SANTA FE, N.M. It has been more than two years since a Roman Catholic outcry over Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez's digital collage of the Virgin of Guadalupe clad in flower petals with a bare midriff.
The chilling effect is still felt in Santa Fe, where officials at state-run museums say pressures not to offend viewers have been acute since the "Our Lady" controversy.
"It's not whispered it's intense," said Marsha Bol, director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Lopez's "Our Lady," a computer-generated collage of a model wearing a floral garment resembling a bikini, was part of a Cyber Arte exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art.
Roman Catholics were offended by the bared midriff on so sacred an icon and asked a judge to order it removed from the wall of the museum. The exhibit was open from February through October 2001. It closed four months early to appease protesters, museum officials have said.
"There was the sense that there might be internal censorship that descends on curators and others," said Tom Wilson, former head of the Museum of New Mexico. "I think it has happened."
In this climate, curators might exclude works if expressions were "too hot to handle or more cutting-edge," he said.
Curators avoided placing work by potentially controversial artists in the upcoming exhibit "So Que," a showcase of work by living New Mexican artists residing south of Interstate 40. The exhibit is scheduled to open at the Museum of Fine Arts in January.
Even in the midst of the Our Lady controversy, museum officials were concerned about a possible future chilling effect, Wilson said. He recalled the threatening phone calls and hate mail sent to Tey Nunn, curator of the exhibit that included Lopez's "Our Lady."
"Who would want to go through that?" Wilson asked.
Asked if curators have been practicing self-censorship since "Our Lady," Bol acknowledged, "it's a fight."
"My intention is to try to fight against this as an undue influence," Bol said.
During a recent interview in Santa Fe, when So Que curator Betty Gold was asked whether viewers could expect to see any "edgy" work in the show, she responded: "I just want to have a nice show
and not cause problems for the museum."
After "Our Lady," the Museum of New Mexico revised its policies for handling sensitive materials, allowing more opportunity for public input without setting new standards for selecting objects for an exhibit.
The Sensitive Materials Committee, originally created to deal with issues arising out of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, still has responsibility for potentially controversial artwork. But now the committee meets quarterly, and any staff member can bring an issue before the committee at any
time, from the planning stage of an exhibit to its opening.