Ohio jury acquits museum of obscenity Mapplethorpe show nets no convictions

October 06, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent Tom Kavanagh of The Sun's features staff contributed to this article.

CINCINNATI -- A Cincinnati art museum and its director were acquitted yesterday of charges of obscenity for displaying the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

"This is a great day for Americans, the arts and the creative process," an emotional Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Arts Center, said immediately after the jury delivered the verdicts.

"This was a major battle fought here today -- a major battle for the arts and creativity and the availability of all that creativity to all Americans," he said.

The Hamilton County Municipal Court jury delivered the verdicts just two hours after the close of a trial that lasted two weeks.

Mr. Barrie and the museum also were acquitted of charges of illegal use of a minor in nudity-related materials.

If convicted of all charges, Mr. Barrie faced a possible prison term of one year and a $2,000 fine and the museum faced a $10,000 fine.

Artists and advocates for freedom of expression had hung much significance on the outcome of the landmark trial.

It was the first time in U.S. history that a museum had been charged with obscenity, and many in the art world believed a conviction would have prompted some museums to restrict their artworks to non-risky materials.

The Contemporary Arts Center and its director were indicted April 7 when a traveling exhibition, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," opened its hugely successful six-week run here.

Seven photographs in the 175-picture exhibition formed the basis of the charges: Five depicted homoerotic images, and two showed a child with genitals exposed.

The exhibition was shown in several U.S. cities without incident, and some of the photographs at issue in the case have been published in books and art catalogs.

In closing arguments yesterday, lead prosecutor Frank Prouty had asked the jury of four men and four women to decide for themselves what is art and what is obscenity.

"The art world wants to tell you this is art," he told jurors. "You're the townspeople, and you tell them what is and is not art. These five pictures aren't art. Those are graphic depictions of sexual activity, depictions that have no place anywhere in a museum or art gallery."

After the verdicts were announced, Mr. Prouty told reporters: "This is an issue of local concern," and he refused to further discuss the case.

As the bailiff in Judge David Albanese's courtroom read the verdicts, the 43-year-old Mr. Barrie seemed to sink with relief into his chair.

"I'm glad that the system works," he said afterward. "We proved that it works. It's very important for this city that we stood up for the First Amendment."

Museum officials have said it seemed fitting that the obscenity case should be fought in Cincinnati, a city so well known for its sexually restrictive laws that anti-censorship organizations have dubbed it "Censor-nati."

Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and president of the 170-member Association of Art Museum Directors, said that the verdict "speaks very boldly about the way the American public feels about the liberties we have, which include freedom of expression and choice."

He added that "this decision needs to be heard and understood by our congressional representatives as they vote on the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts" next week. "This [Mapplethorpe] show has been the battle cry of [N.C. Sen. Jesse] Helms and his supporters, and they have been repudiated."

Senator Helms has led efforts to prevent the endowment from supporting what he considers controversial artworks.

Mr. Barrie said he would take a day off and then begin a speaking tour of U.S. cities to defend what he has called "the imperiled arts."

"I'm glad the struggle is over in Cincinnati, but it's not over in the rest of the country," he said.

Defense attorneys Marc Mezibov and H. Louis Sirkin said the verdicts should send a clear message countrywide that museums are protected venues.

"This sends a signal to everybody that before they start shutting down museums and telling people what they can say and what they can see . . . that museums are protected and that they're a part of our culture that should be kept sacred," Mr. Sirkin said. "This has been the greatest win. We're glad we go into history as a winner."

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