Saturday, March 1, 2014

Censorship of Art Exhibit by President Undermines Kennesaw State's Advances

My friend Ruth Stanford is a professor of sculpture at Georgia State. I'm fairly familiar with her work and even helped her with an installation at the Eyedrum several years back. Because of how much I admire her work, I was shocked to learn that Ruth's contribution to the exhibit inaugurating Kennesaw State University's Zuckerman Museum of Art, opening today, was removed by order of KSU's President Daniel Papp. (See this Atlanta Creative Loafing article for details.)

Image from the installation (courtesy of the artist).
This piece, like many of Ruth's other installations, concerns itself with a setting. In this case it offers a behind the scenes look (in a very real sense of that phrase) at a property acquired as a gift by KSU in 2008 that has a history tainted by racism. Ruth's work is always thoughtful and humane, and this appears to be so here, at least as far as I can tell from the images I have seen of the installation before it was dismantled.

Although President Papp's record indicates that he is an accomplished scholar of international relations and a very capable university administrator, it does not indicate why he would be particularly qualified to curate an art exhibit, even at his "own" museum. And this may in fact be the crux of the matter, that is that Papp somehow sees the Zuckerman as his own museum, and not as a public trust that he happens to oversee. The job of curating this important exhibit had been assigned to Teresa Reeves and Kirstie Tepper, who had themselves solicited Ruth's participation in the inaugural exhibit.

Ruth, as is her nature, is taking this turn of events very graciously. I imagine her good will has a lot to do with her concerns for the curators who have worked hard to assemble the exhibit and to her fellow artists whose work is included in it. Oddly, it is this kind of respect the curators that was absent in Dr. Papp's ham-handed decision.

Sadly, when all is said and done, I think that KSU will be the ultimate victim of this affair.

Ruth's installation will no doubt find a new home, although uprooted from its intended setting it will lose some of the power of the message that she had hoped to convey. And Ruth herself will now proudly join the ranks of artists whose works are distinguished because they cause us to think more deeply about things and, as a result, pose a threat to some people.

Kennesaw State University, though, in spite of struggling quite successfully under President Papp's leadership for the last eight years to establish itself as a first-rank center for learning and research, will now still be seen by many as a cultural backwater with a Philistine at its helm. Sometimes the hallmark of true leadership is knowing one's own limitations.

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