscenity. However, a judge dismissed the Motion the night before the exhibit opened, and that day is when the sheriff served his notice. Sirkin's defense that Mapploethorpe's work was art, not obscenity, and he brought in various art experts to testify to that fact. The prosecution was apparently sure that the photographs would "speak for themselves," and didn't bother to call any experts of its own. The jury took less than an hour to acquit both Barrie and the CAC. "The trial was 'a PR disaster'," Dobush quotes Vice Mayor (then City Councilmember) David Mannas as saying. "It kind of made us the laughing stock of sophisticated communities." What it also did, however, was raise the public profile of one of the adult industry's most effective First Amendment litigators—a role H. Louis Sirkin continues to play to this day. Pictured: Two works by Robert Mapplethorpe.

 
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