A controversial artist's film, banned in Washington, D.C., is coming to Minneapolis.

Walker Art Center has stepped into an art controversy that has been simmering for two weeks in the nation's capital. Olga Viso, director of the Walker, on Tuesday released a statement that criticized a Smithsonian museum for removing a video from an exhibition after a Catholic group called it anti-Christian. She said the Walker would offer free screenings of the video starting later this week and running through Dec. 31.

Directors of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) removed the film, which includes a short scene of ants crawling across a crucifix that is lying on the ground, after the Catholic League, a private advocacy organization, condemned the work as a form of "hate speech." Several House Republicans also criticized the show.

Viso flew to Washington Monday to see the NPG's exhibition, "Hide/Seek," which examines changing attitudes toward sexual identity in the work of more than 100 artists, both gay and straight.

The film was an excerpt from "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1992. He made the 13-minute film in 1987, by which time he had become an outspoken AIDS activist.

Viso called "Hide/Seek" a "groundbreaking, scholarly exhibition" and condemned the NPG's "surprising" decision to remove Wojnarowicz's piece. She was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but said on the Walker's website that she was "saddened" that Washington was now "informed by fear, intolerance, and silence." The Smithsonian's removal of the video had compromised its core principles, Viso wrote.

At least 10 other American museums, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the New Museum in New York, also made plans this week to show the video or to hold discussions about artistic censorship.

The show opened Oct. 30 at the NPG and ran for a month without controversy until Catholic League President William Donohue issued a sarcastic critique of Wojnarowicz's film on Nov. 30. "We call it hate speech," Donohue said in a statement.

The ant scene "was part of a surrealistic video collage filmed in Mexico expressing the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS," according to a Smithsonian statement. To see the video, visitors had to "optionally access" a small touch screen in the exhibit. The Smithsonian said Wojnarowicz's work was part of a long tradition of religious imagery used "to universalize human suffering."

Flashback to culture wars

To some, the controversy is a flashback to the "culture wars" of the 1980s in which conservative politicians attacked cultural institutions for exhibiting photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, or for staging performances on gay issues. In 1994 a Walker-sponsored event by California-performance artist Ron Athey sparked a year-long controversy that prompted funding cuts and a reorganization of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Some critics of the show at the Portrait Gallery suggested that taxpayers should not foot the bill for material they deemed objectionable. While the museum receives tax dollars as part of the Smithsonian complex, this exhibition was entirely paid for by individuals and private foundations.

The film triggered a "very vehement response from the Catholic League" including "quite offensive and aggressive statements that were frankly too disgusting to respond to or to keep," said Kaywin Feldman, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Feldman has not seen the exhibit but, after studying its catalogue and website, said it appeared to be a "very thoughtful exploration of portraiture and identity."

"We absolutely deplore the pressure to remove the video from the exhibition," said Feldman. "It's an exploitation of art museums by individuals for their own political agenda. Unfortunately, by removing the work of art, the Smithsonian got caught in the crossfire."

The Andy Warhol Foundation, which provided $100,000 for the show, threatened to stop funding Smithsonian shows if the film is not returned to the exhibit. Viso was director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum before joining the Walker and also sits on the Warhol's board of directors.

Coincidentally the Walker is also showing a lithograph by Wojnarowicz in a new exhibit, "50/50," opening Thursday. The lithograph is one of 50 works from the Walker's collection that were chosen by public vote for inclusion.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431