WASHINGTON (AP).- Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough on Tuesday defended his decision to remove an artist's video that depicted ants crawling on a crucifix from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, saying a controversy over the short clip threatened to overshadow its first major exhibition on gay themes in art history.
Critics had blasted Clough's decision as verging on artistic censorship while members of Congress and a Catholic group had complained that the video was sacrilegious.
In his first public response to questions on the issue, Clough said the controversy overshadowed the exhibition and threatened to spiral beyond control into a debate on religious desecration. He said he acted to preserve the overall exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
"I still believe it was a right decision and I'm still proud that that exhibit is still up and thousands of people are coming and learning what we hoped they would learn from it," Clough told The Associated Press.
In November, the Catholic League complained that the video, "A Fire in My Belly," by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, was sacrilegious because of the crucifix clip. The artist's work explored the subject of AIDS. Wojnarowicz died of complications from the disease in 1992 at age 37.
The exhibit also includes works by major artists including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz, among others. It's the largest exhibit ever staged by the Portrait Gallery.
The Smithsonian took down the video the same day complaints were made public. Even though the video was removed, Clough said he still receives e-mails complaining about the exhibit's overall theme. The show also drew praise from critics.
Clough said he had to consider the Smithsonian's long-term stability and is expecting "very difficult budget situations" with Congress in coming months because of the federal deficit. About 65 percent of the Smithsonian's budget comes from public funds.
Clough said he expects the exhibit controversy will come up during budget discussions.
Clough, who took over the Smithsonian's helm in 2008, has largely avoided controversy. His decision to remove the video, rather than stand for those calling for the exhibit's academic integrity or free speech, drew rebukes from the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Andy Warhol Foundation and other artists with works in the exhibit.
The former university president said he respects those who disagree with his decision.
"It was a difficult position for me personally because I have been a supporter of free speech everywhere I've gone, as well as gay rights, and to be perceived in some other light is a painful experience for me," he said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.