The decision by the Milwaukee Art Museum to acquire and prominently display a controversial portrait of Pope Benedict XVI fashioned from 17,000 colored condoms has created outrage among Catholics and others who see it as profoundly disrespectful, even blasphemous.
Many suggest that if a piece were as offensive to other faith traditions or communities it would not be tolerated, much less embraced.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki blasted the decision as insulting and callous. The museum acknowledged it has fielded about 200 complaints. A handful of patrons dropped their memberships; one longtime docent tendered her resignation; and at least one donor vowed never to support the museum financially again.
Museum officials said an equal number of people have voiced support for the piece and that memberships and pledges in general are growing. They said they regret that the portrait, by Shorewood artist Niki Johnson, has elicited such enmity. But they insist it was not their intent — nor the intent of the artist — to offend Catholics or anyone else. And they said they continue to enjoy the support of people of all faiths, including Catholics.
“This was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the pope,” said museum board of trustees president Don Layden. “It was to have a conversation about AIDS and AIDS education. And my hope is when the piece appears in the museum that will be the focus of the discussion.”
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Listecki, called that explanation “a smoke screen.”
“What’s at play here is either an intentional attack on a faith tradition and its teachings or a publicity stunt for the artist,” he said. “And we would be opposed to any faith tradition or religious leader being attacked in such a way.”
Johnson, who was in Memphis, Tenn., working on a new condom-related installation last week, stood by her past explanation that she wanted to spark a conversation, not deride a religious figure.
The museum acquired the portrait from local philanthropist and gay rights advocate Joseph Pabst, who purchased it for about $25,000 and donated it to the institution. The museum announced the acquisition earlier this month. It will go on display in the fall when the museum reopens its permanent collection galleries, which are closed now for renovation.
“Why did I buy it? I did not buy it because I thought it was beautiful,” Pabst said in an interview. “I bought it because I thought it was provocative and I thought it was important. … This piece has work to do. It has to make people think and have discussions.”
Pabst said he was “cognizant that people are very upset, and truly sorry that people are upset, but you know we need to have the conversation.”
Last week, Michael Bowen and his wife, Sara Armbruster Bowen, resigned their art museum memberships, which they’ve had for more than 30 years.
Bowen and his wife are both Milwaukee-area attorneys and members of St. Monica Catholic Parish in Whitefish Bay, where he serves as a deacon.
The couple feels that the portrait of Benedict is a “piece of anti-Catholic bigotry and hate speech,” Michael Bowen said.