thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Curating Erotic Art: An Interview with Catherine Johnson-Roehr

In Interview, Kinsey, museums on September 30, 2013 at 4:51 am

In July 2000, Catherine Johnson-Roehr (CJR) became Curator of Art, Artifacts, and Photographs at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Nestled in Bloomington, Indiana, the Kinsey Institute is a leading organization for the study of sexuality. In this interview, Johnson-Roehr discusses the use of the collection, the ever-intriguing work of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the joys of curating an incredibly distinctive (not to mention sexy) collection of artwork.

PJP: The Kinsey Institute is in Bloomington, Indiana. Can you talk a little about location? In New York, it might be harder to get attention. The Museum of Sex is there, but of course the Museum of Sex also borrows items from the Kinsey for their displays.

CJR: Many people are surprised to find us in Indiana, but there’s a simple reason for it—Dr. Kinsey was a professor at Indiana University when he founded his institute for sex research here in 1947.  It would be much more expensive to run an operation like this in New York. We’re also so much a part of Indiana University. It’s hard to see how we might move away from this area. We do loan materials for exhibitions in New York and elsewhere, and we have had entire shows travel as well. Right now, I’m working on a request to send some photographs to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

PJP: Which photographs?

CJR: Five George Platt Lynes photographs. We do what we can to make it possible for people to see the remarkable materials that we have here.

PJP: As the curator, you of course want people to have access to the materials–but when a class comes in you may also worry about preserving them. How do you balance creating access with preserving the materials?

CJR: We do provide access for anyone who wants to do legitimate research using these materials. But it’s not completely open access. We require that anyone coming in to view materials has some sort of research agenda in mind. We just can’t accommodate a lot of people browsing. I also provide show-and-tell sessions for students.  I bring materials  out for the class to view  and we can talk about their significance for their course.

PJP: Is that because you want to project the privacy of some of the donors?

CJR: We do have some sensitive images. Some of our material actually came to us from police departments—it may have been a confiscated item. We may not know anything about the individuals in the photograph, or even who took the photograph or where. That image could still be useful for research; for example, it may illustrate clothing or behavior from a particular era. If a scholar is researching gay men in the 1920s, he or she may want to use a photograph from our homosexual male category to illustrate an article or book.

PJP: I know at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, Jerry Slocum, a collector of puzzles, has stayed really involved with the puzzle collection he donated. Does the Kinsey have any donors who stay connected to the Institution?

CJR: We do. One that comes to mind is Herbert Ascherman. He’s a photographer who has donated more than 1,500 of his own prints. He has had a long career, so he has given us recent work, as well as photographs taken over several decades. He’s done a lot of work photographing communities, such as the Leather community or LGBT couples and events around Cleveland where he lives.

Herb has donated a lot of his own work, but he’s also become very interested in helping us expand our vintage collection. He enjoys going to photography sales and conferences. He likes looking for old photographs. He’ll stop at antique shops and look for tintypes.  He’s given us some really wonderful examples of early photography—several daguerreotypes, as well as  tintypes, carte-de-visite photographs, stereo cards, and other examples of  nineteenth century photography. He’s someone who’s really helping us expand our collection in several ways. He’s also active as our advisor on photographic issues. Most donors aren’t quite that involved, but I’m still in touch with quite a few people.

PJP: Are there any other changes or upcoming projects that you’re especially excited about?

CJR: Next year we are going to have a Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Grunwald Gallery on the IU campus.  Even though some of the younger students who come in today have not heard of him, twenty years ago Mapplethorpe was a very famous photographer, not just for his work, but also the controversy around his work. He took beautiful celebrity portraits and photographs of flowers, but he also created more challenging images documenting gay male culture in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

When a retrospective of his work, including those photographs, opened around 1990 it caused a lot of controversy. The gallery director in Cincinnati where the show was being exhibited was actually arrested, because they were calling it obscene. He was acquitted. At that time, everyone was talking about censorship and art and government funding, because there was some support for the show from the NEA. Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989, from AIDS. Now, sadly some of the students I talk to have not heard of him. But we do get a lot of requests for his work. I’ve always wanted to have some of his photographs in the Kinsey Institute collection. It’s very expensive work, but luckily thirty prints were recently donated by the Mapplethorpe Foundation.  The exhibit in the fall of 2014 will showcase this very important gift.

Current visitors to the Kinsey Institute will be treated to Past/Present, an exhibit that explores the connection between contemporary artists and artwork and images from bygone eras. In addition, several of Bloomington’s local bars, The Bishop and the Back Door, host monthly sex salons where researchers and professors discuss their exciting research into various dimensions of sexuality. Indiana is a sexy place.

Pamela Pierce worked at the Kinsey Institute while she was earning her Master’s in Library Science from Indiana University. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area and works with students who have been in the foster care system.


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