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Serralves Artistic Director Resigns Over Museum's Removal of Mapplethorpe Photographs

João Ribas has resigned from his position as artistic director of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal, a post he held for just eight months. His Friday announcement to the Portuguese newspaper Público follows the museum’s alleged removal of twenty works from its recent “Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures” exhibition, which Ribas curated.

An open letter addressed to Serralves Foundation chair Ana Pinho and condemning the museum's management of the exhibition is now circulating online. Ribas also cited the museum’s decision to restrict select rooms of the exhibition to those aged eighteen and older as one of the reasons he “was no longer able to continue to lead the institution.”

The exhibition, which opened on September 20, featured twenty less photographs than the original 179 planned by Ribas. Mapplethorpe’s documentation of the 1970s S&M scene in New York embroiled him in debates of censorship and expressive freedom during and after his lifetime, and though Ribas had agreed to place an advisory at the exhibition’s entrance notifying visitors on the sexual nature of the photographs, he did not approve of barring younger visitors to the show, arguing that “a museum cannot condition, separate, or delimit access to works, to say what people can see or not.”

Signed by 400 people including a number of leading cultural figures including artists Tania Bruguera, Barbara Hammer, and Wolfgang Tillmans, and curators Stuart Comer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Ann Gallagher of Tate London, the open letter reads: “We live in a time of deep political uncertainty, with the emergence of right-wing populism, ultranationalism, and threats to artistic and academic freedoms. In that context, it is deeply unfortunate that the Serralves Foundation has missed an opportunity to uphold the values that should have sustained it as a home for culture, thought and freedom and chose instead to succumb to moral puritanism and social conservatism.”

In response to the backlash over the show and Ribas’s abrupt exit, the Serralves Foundation has told several media outlets, that it is shocked by the artistic director’s public statements on the exhibition and denied all allegations of censorship. The foundation told El País that “From the beginning, the proposal of the exhibition was to present the works of an explicit sexual nature in an area with restricted access, given the tenor of several exhibited works and being that Serralves is an institution visited annually by almost a million people of all backgrounds, ages and nationalities, including thousands of children and hundreds of schools, the foundation considered that the visiting public should be alerted, in accordance with the legislation in force.”

According to Artnews, the Mapplethorpe Foundation has also come forward after Ribas’s departure. There has been “a lot of unnecessary confusion in Porto,” it said. “We do not believe that any censorship occurred.” While it acknowledged that works had been pulled from the exhibition, it attributed these changes to “reasons of exhibition design, repetition, etc.”