Statements, dialogue and conversations about censorship and USM president Glenn Cummings’ unilateral decision to remove three paintings from the Atrium Gallery’s exhibition “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape”
By Daniel Kany
“I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.”
Curated by Janice Moore, “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” ran from March 13 to June 1, 2018, at the Atrium Art Gallery of the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College at 51 Westminster St., Lewiston, Maine.
Soon after the opening, USM president Glenn Cummings removed three paintings of factories by a Waterville artist who has shown in the past at leading galleries and notable venues such as the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art.
According to Cummings’ office (in my first conversation with them before my review came out; but we’ll come back to this), Cummings removed the works based on a complaint by a relative of a victim of a sex crime involving unlawful sexual contact in 1999, for which the artist served six months in prison. The artist also had two sex-related misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s, one involving a juvenile. (Since I drafted this text, Cummings called me and clarified his thinking and details about the incident; this dialogue changed my thinking to a large extent, but, in the spirit of dialogue, I am choosing to leave my first draft in place and comment on it below.)
Below are excerpts from email conversations between John Ripton, a UMVA member and a participating artist in “Industrial Maine,” and UMVA president Robert Shetterly. Included as well are snippets from my own emails to them regarding the removal of the three paintings.
Cummings did not contact the curator, Janice Moore, before taking action. Instead, he had a university employee take down the works. The university then contacted the artist and had him remove the works.
This is an instance of censorship. But was it the right thing to do? The open questions include whether Cummings was justified in removing the work, whether Cummings was acting appropriately in his capacity as university president, and whether Cummings handled the process well. I think the answers are no, no and no. However, this is a nuanced issue: Cummings is clearly tasked with the safety of his student body and there is no question that he acted with the safety and well-being of the USM community in mind. Many think Cummings acted within his legitimate authority, while others don’t. Regardless, with the current public focus on “triggers” and the #MeToo movement, it is easy to follow Cummings’ logic, and there is no doubting his intentions to do what he felt was right. Moreover, the Atrium Gallery is an actual atrium, the main entrance to USM’s L/A building, so, logically, any student entering the building would necessarily be in the visual presence of all of the works in the exhibition.
If the concern was the name of the artist — an indirect presence — then Cummings’ acting in such a patently controversial way flew in the face of his purported goal. It was virtually inevitable that the artist’s name would be picked up by news organizations, and so it was (it was first published by the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for which I write). While no statement from the university or the curator included the artist’s name, it was simple enough to discern from comparing the exhibition’s public media materials and noting which artist was no longer included in the show. Moreover, Moore left the spaces previously occupied by the paintings blank and included a note that stated that Cummings had removed the paintings. (The university later took these notes down, and that is another as-yet largely unvisited chapter of this story.)
I personally think Cummings was well-intentioned but handled the situation poorly: He might have, for example, contacted the curator first and sought her insights.She might have chosen, for example, to remove the work on her own. (Moore’s later statements make it clear she likely would not have done so, but Cummings had no way of knowing that — and didn’t bother to find out.) Or he might have contacted the artist and asked him not to come to any USM campus during the run of the show, etc.
My purpose in presenting the snippets of the dialogue between Ripton, Shetterly and others (including me) that follow is not to find or declare a singular truth but to encourage readers to delve into these complex and nuanced issues.
No one can undo what happened, but this seems a worthy set of circumstances to consider so that administrators and curators (and the public) can handle this as well as possible in the future. And if we are to accept censorship based on past actions, where do we draw the line? What if an artist was abusive to a spouse, robbed someone, cheated on taxes, got in a bar fight, or embezzled from an organization? As a critic, I have spent years developing my abilities to mentally separate works of art from the artists who made them. In other words, as a critic, I write about art, not artists. The painting and the person, as I see it, are not the same thing. But, of course, I do not expect the public to have the same perspective as I do. Culture is about people after all. It is a dynamic social space in which we articulate, confirm and test our ever-changing values. Right and wrong are never the same for long.
I want to be clear that I am deeply sympathetic to the victim, her family, Cummings, Moore, and the artist. Their perspectives are all different and I see no reason to believe that any of them have acted with ill-intent regarding this issue. I see merit in the statements of both Ripton and Shetterly. That is why I have included them both.
