As part of the grand opening of Kennesaw State University’s (KSU’s) new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art, the museum commissioned artist and Georgia State University professor Ruth Stanford to create an installation chronicling the history of a piece of land gifted to the university in 2009. The land in question is the homestead of writer Corra Harris.
In her work, Stanford aimed to bring attention to many facets of Harris’ “complicated legacy,” including parts of an 1899 magazine article in which Harris rationalized lynching and described African-Americans as dangerous, “savage brute[s].” Shortly before the museum’s opening on Saturday, KSU President Daniel Papp ordered that the installation be removed, stating that it didn’t fit the “celebratory” nature of the event.
Harsh criticism for the decision to remove Stanford’s work ensued. Protesters gathered outside the museum wearing pictures of the installation and holding signs that read “CENSORED.” A petition to have the installation reinstated garnered over 1300 signatures. And yesterday, the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to President Papp to explain why his decision was so troubling:
As a public educational institution, Kennesaw State has an obligation under the First Amendment not to discriminate against particular ideas, no matter how controversial they might be. … The explanation that Ruth Stanford’s artwork may interfere with the celebratory atmosphere of the Museum’s opening is not only an extremely weak justification for censorship, it seems to be a thinly disguised attempt to suppress further conversation about the acquisition of the Harris homestead.
Inside Higher Ed relayed Stanford’s initial response to the incident:
Stanford also questioned the idea that a university art museum would ever restrict itself to “celebratory” works.
“This is a brand-new museum at an educational institution, so part of its mission is education, and as such it has a responsibility to present all kinds of art, and not all art is comfortable,” she said.
As FIRE and other free speech advocates have pointed out before, art is often deliberately provocative—particularly when art explores our history. Sadly, this is not the first time FIRE has encountered censorship in the name of maintaining a “celebratory” atmosphere: Last August, the University of Michigan disinvited (and then re-invited, under public pressure) author Alice Walker from an anniversary celebration for the school’s Center for the Education of Women (CEW). Facing accusations that Walker was disinvited because of her controversial statements about Israel, the school claimed its decision to rescind the invitation was because of the “celebratory nature [CEW] hoped to achieve at their anniversary event.”
Finally, Stanford was told late yesterday that her installation could be put back on display in the museum—but only if it is accompanied by additional explanatory materials. This kind of qualification is disappointing and fails to ameliorate the problem.
According to BURNAWAY, Papp insisted he always intended on reinstating the installation at some point. But he also stated that he was concerned African-Americans would be offended by the text from Harris’ 1899 article that was incorporated into a wall display. This purported justification for censorship should worry anyone concerned with unfettered debate on campus. More central to this case, though, it is disturbing that KSU would think it appropriate to censor art that represents not just Stanford’s work, but also an undeniable piece of history.
Stanford is considering whether to have her installation set up in the museum again:
Stanford is in discussions with President Papp and says that she will make a decision “probably next week.” Her concern is that “the work has been completely re-contextualized. It’s no longer the work that I intended.” She says, “I spent nearly a year struggling with the context of this work and how to present it and to be fair to all the complicated issues. I appreciate the offer to reinstate the work and am giving it serious consideration.”
In the meantime, KSU has yet again attempted to cover up this aspect of the university’s history. While KSU’s offer to Stanford is a start, reinstallation of her work should not be conditioned on additional requirements not imposed on other works. We at FIRE hope that despite the Zuckerman Museum’s rocky start, it is able to display a range of thought-provoking works without interference from the KSU administration.
Image: Stanford’s art exhibit before it was removed