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Rutgers restores flag artwork display after temporarily moving it indoors

In a welcome reversal, Rutgers University restored “Untitled (Flag 2)” by artist Josephine Meckseper to its initial outdoor installation today. Administrators had instructed the campus’ Zimmerli Art Museum last week to remove and relocate the artwork indoors after demands for censorship from the Governor of Kansas and others resulted in the same piece’s removal and relocation at the University of Kansas.

The restoration comes a day after Vox reported on the artwork’s removal.

Zimmerli director Thomas Sokolowski said Rutgers President Robert Barchi and Chancellor Debasish Dutta called him last week after seeing the controversy at KU and asked him to relocate the piece indoors. In an email sent to Zimmerli staff July 17, Sokolowski said he agreed to move the piece because the museum had received “death threats” via its Facebook page.

Sokolowski said Rutgers administrators sought to copy the “solution” employed by the University of Kansas earlier this month. On July 11, KU’s president agreed to move Meckseper’s flag indoors after Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach demanded KU remove the artwork.

Colyer tweeted earlier that day that the “disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable.”

FIRE, the ACLU of Kansas, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to KU on July 16, urging it to “immediately restore [the flag] to its initial location and clarify to the campus community that defending the expressive rights guaranteed by the First Amendment is of paramount importance to your administration.”

The flag at issue is part of a multi-part art series called “Pledges of Allegiance.” The series is a project of Creative Time, an arts nonprofit organization, and includes a rotation of flags created by artists from around the world.

Sokolowski confirmed that Creative Time instructed institutions flying their flags to install them on exterior flagpoles, at a lower height than surrounding, institutional American flags.

Bonnie Wilson, who works at the Zimmerli as a collections assistant, said in an email that she was disappointed the flag was moved.

“Why work at an art museum,” Wilson told Vox yesterday, “if you can’t be proud of how the visual arts contribute to the conversation over free speech and human rights?”

“I’m glad I can still be proud of the museum,” Wilson said, when reached after today’s development.

As for what spurred Rutgers’ change of heart, Wilson isn’t certain.

“I am under the impression that Rutgers discussed the matter with legal counsel,” she said. “After confirming it was legal to display the flag outside, they decided it would be the right thing to do.”

Wilson said she hopes for more transparency from the Zimmerli museum in the future.

Rutgers did not immediately respond to FIRE’s request for comment.

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