A Cincinnati jury today acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center here and its director, Dennis Barrie, of obscenity charges stemming from an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe last spring.

Cincinnati Jury Acquits Museum in Mapplethorpe Obscenity Case

October 6, 1990

A Cincinnati jury today acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center here and its director, Dennis Barrie, of obscenity charges stemming from an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe last spring.

The four men and four women on the mostly working-class jury left the courtroom without comment after what was believed to be the first criminal trial of an art museum arising from the contents of an exhibition. The jurors had listened to five days of testimony from some of the nation’s leading museum directors, viewed the photographs in open court without expression and took two hours to reach their verdict today. [The Cincinnati prosecutors faced a difficult task under the current Supreme Court guidelines for determining obscenity, legal experts said yesterday. News analysis, page 6.] State Cannot Appeal Shouts and cheers filled the tiny courtroom and two adjacent overflowing rooms where television monitors were set up to view the proceedings. Supporters of the arts center hugged and kissed one another with the announcement of the final ”not guilty.”

”It’s over, it’s all over,” several of them said.

The case is indeed considered put to rest because state law prohibits the state from appealing a jury verdict.

But the Mapplethorpe case is just one of several current disputes over sexual subject matter in the arts. Members of the Miami rap music group 2 Live Crew are to stand trial next week on obscenity charges stemming from a performance of songs from their recording, ”As Nasty as They Wanna Be,” which a Federal judge had previously declared obscene.

And a Fort Lauderdale record store owner was convicted this week on obscenity charges for selling a copy of the 2 Live Crew recording to an undercover police officer.





















































Defense lawyers in the Mapplethorpe case called the trial ”a sad battle,” but hailed the decision as a victory for the Bill of Rights and for an art world under siege.

”This is a signal to everybody that before they start shutting down museums and telling people what they can say and what they can see,” said H. Louis Sirkin, a defense lawyer, ”they better realize there is a protection out there, and it is the greatest document ever written.”

As a clerk read the verdict, Mr. Barrie breathed deeply and looked down in relief. Later, emerging from the courtroom with teary-eyed supporters, he said: ”This was a major battle for art and for creativity, for the continuance of creativity in this country. Mapplethorpe was an important artist. It was a beautiful show. It should never have been in court.”

If convicted, the museum would have faced up to $10,000 in fines and Mr. Barrie would have faced up to a year in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.

In a written statement, Arthur Ney, the Hamilton County prosecutor who convened the grand jury that indicted the museum, said that because of the dispute over the exhibition, ”the only alternative was to let those without an interest in the controversy make the final decision,” adding, ”Whether you agree with the verdict or not, the final analysis is that the system works.”

Helms Keeps Banner High

The verdict ends seven months of turmoil in this quiet, conservative city on the Ohio River. After weeks of urging the museum not to display the photographs, Cincinnati law enforcement officials entered the Arts Center on the exhibition’s opening day, April 7, and handed the indictment to Mr. Barrie.

Much of the dispute over the Mapplethorpe photographs has centered on whether Federal money should be used to finance them, through the National Endowment for the Arts. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, has led efforts to keep endowment money from being granted to artists whose work may be considered by some to be obscene or sacrilegious.

Today Senator Helms said in a statement: ”This merely proves my point that taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidize filthy and offensive art in





















































any form. The N.E.A., and others who have no concern about the effect of such subsidies, insist that the taxpayers’ objections should be ignored.”

A Helms aide explained that the Senator believed the N.E.A. grant that helped establish the Mapplethorpe exhibition last year – but not its showing in Cincinnati – had, in effect, transformed the photographs into Government-approved art, making it impossible for a jury to declare them obscene.

The case centered on seven out of 175 photographs in an exhibition that traveled from Berkeley, Calif., to Boston without incident except in Cincinnati.

Five of the seven photographs depicted men in sadomasochistic poses and were the basis of charges that the museum and Mr. Barrie had pandered obscenity. Two of the photographs showed children with their genitals exposed and were the basis of charges the defendants had illegally displayed the images of nude children.

Throughout the two-week trial, Mr. Mapplethorpe, who died from complications from AIDS last year, became a silent third defendant as the museum’s lawyers sought to prove he was a legitimate artist whose work was protected by the First Amendment.

The prosecution, on the other hand, tried to keep their case as simple as possible by focusing on the pictures and their subject matter, which even defense lawyers acknowledged was disturbing. The prosecution essentially made the pictures its case, hoping that the seemingly conservative jury would be offended by the photographs.

In closing statements that at times turned emotional, Frank Prouty, the lead prosecutor, sought to stir outrage over pictures that he said were not Cincinnati’s idea of art. ”Are these Van Goghs, these pictures?” Mr. Prouty asked. He went on to describe each photograph and ask, ”Is that art?”

One of the five photographs shows a man urinating into another man’s another shows a finger inserted into a penis, and the other three each depict a man with an object inserted in the rectum: a whip, a cylinder, and a man’s hand and forearm.



























But the jury was apparently convinced by the many defense witnesses who said Mr. Mapplethorpe’s work was serious, indeed, brilliant art.

The instructions by Judge F. David J. Albanese of Hamilton County Municipal Court were considered equally important in helping the jury distinguish art from obscenity.

The judge explained a three-pronged test of obscenity: ”That the average person applying contempory community standards would find that the picture, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest in sex, that the picture depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and that the picture taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Judge Albanese told the jurors that the five main photographs must meet all those requirements if they were to convict the museum and that they were to disregard their personal feelings about the images. He added, ”The appeal to the prurient interest must be the main and principal appeal of the picture.”

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