The first draft of this piece ended with the previous sentence, but I am here adding comments President Cummings made to me on the phone on the evening of June 28 and some of my thoughts about them.
Cummings explained to me that he found out about the presence of the work when the victim’s family contacted him and told him they were planning a public protest. This changes things and renders moot several of the points I made above: To begin, the idea that the victim was seeking quiet privacy was simply not true; that also means my surmising that Cummings was trying to keep this on the QT was wrong. Regarding the protest, this clarifies that Cummings wasn’t worried about the triggering of a single individual but any and all members of the community who may have been sexually assaulted in the past. “And it’s my understanding,” stated Cummings, “that as many as 20 or even 25% of American women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.” Suddenly, I came to see the urgency of Cummings’ actions in a very different light. Whereas I had seen his abrupt unilateralism as insufficiently considered, I came to appreciate the difficulty of Cummings’ position and now consider his tactics as sympathetically strategic.
I am not sure how much of my previous statements I would have made differently if I had spoken to Cummings prior to drafting the text. However, I am not sure I would have spoken to Cummings if I hadn’t sent him my draft. In the spirit of dialogue, I am leaving my statements, my mistakes and my original thinking. After all, this is the point of dialogue: Our perspectives change and grow as we learn more about a situation. My thinking certainly has. I still think this is an instance of censorship and I do not think it was handled well. But I am now far more sympathetic about why this unraveled the way it did.
Here are a few related links:
Curator Janice Moore’s statement about the “Industrial Maine” censorship issue:
Daniel Kany’s 6 May Maine Sunday Telegram review of “Industrial Landscapes”: https://www.pressherald.com/2018/05/06/art-review-grit-galore-art-of-maines-industrial-landscape/
Bob Keyes’ May 6 article about the removal of the work:
Bob Keyes’ May 7 article about Cummings’ public response:
Following are just a few excerpts from the email dialogue:
Excerpt from John Ripton’s May 3 “Open Letter to USM President Glenn Cummings, EdD” signed by Ripton and 19 others:
“As artists participating in the “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” exhibit currently showing in the Atrium Art Gallery at USM Lewiston-Auburn, we respectfully call on you to restore to the gallery wall three paintings that you removed more than two weeks ago. We are joined in this urgent appeal by fellow artists at the Union of Maine Visual Artists. Your action constitutes censorship in clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even if the three art pieces contain offensive content, which they do not, your decision to remove them threatens the very foundation of democratic society based on free expression of ideas.
Censorship must be vigorously opposed by citizens who wish to live in a free and open society. Any repressive step – no matter how insignificant it may appear or how justified it may seem – must be forcefully resisted. While censorship of creative expression may not appear to be significant in this instance, you have decided that a fellow citizen may not exhibit his work in a public institution. That is a decision that no one in a democracy can afford to accept.
In Section 212 of the University of Maine Policy Manual “The Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System affirms its commitment to the rights of free speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom. To protect these rights, all members of the University community should act toward each other with civility, mutual respect, integrity, and reason.”
The University further recognizes that freedom of expression “requires tolerance for diversity of opinion…without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanction.”
Daniel Kany seeking permission to get statements from Ripton and Shetterly. (It was Shetterly who suggested using the dialogue rather than statements.) June 14, 2018
“John & Robert,
Can we get and have permission to run your statements about the USM censorship issue for the forthcoming issue of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly?
I am writing a piece with my name on it to accompany them. (I am on the MAJ’s editorial board, but this is a self-authored article, not an editorial board statement.)
My take is that there was a legitimate concern on the part of the president but that censorship of art is something that should be taken very seriously and only considered as a last resort. I don’t approve of Cummings’ process and lack of transparency. I think his job’s mission statement is clear that it was wrong for him to have pulled the work: He is tasked with supporting and defending academic freedom, and that includes curatorial presentation in the Atrium Gallery.
I also think that someone who has done criminal wrong in the past — and who has admitted and apologized for that wrongdoing and who has been cleared from the ranks of sex offenders — should not be penalized for doing something positive like art, particularly since this art is in no way concerning or offensive.
These points will constitute the bulk of my statement.
I hope we can count on including your comments in the MAJ.
Robert Shetterly to John Ripton May 3, 2018
As I said before, I’m opposed to the sending of this letter as it is written. (Shetterly is referring to the open letter quoted above that Ripton authored as an artist included in the exhibition.)
