Ambassador Bruce Heyman
Opening dinner of The Robert Mapplethorpe Exhibition
Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
As prepared for delivery.
Vicki and I are so proud to join you this evening to celebrate the legacy of one of the most iconic photographers in American history, Robert Mapplethorpe. The world renowned Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal is a fitting home for an artist who took photography to the outer limits of the human experience. Thank you, Jacques and Nathalie, for bringing us this historic exhibition, the largest collection of Mapplethorpe’s work ever shown in Canada.
To say that my wife is a champion of the arts is an understatement. Many of you here tonight have met Vicki, and you know that she is truly the driving force behind our cultural diplomacy efforts — I am just lucky that she lets me tag along. During our time in Canada, Vicki has worked every day to strengthen the cross-border cultural connection between our two countries. Using contemporary art and film as a platform for dialogue, she has built bridges between individuals and created communities — shedding light on universal issues that affect both the United States and Canada. Given the lasting impact of Mapplethorpe’s art and his story, not just on America but on the world — we have both been looking forward to this exhibit for months.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s work transcends mere photography. No matter the subject, his images have a consistency and a purpose – nothing is accidental. The light, the stillness, the symmetry – you always know when you are looking at a Mapplethorpe photograph.
Tonight we celebrate the opening of “Focus: Perfection”: the melding of collections from two American institutions: The Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum.
This exhibit celebrates an artist who had become a sensation even before his untimely death at the age of 42. As his work from the 70s and 80s gained public attention, the name “Mapplethorpe” became synonymous with important — and sometimes heated — debates in the United States about artistic styles, freedom of expression, and the role of public and private funding to present works of art that Mapplethorpe called “unexpected” — and others called “shocking.” These debates are still relevant. To avoid or quash them would run counter to our commitment to freedom and equality. Mapplethorpe’s story is part of our American story, and it’s a privilege to bring our Canadian friends into the dialogue.
Even when there are differences of opinion about particular artistic content, we celebrate a commitment to the freedom of artistic expression. As President Obama said:
“The arts are what make life worth living…the things that make you laugh, make you cry, make you connect, make you love.”
In fact, the U.S. government is sponsoring two visiting speakers who will bring context to this exhibition. Professor Jonathan Katz will educate us about the politics of nudity in art history. Author Robert Sherman, who you will recognize from many of Mapplethorpe’s photos, will speak about New York in the 1970s, the time and place in which the majority of Mapplethorpe’s work was created.
Think about how the world has changed since Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, and how attitudes across North America have shifted. I believe that through his art and his activism, Mapplethorpe helped to create the foundation for some of those shifts to occur. With dignity and precision, he captured images that gave us faces and stories of America – and not just the America that we were used to seeing. Mapplethorpe’s photographs remind us of our continued commitment to inclusion, in which every person is treated equally — regardless of race, sexual orientation or gender. Those of us who reap the benefits of tolerance and freedom of expression have a responsibility to extend that freedom to those who are still marginalized and still facing injustice. As we gather tonight we celebrate society’s embrace of what is now accepted. We cannot and should not ever take it for granted.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s life gave us indelible images.
He shed light on what had been in the shadows.
Robert Mapplethorpe had the kind of courage it takes to be true to yourself, even if society doesn’t always accept or understand you. Beyond the photographs, that’s what we remember about him; and that is why we celebrate him.