Museum staff defends Secret Wars exhibit
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
Officials of a private Houston art museum recently investigated by federal agents for displaying allegedly anti-American artwork claim they were victims of misguided jingoism and that they will not be censored.
The agents determined the artwork was not dangerous, said FBI spokesman Bob Dogium.
The investigation, he said, was part of Attorney General John Ashcroft's anti-terrorism campaign.
"I think it's the new McCarthyism," said Donna Huanca, docent at the Art Car Museum in the Heights.
Even more disturbing, she said, was that the agents questioned her about her personal life and whether her parents knew she worked at the museum. She called the agents "intimidating."
"I felt terror," said Huanca, 21, a University of Houston art student. "They were scaring me."
A museum patron's anonymous tip led FBI and Secret Service agents to investigate artwork said to threaten President Bush in an exhibit titled Secret Wars, Dogium said.
At Ashcroft's urging, law enforcement investigates all tips about apparent anti-American activities after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. The Secret Service investigates any alleged threats to the president, Dogium added.
"In line with (Ashcroft's) directive that we would leave no stone unturned, " he said, "all these calls are taken seriously and followed up."
The exhibit, which opened Sept. 21, examines wars worldwide and personal conflicts within families. It includes a statement deploring the Sept. 11 attacks and questioning why the United States was targeted. The museum's
Web site said the exhibit investigates artistic "dissent to covert operations and government secrets."
Huanca said the agents visited the museum about 10:30 a.m. Nov. 7, a half-hour before it opened. She gave them a private tour and they questioned her about the artwork, particularly EmptyTrellis (revisited) by Houston artist Tim Glover.
The work is a charcoal drawing of President Bush's bust at a speaker's podium. A steel trellis in the shape of a half globe encloses the drawing. Gold-colored metal leaves litter the floor below it.
Glover said the artwork expresses his concern about what he calls this nation's harsh stands on ecology. It is not an attempt to threaten Bush, he said.
"I attribute (the agents' interest) to the mass hysteria going on," Glover said.
The agents also were concerned about a large, framed painting by Houstonian Lynn Randolph that depicts an urban skyline burning.
Jim Harithas, the museum's founder and director and director of Houston's Contemporary Art Museum from 1974-79, said the exhibit is not meant to be unpatriotic. But the current political climate appears to curb free speech, he said, and "the potential is there for thought control."
"Apparently now, any criticism of the president is subject to investigation," he said.
Harithas, director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington from 1965-69, said he will not be deterred from mounting other thought-provoking exhibits at the Art Car Museum, which opened in 1998.
"Are we supposed to cower in fear?" he said.
The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free.