Robert Mapplethorpe at the ICA

Update: As of October 21, 2013 there is video related to this post on our website.

If you’re the type of person who makes New Years resolutions, it’s possible one of your 2013 goals is to go to more museums, or maybe to take better advantage of the resources in the wonderful city you live in. If this is the case (or even if it’s not), you should consider checking out the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA). From now until March 3, 2013, they’re displaying This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. One of the artists featured in this show, is Robert Mapplethorpe, a name that once caused a huge controversy in Boston.

The WGBH Ten O’Clock News collection has many stories about the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, who was a controversial and popular photographer in the 1980s. We have 1989 footage of ICA director David Ross discussing that people think Mapplethorpe’s work is controversial because of the erotic and gay subject matter of his photographs.

The majority of the records about Mapplethorpe are from the summer of 1990. This is not surprising, considering the extent of the controversy that was caused by the ICA exhibiting his The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition, which was curated by Janet Kardon. The museum was charged with obscenity. Free speech proponents demonstrated in front of the museum. City councilman Albert “Dapper” O’Neil visited the museum to judge for himself, and thought the photographs were so obscene that he threatened City Council action.  There is even footage of a debate between the City Council, with members defending both positions. Eventually the obscenity charges were dropped, with the Massachusetts State government, ruling in favor of the ICA.

The Ten O’Clock News also did an analysis piece, which compared contemporary fashion and adverting photography to Mapplethorpe’s photography. Its points out many similarities between the “controversial” photographs and “commercial” advertising campaigns, and even uses clips from a Madonna music video, Robocop, and Total Recall.

Their coverage of this city-side controversy was extensive and comprehensive. Based on the records, it seems like the amount of attention the exhibit got because of the obscenity charges only made more people interested in visiting the museum to see the work for themselves. Ten O’Clock News coverage of protests outside the museum, also include footage of museum patrons exiting the building, with mainly positive comments about the show.

And as the icing on the cake, a year later in 1991, there is an interview with opera singer Beverly Sills, who mentions Mapplethorpe and the controversy, in her discussion of discrimination in the arts, as well as censorship.


Catalano, Peter. “Mapplethorpe Not Banned in Boston.” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1990.

Zaidi, Ali F. “Expressions and Impressions.” Harvard Crimson, August 10, 1990.