I think the issue is more nuanced than blatant censorship .
However, that’s simply my opinion.
I’ll be interested to see what comes of the sending of the letter.
I’ve copied below my response from last week. I should add that no one, except William (Hessian, the president of the UMVA’s Portland chapter), made any attempt to discuss this with me.
From Rob Shetterly to William Hessian April 28, 2018:
“Thanks for sending the letter, William.
I’m totally opposed to it as written.
Although there is a censorship issue here, there is also a very real person who was a victim of sexual assault to whom the exhibit is disturbing.
There is no mention of her in the letter or empathy for her concerns.
It’s true that the artist may have served his time and certainly should be allowed to make and show his work,
It’s also true that the sentence is never over for the victim. Any reminder of him triggers fear and pain.
Before any letter is sent I recommend reaching out to the victim or the relatives & inviting them to have their say about how they feel. Sit in a circle and listen. If art and artists should be about anything, it’s about listening.
I’m not in favor of having our “rights” of free speech run roughshod over a vulnerable person.
To me this is not the kind of free speech issue where ‘truth’ is being muzzled or kept secret. It’s primarily an issue of sensitivity. How can we as artists at this moment actually help the victim have a voice and perhaps, then, find a way to show the paintings — she might OK that if she feels heard.
I spent a long time this morning talking with Jon Wilson of Just Alternatives (www.justalternatives.org <http://www.justalternatives.org/> ) who is a national expert on creating dialogue between victims and perpetrators. He said it is very rare in our society for the voice of the victim to be heard or even considered over the “rights” of the perpetrator. We are encouraged to honor that the offender gets to “move on.” That’s fine, but the victim doesn’t get to move on from her trauma. I would prefer that the UMVA find a way to honor that.
That being said, I think the political sentiments of the letter in how they describe art and free speech in our culture today are exactly correct. But I don’t think they fit this problem and shouldn’t. I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.
Let’s discuss further….
John Ripton to Robert Shetterly, Fri, May 4, 2018
I appreciate your concerns and agree with many of your remarks. Endorsers of the letter are, of course, sensitive to any victim of a sex crime. Some of us have known such horrific experiences and many have relatives and friends who suffer daily the wrenching emotional consequences of such crimes. These experiences and the tragic plight of the victim and the relative who apparently contacted president Glenn Cummings were part of our discussion in the UMVA Portland Chapter. In this case, unfortunately, curator Janice Moore’s appeal to Glenn Cummings did not lead to any meeting to discuss the matter and reach an appropriate decision.
Several weeks have passed since the removal of the paintings. Janice Moore put a notice in the space of the missing paintings indicating that they had been removed by order of USM President Glenn Cummings. As curator, she felt that this was appropriate, given that an empty space suddenly appeared where the work of an artist who was part of the show and listed as a participating artist in the exhibit’s publicity had hung. His work had been seen by many who had attended the opening or had visited the show shortly afterward.
As far as I know from my conversations with Janice, Glenn Cummings has not reached out to have a meeting in which these delicate and sensitive matters might be more fully addressed. I believe that Janice earlier conveyed to you that she had requested an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Cummings when he called her to congratulate her on the exhibit. In addition, the notice on the wall where the paintings once hung clearly illustrates that this delicate matter has not been adequately considered.
The politics of the day are highly charged and frequently polarized. I and, as far as I can determine from our conversations at the gallery in Portland, other UMVA members are intimately aware of this. I don’t doubt that Glenn Cummings’ decision to remove the paintings was rational and informed by an understandable sensitivity to the victim. At the same time, neither curator nor the artist knows anything more about the reasons for his decision and he had ample opportunity to bring all parties into discussions concerning those reasons. No one asked that the victim be identified or even attend such a meeting. A more sensitive understanding could have been reached in a number of other ways.
Under these circumstances, Dr. Cummings’ decision seems at best quite arbitrary. In the broader American society we contend daily with lack of transparency, misguided communication, muddy decision-making and disregard for evidentiary fact. The laws protecting a democratic society are only as good as our political will to maintain them. If we allow, for example, the Justice Department to be undermined by those who do not wish to countenance potentially damaging information to surface, then we will have abdicated our responsibility and placed into jeopardy all expression of ideas except those that have gained the political advantage to use the law for their own purposes.
