As of Wednesday morning, Tammy DeMel, a spokeswoman for the university, said the artwork in question, a piece created by Atlanta-area artist Ruth Stanford, an associate professor at Georgia State University, remained banned from the exhibit.
“We are not able to say anything right now,” DeMel said.
Stanford’s work, titled “A Walk in the Valley,” included text from a 1899 letter to the editor written by Corra Mae Harris, a 19th century Georgia author, that seemed to defend a lynching. Harris spent much of her writing career at a homestead in Cartersville, which was donated to the university in 2008.
Stanford was commissioned by the university to create a display based on the homestead to run in the museum’s new “See through Walls” exhibit. The exhibit’s theme was to focus on art that communicated a “sense of place.”
After months of work, Stanford created a large, three-dimensional installation made of wood, paper and mixed media for the museum’s opening day, March 1. She had collected writings of Harris and placed them across her work. On the back wall, Stanford had pasted a segment of the text from Harris’ 1899 inflammatory letter, which included racially offensive language, said Rachel Kidd, the sculpture artist-in-residence at KSU.
KSU President Dan Papp decided to remove the artwork from the museum’s display during a tour of the museum last Thursday, just two days before the grand opening.
The university released a statement Friday defending its decision:
“Concerns were raised that the subject matter of one proposed exhibit, Ruth Stanford’s ‘A Walk in the Valley’ is not aligned with the celebratory atmosphere of the museum’s opening. We therefore made the decision to display the exhibit at a more appropriate later time.”
Artists protest at grand opening of museum
The Zuckerman Museum opened on the campus of KSU on Saturday, minus Stanford’s work. Several protesters attended the opening, holding large black signs with the word “CENSORED” emblazoned in white letters as Gov. Nathan Deal and Papp gave congratulatory speeches about KSU’s new museum. The protesting artists wore black T-shirts with images of Stanford’s art on the back, covered with the word “Censored.”
A growing number of supporters have spoken out online against Papp’s decision, with most of them coming from the local arts community, DeMel said. The university hasn’t heard a lot of feedback from students, DeMel said.
Kidd, 27, is active in the KSU art community and said she was disappointed by Papp’s decision.
She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in sculpture in May and said she worked for more than a year with the school staff to prepare for the March 1 opening. She said Papp’s last-minute decision to pull Stanford’s artwork put a damper on the opening of the new museum, and diverted attention away from its importance.
“The museum is an extremely important event for the university, and KSU is really trying to push the face that we are trying to be a progressive school,” Kidd said. “For all the attention to be scooped away from the importance of the museum to this controversy … it really just is not doing much for our image.”
Kidd said the student art community was floored by Papp’s decision, especially since the university had commissioned Stanford to create the exhibit in the first place.
“I was flabbergasted,” she said.
The piece didn’t strike Kidd as offensive and merely did what art is supposed to do — invoke feelings in viewers and question societal norms.
“It didn’t really look super racially-charged,” Kidd said.
Banning the installation was the worst possible move, she said, as it removed Stanford’s voice.
“The art community is reeling. If we don’t have a voice, we don’t have anything at all,” Kidd said.
Asking Papp to apologize
She would like to see Papp apologize for hastily removing the art and to reinstall it.
“We would like it to be acknowledged that what he did was not right,” Kidd said.
On Wednesday afternoon, senior KSU student Monisha Bernard, who works at the museum and was at the opening exhibit Saturday, said she hadn’t heard much discussion among her peers about the artwork.
“I don’t think too many people know about the controversy,” the art history major said.
An introduction to the “See through Walls” exhibit, displayed on the entranceway to the room where Stanford’s piece was intended to be displayed, explains the collection is meant to evoke a deep personal examination from viewers.
“The examination of what is on, beneath and beyond the surface is a way of talking about the art experience itself,” the wall reads.
Billy Howard, an Atlanta resident, spoke out against Papp’s decision on the Zuckerman Museum’s Facebook page earlier this week.
“Censorship of art and ideas is a sad way to open a museum, especially at a university where the exploration of such ideas should be incorporated into the mission. This mistake will stain both the university and this museum and be ingrained in its history,” Howard wrote.
Freedom of expression at stake
More than 1,310 people had signed an online petition Wednesday on moveon.org, encouraging Papp to reinstall Stanford’s artwork.
“KSU is a state public institution with an educational mission that should promote dialogue about history and difficult subjects, not squelch First Amendment rights and artistic expression,” the protest petition reads.
The National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter to Papp on Tuesday, encouraging him to reinstate Stanford’s art, based on a freedom-of-expression stance.
The university replied to the letters of protest Wednesday afternoon with another press release, assuring those who were “disappointed” university officials were working to find an amicable solution to the controversy, and in no way intended to infringe upon Stanford’s First Amendment rights.
“We felt, and continue to feel, that the display will be more appropriate and meaningful when both the on-campus and off-campus communities will not be surprised by revisiting this issue and can be proactively engaged in its scheduling and the development of related programming,” the statement read. “We embrace these broad applications of artistic expression.”
Stanford could not be contacted for this article. A recent post on her Facebook page indicates Stanford was avoiding the public light.
“I need to step away from the computer for a bit, it is just a tad overwhelming. You people, each and every one of you, are awesome,” the post reads.
Zuckerman Museum staff did not want to comment Wednesday. DeMel funneled media inquiries through her office, and neither Papp nor Museum Director Justin Rabideau were available for comment Wednesday.
The “See through Walls” exhibit runs through April 26.