Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum Nov 1995

KCAC Forum Magazine November – December 1995

WHATS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE
Artwork Censored from the MO State Fair: Update by Janet Simpson

Last August, the artwork The Honor System was removed from the “Missouri Top 50” art exhibition that is part of the Missouri State Fair.

In an attempt to understand what happened, I asked the individuals who were involved with the incident to respond to a number of questions.

These individuals include Andy Davis, the artist whose work was censored; Garry Noland, an artist who resigned his residency at the fair in protest of the censorship; Patti McFatrich, Director of the Sedalia Arts Council, who runs the “Missouri Top 50” exhibition for the State Fair, Diane Vanderlip, Juror of the exhibition and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum; Bill Arthaud, Director of the Missouri State Fair; and Anthony Radich, Executive Director of the Missouri
Arts Council.

The questions that I asked them to address are as follows:
What is the purpose of this exhibition? Who decides what pieces should be shown? What contract is made with the artists regarding showing their work in the exhibition?

Questions specific to Andy Davis’ work: How & why was this piece determined to be objectionable? Were all exhibits and events at the fair subject to the same test of objectionability? Was any clarifying explanation or interpretation sought from the artist, juror, and director of the exhibition? Was any alternative to removal explored? Was the removal of this work known to the public? Was a catalog or checklist listing the work published? How was the artist informed about the removal of the work? Do you feel the artist was treated fairly?

Other questions I asked are: What are the ramifications of actions like this for artists, the professional arts community, and the general public? Does this action correspond with current political trends to censor some expression and de-fund others? And specific to process: Should the structure and/or process of the fair’s art exhibition be changed? Should the artists, juror, and viewers be informed of the fair’s policy regarding objectionable art? Can the interests of the artists, the presenter, and the audience be fairly and reasonably accommodated?

Their responses and mine are printed here. In an effort to be as accurate as possible, we have printed all responses nearly verbatim. Consequently, readers will note some redundancy, as well as some conflicting versions of the events.


 

ANDY DAVIS INTERVIEW
By Deanne Pearson

Andy Davis was surprised to find that his work The Honor System was pulled from the Missouri Top 50 show at the Missouri State Fair.

“I never dreamed that this piece would be found objectionable in content,” said Davis in a recent phone interview. “It’s actually one of the tamest pieces I had to choose from at the time.”

The Honor System is a sculptural assemblage of a 4-foot by 5-foot wall and a coat rack. A man’s overcoat and hat, a woman’s overcoat, and two leather and bronze chastity belts hang on the coat rack. Davis describes the piece as being about the mental attitudes married people must put on when leaving the house.

Davis, a graduate student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, entered the piece in the show like any other artist. “It (the Missouri Top 50) is a show that anyone living in the state can enter. I sent in the required slide and entry form, and about a month later got a letter saying my sculpture was chosen to be among the 50 pieces in the show. I took my work down there (to the state fair in Sedalia) for the show, and it received a juror’s mention.” Davis was one of three artists given juror’s mention awards. Four others received $1,000 prizes for their works.

“It is my understanding,” said Davis, “that a couple of days after the show was hung, representatives from the Missouri Arts Council, which funds the show called the fair and said The Honor System had to be removed because the content was objectionable.”

Davis, who was away on vacation at the time everything transpired, received a call from Patty McFatrich, superintendent of the fine arts building at the state fair, who told him his work had been taken down. “I think the work had been up a couple of days, but I don’t know if the show had been opened to the public at all before my piece was pulled,” said Davis. (According to an article that ran in the August 24 Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune, the piece was removed before the annual exhibit opened.)

Because much of the actions and reactions that led to the removal of his work from the show occurred while Davis was out of town, he remains puzzled about the exact chain of events. “Each artist had to submit an artist’s statement with their works,” Davis explained. “I don’t know if they (the Missouri Arts Council representatives) read the statement to come to an understanding of the content of the work before they pulled it.”

But one thing is certain-he doesn’t like the way things were handled. He said, “I don’t dispute that they (the Missouri Arts Council) reserve the right to determine if a piece is appropriate for their show and audience. But I think they need to clarify the way they go about deciding if a piece is objectionable or not. There is no real protocol for making that decision. It is my understanding that, in this instance, it came down to the decision of one or two people. They need to consider forming a committee or something. It shouldn’t be left up to the whim of one individual.”

The Honor System was shown to have artistic merit by the show’s juror, yet Davis wonders why his piece was chosen in the first place. After all, the coordinators received some 400 entries this year for a 50-piece show. Therefore, the show coordinators had the opportunity to screen the work at the beginning and simply not choose pieces that were of
questionable content.

