The donor intent behind the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ exhibit titled, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ current exhibit, Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, features images of the Virgin Mary as she has been variously conceived of through the ages. Visiting it in person one is struck by the generally respectful, even sincere tone of the whole exhibit and the variety of quality pieces featured in various media. The exhibit’s curator, Fr. Timothy Verdon, is a noted sacred art expert and canon of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral who has clearly brought both his goodwill and deep historical knowledge to bear on the showcase.
The same cannot be said of many of the exhibit’s visitors, perhaps, who approach the pieces with a bemused curiosity typically reserved for fossils of the Mesozoic era. Though such anecdotal evidence is not to be taken too seriously, on the day I visited the exhibit there were no less than four different couples remarking knowingly to one another about "the curator’s interesting choice to perpetuate oppressive mythologies" or the various "blatant examples anti-Semitism."
But even aside from the typically simplistic reactions of the average urban museum-goer, the Mary exhibit has been attracting obnoxious controversy since before it opened. Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott decried the museum’s decision not to include polemical modern representations of Mary, such as the Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," a relatively artless mixed-media painting made partially out of elephant feces and small clippings from pornographic magazines. Why the exhibit’s curator decided not to show such work alongside Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Caravaggio seems less of a mystery than Kennicott would have us believe. Related criticism revolved around the ways in which Mary’s image has been “routinely invoked in wars against Islamic states and [in] anti-Semitic campaigns” and warned that “many people who recoil at the Catholic Church’s treatment of women and gay people will find little to love in the way Mary’s purity and virginity have been used to indict sexuality in general, especially unregulated sex.”
Such churlish and shortsighted criticisms speak for themselves. And, frankly, one should hardly be surprised to find this sort of mania passing for enlightened opinion in the editorial pages of an elite newspaper. In fact, given the degree to which so many in D.C. – from critics to congressmen – tend to politicize anything they can, it is no small wonder the exhibit ever saw the light of day. Indeed, unveiling the exhibit has been no small feat—according to reporting by the Baltimore Sun, it’s been three years in the making.
But a glance down the list of the exhibit’s benefactors quickly suggests how it finally came to be. Fifteen of the twenty-one top donors are known Catholic philanthropists—such as Janice Obuchowski, a dame in the Order of Malta, or J. Christopher Reyes, a trustee at the University of Notre Dame. Two of the exhibit’s primary sponsors are Alejandra and Enrique Segura, prominent Catholic philanthropists living in the capital region; other top donors include former ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, who helped publish a volume entitled Catholic and Feminist in 2008, and Frederic V. Malek, a former presidential advisor and Marriott Hotels CEO who now donates heavily to Marymount University. In other words, a small group of wealthy Catholics made the Mary exhibit happen, despite all obvious obstacles; it is not unreasonable to speculate, furthermore, that they would have individually or collectively had something to do with stopping works like Ofili’s from making their way into the exhibit.
This is donor intent at its best—making possible a sensitive and serious exhibit plagued by politically correct criticisms and the attendant institutional hesitancy. Let us sincerely hope, if for no other reason than cultural diversity, that as long as there are critics like Kennicott, there are donors as steadfast as those that made Picturing Mary possible.