A Washington art gallery pledged a round-the-clock protest Thursday against what it calls censorship by the Smithsonian Institution for removing a video that shows ants crawling on a crucifix after the Catholic League and members of Congress complained it was sacrilegious.
Transformer Gallery manager Barbara Escobar said the small, nonprofit gallery will show the video piece, "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz, in its storefront window every day and night until it’s reinstated at the National Portrait Gallery.
About 75 people joined a silent protest march Thursday evening to the Smithsonian. They carried pictures of a man with his mouth sewn shut to protest censorship of Wojnarowicz’s art.
Their numbers grew along the way. At the Portrait Gallery, the protesters lined up across then entrance and projected the video onto the side of the building. Police nearby didn’t stop them.
Transformer Gallery Director Victoria Reis said it was a peaceful protest to have the art put back at the Smithsonian.
The four-minute video was part of the first major exhibit to show how sexual orientation and gender identity have shaped American art. Smithsonian curators said it was meant to portray the suffering of an AIDS victim.
Wojnarowicz died at age 37 of AIDS complications in 1992. His estate granted permission for the Transformer Gallery to show the full 30-minute original version of the artistic video.
The Smithsonian removed the video Tuesday after the Catholic League called it "hate speech" designed to insult Christians.
Also, Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, have complained, saying the Smithsonian was misusing taxpayer funds. Other conservatives in Congress also objected.
The exhibit was funded privately, but the Smithsonian receives public funding for its staff and facilities. It’s unusual for the Smithsonian to bow to public complaints so quickly, and curators were aware the exhibit could be controversial.
On Thursday, the National Coalition Against Censorship said the Smithsonian’s removal of the video was an assault on First Amendment principles.
"Anybody is entitled to criticize an art show, but First Amendment principles bar government officials from suppressing controversial viewpoints and imposing the values held by one religious group on society at large," the group wrote.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough issued a memo to the museum complex staff Wednesday night, saying he made the final decision to take down the video. He said it was detracting from the larger exhibit called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
"That decision was not made lightly or in a vacuum," Clough wrote. "I understand this move is being criticized by some, and I accept that and understand their frustrations."
He also said he had been impressed by the depth and scholarship of the exhibit. It features works by major artists, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz.
"Most of the recent attention about the exhibition has focused on 11 seconds of a four-minute video clip, perceived by some to be anti-Christian and intentionally provocative," Clough wrote. "Neither could be further from the truth."
Transformer began showing the video Wednesday in honor of World AIDS Day.
More people may actually see the video while it plays continuously at the storefront location because the Smithsonian had placed it in a kiosk where visitors would have to call up the video to see it. -AP Photographer Jacquelyn Martin contributed to this report.