Presidential Art Critic

February 3, 2011

Martha T. Nesbitt, president of Gainesville State College, last week had an adjunct art instructor’s painting — dealing with themes of racism and violence in American history — removed from a faculty art show. The painting depicts a Klansman and a lynching superimposed on a Confederate battle flag.

Faculty members are blasting the decision to remove the painting and the fact that the president did so, they say, prior to consulting the arts faculty or anyone at the college’s gallery. The work drew criticism from "Southern heritage" advocates, who like to protect Confederate images.

The artwork, titled “Heritage?,” had been displayed for just over two weeks before removal. A cropped image of the piece was used to advertise the gallery show ahead of the opening reception.

“Sometimes I do my work to pose those questions — to pose what if?” said Stanley Bermudez, the art instructor who created the work. “I’m originally from Venezuela. You study American history, starting from way back when I already had some negative views of the rebel flag. Then in 1983, I came to the United States to go to college, and I remember seeing in Houston Klansmen and the hoods waving the Confederate flag around — and they had megaphones. That image stuck in my head.”

The college’s president is defending her decision. “Sometimes a president has to make difficult decisions,” said Nesbitt in an official statement. “First and foremost, I have to consider the impact of an action on the health and reputation of the institution. In this instance, I made a judgment call that the negative results would outweigh the positive ones.”

Nesbitt and her office did not respond to requests for further comment.

Some faculty believe that a blog post by “Southern Heritage Alerts” that contained the president’s office phone number and e-mail and denounced the artwork may have led to the piece’s removal. The post’s author, Arnold M. Huskins, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, “I did not like my tax dollars being used to portray the flag of soldiers in a negative light.”

Many faculty at the college are furious about what they view as censorship. “This is a real lightning rod situation,” said John Amoss, an assistant professor of humanities and fine arts and the college’s art program coordinator. “I’m on the Faculty Senate, and we’re starting to organize several initiatives,” he said. “On the listservs, every single comment we’ve received — and we are probably getting close to a hundred at this point — is condemning."

Adam Kissel, vice president of programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also criticized the college for removing the painting, saying it was "inappropriate for the college president to unilaterally revoke the artistic license that it had given."

Bermudez said that prior to submitting “Heritage?” for approval for the show, he was aware that it might raise some eyebrows. He talked to the show’s curator, Beth Sale. “I said, ‘I know this is controversial,’ ” he said. “I asked, ‘Can I show the piece?’” Bermudez said she agreed and said she thought it would promote discussion and dialogue.

He is used to getting a response on campus, but this is the first time it has come from the president’s office. “I teach art appreciation, and one of the first things I tell my students on the first day of class is ‘I’m going to show you a lot of artwork throughout the semester — some of it you’re going to love, and some of it you’re going to hate.’ ”