Photo by Benjamin Forgey
"You’re stopped in traffic and boom! It’s there. It assaults you,” then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph D. Morrissey said, as reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 2, 1990, referring to a window display at 1708 Gallery.
Morrissey’s perturbation stemmed from the “Coastal Exchange III” exhibition at the nonprofit, artist-run gallery, then located on East Main Street in Shockoe Bottom. The Arts Council of Richmond, in conjunction with the June Jubilee festival, sponsored the exhibition. Carlos Gutierrez-Solana, a gay artist from New York, was one of 12 in the show, which involved Virginia curators choosing New York artists, and vice versa. The Cuban-born Gutierrez-Solana’s “In Memorium” display, featuring a red acrylic painting of three nude men, appeared on the gallery’s large, storefront windows.
The exhibition coincided with the national AIDS epidemic and the National Endowment for the Arts fighting for its existence. One of the first salvos of the “culture war” blasted a show that brought Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photograph to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in early 1989. A letter to the Times-Dispatch denouncing the work drew the attention of the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon and his American Family Association. In April 1990, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center became the first museum in U.S. history to get slapped with criminal obscenity charges related to a retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Gutierrez-Solana’s “In Memorium” commemorated the AIDS-related deaths of three friends in April 1990. To complement the painting, the artist incorporated quotes of anti-gay sentiments and slurs.
“It was like he was trying for Matisse; these men holding hands in a circle,” recalls artist Sally Bowring. At the time, she served as president of the 1708 board while also working for the Arts Council.
On June 1, while 1708 staff and volunteers prepared for the opening, they noticed police cruisers driving by. One officer parked across the street and took pictures. Later, two plainclothes officers entered — “dressed like bad actors from ‘Miami Vice,’” Bowring recalls. “We informed them the gallery didn’t open until 7:30,” says the gallery’s then-director, Julyen Norman. “And they went away.” Still later, Morrissey arrived with an assistant, bearing a copy of Virginia’s obscenity law with key passages highlighted. Morrissey, who later told reporters that complaints to his office moved him to action, said he thought the painting needed to be removed or covered.
The 1708 staff refused. Those at the gallery feared someone might be taken into custody — perhaps Adrienne Hines, the Arts Council director. Norman remembers that her husband came to the gallery. “He produced the biggest wad of cash we’d ever seen and asked [us] if that looked like that was enough to bail her out if she went to jail.” Nobody got locked up, but a team of unidentified men carrying ladders and white butcher’s paper covered the window.
A window painting included in a 1990 exhibition at 1708 Gallery attracted the attention of then-prosecutor Joseph D. Morrissey, resulting in the windows being covered with paper. Messages of protest then appeared on the paper. (Photo courtesy History Press)
At the opening, other artists in the exhibition requested black censoring bands to hide “pertinent bits” of their work, as Norman describes it. Morrissey stood in front of the gallery for interviews.
The next morning, Norman found that someone had posted photocopies of classical art figures with black strips across their eyes.
National media attention put Richmond’s Arts Council, made up of multiple partners, amid the hullabaloo. After several tense phone calls and meetings, Bowring says, “I had a brainstorm. Just make 1708 the sponsor and leave the Arts Council out of it.”
American Civil Liberties Union lawyers stepped in to defend what they viewed as a violation of 1708’s First Amendment rights, and they received a hearing in federal court.
On June 21, federal district Judge James R. Spencer ordered the images covered until he heard arguments. A week later, Norman, Gutierrez-Solana, Hines, Bowring and others were called for cross-examination. The prosecution needed to prove that the work offended community standards and possessed no artistic, social or political merit. While the gallery staff sat in court, someone ripped down the paper on the gallery windows.
Photo by Benjamin Forgey
Teachers and a minister testified that “In Memorium” addressed the grim cost of AIDS. Gutierrez-Solana said the work spoke to his grief. That was enough for Judge Spencer. He ruled against the obscenity charge, and the paper came down for good.
The ACLU lawyers then asked Spencer to award the prevailing party court costs and legal fees. The court ordered the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to pay $20,797. Spencer rejected an appeal by Morrissey, and a year later, the situation was resolved through a negotiated payment of $18,000. The Times-Dispatch blasted Morrissey for wasting taxpayer money. The Richmond decision came almost six months before the Cincinnati charges were resolved in favor of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs. Extended to July 8 because of the censoring, “Coastal Exchange III” drew 1,400 people in its first three weeks — and not a single complaint from visitors.
More than two decades later, Morrissey is still making headlines, most recently for his unsuccessful run for mayor of Richmond. HBO released a Mapplethorpe documentary this year. And the 1708 Gallery endures, presenting its ninth annual InLight event in Scott’s Addition on Nov. 11.
When asked about the June 1990 events, Morrissey says now, “I was wrong, unequivocally. I’ll go further. I was an idiot.” Paraphrasing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he adds, “Protecting speech that we like is the easy part. Protecting speech we loathe, that’s the difficult part.”