Last month, FIRE and PEN America called on Indiana University Kokomo to clarify that it would not censor student art on the basis that it provokes complaints or opposition. In response to letters from FIRE and PEN America, IUK, which had been at the center of a months-long art censorship controversy, has addressed some of our concerns.
In July 2018, IUK Professor Gregory Steel chose two sculptures, one of which resembles female genitalia, created by students in his metal sculpture class to be displayed outside the arts building on concrete pads he had requested the previous summer. About a week later, IUK removed the sculptures without providing a warning to Steel. According to Steel, he was later told by IUK Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Mark Canada that the sculptures were removed in response to complaints received by Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs John Applegate’s office.
FIRE and PEN America wrote to IUK on Oct. 22 to call for the statues’ reinstatement and to ask the university to produce records verifying the existence of complaints. (IUK eventually produced scant records in response to FIRE’s open records request that did not show evidence of any complaints about the sculptures.)
Though the sculptures were restored in October, we wrote to IUK again on Dec. 20 to express concerns over an email from Canada discussing the possibility that the sculptures could be removed again because the administration “wants to make sure that IU Kokomo is a ‘good neighbor,’” and “may reconsider their placement” based on “concerns from the community.”
On Dec. 22, Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke responded to FIRE and PEN America, affirming that IUK is “fully committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression” and stating that those “values were in no way compromised by circumstances surrounding the installation of the works” at issue. Sciame-Giesecke also wrote that the sculptures were removed because they had not been approved for display through the appropriate channels, and that “[n]either sculpture was installed or removed based on its content.”
Sciame-Giesecke ended by promising that the sculptures would remain on display through the end of the academic year:
Like Dr. Steel, I am sorry that the students were disappointed that their artworks were not fully on display in August. The Board resolution calls for the exhibition of student art works for a period of less than six months. However, given that these two sculptures were not on display at the beginning of fall semester, the campus will continue this exhibition of both sculptures until the end of the 2018-19 academic year.
However, despite IUK’s failure to produce records showing complaints about the sculptures, Mark Canada did confirm to The Kokomo Tribune on Dec. 23 the existence of complaints:
In an email sent to the Tribune Saturday, Canada said confirmed he had heard secondhand of community complaints, adding that IUK’s policy calls on the campus to consult “community neighbors” who are located near where a piece of art is to be placed.
But he denied complaints factored into the removal of the statues.
“The comments, however, had no impact on any decisions regarding the sculptures,” Canada wrote.
Canada also reaffirmed to The Kokomo Tribune that IUK was in the process of drafting a policy on art installations to address similar issues in the future.
FIRE is glad that IUK has restored the sculptures and is working to clarify these issues in written policy and would be pleased to offer recommendations to ensure that freedom of expression — rather than “concerns from the community” — is the primary consideration in any policies concerning artistic installations.