These are the very reasons the First Amendment provision of “free speech” exists. And the Supreme Court has interpreted creative expression to fall within that provision’s scope. While acting on principle may sometimes seem to observers as insensitive to others, it is often forgotten that the principle in this case is ultimately protecting the rights of all people to be heard. Without carefully observing this right, the victims of any criminal act, heinous ones and less reprehensible ones, will not be adequately heard.
It is in this spirit that Janice Moore requested of Dr. Cummings an opportunity to discuss more fully the removal of the paintings. She knew well that the decision needed to involve all affected parties. She was completely sensitive to the complaint that had been made on the victim’s behalf. Janice and I are both aware that the complexities of this delicate issue are interconnected and anything short of addressing those wide-ranging relationships may actually do more harm to victims of sex crimes than might be appreciated in the absence of deeper consideration.
For these reasons it is critical that we express clearly and affirmatively to president Glenn Cummings our shared concerns about censorship in light of the First Amendment and the USM charter’s (section 212 Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Civility).
I respect your thoughtful remarks. Unfortunately, I was not aware of your response to the letter. I write at such length to make clear how important this request to restore the paintings actually is. It is a difficult issue and one that should have been addressed appropriately before an act of censorship occurred.
National Coalition Against Censorship’s Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva’s June 21 “Statement about USM Censorship”
The University of Southern Maine’s (USM) removal of three paintings from an exhibition in an on-campus gallery is a disturbing instance of encroachment on academic and curatorial freedom. The incident highlights the need for exhibition spaces at academic institutions to have clear guidelines in place. As institutions whose mission it is to nurture cultural exchange and education, public universities must uphold and protect freedom of expression in their exhibition spaces as staunchly as in their classrooms.
USM’s removal of paintings by Bruce Habowski, a well-regarded painter whose works have been shown at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, from “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” was based on complaints that his past behavior disqualifies his work from being displayed no matter what it represents. USM President Cummings’s subsequent statement that the work, beautifully executed paintings of industrial landscapes, could serve as a trigger for victims of child abuse and sexual assault raised further alarm about the University’s commitment to principles of academic freedom:
If universities were to purge all material produced by those who have ever violated moral and social imperatives, there would not be much left to study and students would be deprived of all nuanced discussion about ethical and moral conflict. (Caravaggio was a murderer; Picasso a serial sex abuser; Dostoevsky a virulent anti-Semite, the list is very very long.) A sterile, empty space may be “safe” but it does not promote learning or any form of complex thinking.
Students attend college to learn, to discuss ideas and be exposed to a wide range of art and literature, not to be kept in an isolation bubble. They must be trusted and respected for their strength, not treated as fragile victims. Rather than suppress the creative output of those who fall short in their moral conduct, a university must find intelligent ways to encourage its community to engage in critical discussions of such issues in all their nuances and grey areas.
Here are four principles that academic exhibition spaces should adopt:
- Artistic expression in a university setting, as well as the presentation of student and faculty work to the public, is integral to the learning process and therefore merits the protection accorded to other scholarly and teaching activities. University exhibition spaces must align with the mission of educational institutions, uphold curatorial and academic freedom, and demonstrate respect for the curator’s decisions.
- Universities hold exhibitions to encourage artistic creativity, expression, learning and appreciation, and they do not thereby endorse specific artistic presentations nor do the presentations necessarily represent the institution. This principle of institutional neutrality does not relieve institutions of general responsibility for maintaining professional and educational standards, but it does mean that institutions are not responsible for the views or attitudes expressed in specific artistic works.
- While many considerations enter the curatorial process, once an exhibition goes up, academic institutions should ensure that the rights of the presenters and the audience are not impaired by a “heckler’s veto” from those who may be offended by the presentation. Those who choose to view or attend should be able do so without interference. Modifications should only be made in exceptional cases and only after an extensive process of deliberation with all the stakeholders.
- The selection of art for an exhibition should not require a background check into the artists’ pasts, nor should artists be judged and disqualified from participation in an exhibition based on their beliefs, statements or past behavior unrelated to the work shown. Such a requirement not only unduly burdens the curatorial process, it would open the institution to a flood of complaints for giving a platform to individuals that may hold the “wrong” ideas or have been accused of various types of misconduct.