Davis sums up his feelings about his experiences thus: “I hope my experience is not forgotten. I hope the show’s coordinators take this opportunity to sit down and decide what it is that they would deem objectionable, and then make that a part of their entry requirements so artists wouldn’t bother to send in pieces that don’t meet their criteria. They also need to figure out a way to base that decision on more than one opinion.”


 

FROM PATTI MCFATRICH
Executive Director, Sedalia Arts Council
Superintendent, Missouri State Fair Fine Arts Department

In response to the request to write an article regarding banned art work from the Missouri Top 50 exhibition, I find that I cannot defend, explain or condemn a decision made by someone other than myself. Nor will I apologize for the process, goals and existing status of the Top 50 exhibition.

I will, however, address the issues of vision, process and goals from the viewpoint that this is a public-funded exhibition and not representative of a private gallery showing.

The Missouri Top 50 has a twofold purpose:
l. To attract and bring recognition to the professional art in Missouri
2. To provide a venue which will educate the general public in the visual arts

To accomplish this, the Missouri State Fair is the chosen exhibit site. More than 200,000 people attend and are a possible audience (approximately 5 to 10,000 visit the Top 50 exhibit daily). Jurors are selected from name institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. The 1995 Juror was Diane Vanderlip, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO.

The exhibit is free and open to any artist living in the state of Missouri. The show is jurored by slides to include 50 works and offers four $1,000 awards annually. These awards are comparable to the best prize money available nationwide.

The fine arts facility is in the process of renovation to represent a public gallery space. It houses the Missouri Top 50 Exhibition, an amateur and open professional show, a photography exhibition and a porcelain art competition. Other than the Missouri Top 50 these five exhibits are not jurored and are open to any Missouri resident. To further enhance the attraction of the exhibitions, two artists-in-residence are working daily to interact with the audience by demonstrating their process of creating and producing art. The audience is the general public. They come from all walks of life, ages range from 1 to 105 and represent all income brackets.

Long term goals include continued upgrading of the Missouri Top 50 exhibit by further facility renovation, purchase awards, retaining the reputation of utilizing top jurors and offering a top quality exhibition to Missouri artists. Long term goals for the fair exhibit include an outdoor sculpture garden in conjunction with the fine arts building; year-round utilization of the fine arts building through Missouri artist residencies in the building, permanent gallery space for community, state and regional artists; and a national and international visiting residency program which will benefit artists throughout the state.

Obviously there are many questions left unanswered regarding the MO Top 50 exhibition’s
future. Answers to these questions can only come from the public and the artists. I await your reply.

Patti McFatrich
Executive Director, Sedalia Arts Council
Superintendent, Missouri State Fair Fine Arts Department


INTERVIEW WITH DIANNE PERRY VANDERLIP
By Barbara Waterman-Peters

In August of this year, “state arts officials” removed an assemblage work titled The Honor
System from the Missouri Top 50 exhibition at the Missouri State Fair. The artist, University of Missouri graduate art student Andy Davis, was taken by surprise.

The artist-in-residence at the fair, Garry Noland, resigned his residency in protest. The juror, Dianne Perry Vanderlip was “extremely disappointed” that the piece was removed.

I was asked to speak with Ms. Vanderlip in an effort to piece together the events of this incident. The follow ing phone conversation took place on November 16, 1995.

BW-P: What is your understanding of how this piece, The Honor System, came to be removed from the Missouri Top 50 exhibition at the state fair?
DPV: It is my understanding that someone who worked for Radich (Anthony Radich, Executive Director of the Missouri Arts Council) came in and said it was inappropriate…not an art expert, maybe an expert at putting together state fairs.

BW-P: You gave this work a “Juror’s Mention” award. Why?
DPV: Technically, it is extremely proficient. The materials (a wall, coats, etc.) are difficult to work with. But, much more important, it is conceptually good: a strong idea behind it. [He put] a message into art that is important: marriage and fidelity. I think it is important that it be seen.

BW-P: Evidently the exhibition prospectus stated something to the effect that objectionable work may be removed. Did that affect your judging?
DPV: I did not see that.

BW-P: I am aware of your letter to Janet Simpson (KCAC Executive Director) in which you state “censorship is so much more controversial than the art could ever be.” Could you elaborate on that statement, please?
DPV: If it had not been removed, you and I would not be talking.  The way I see it, the piece would not have caused any problem. But I am very uninformed by not being a member of that community… although I grew up in Ohio, so I am part of mainstream America. I do not know the standards of [the state fair] community. It is dangerous to allow others to make decisions on what to see. Issues of individual freedoms are raised; extremely serious arguments can be made against such knee-jerk reactions. I realize that this was a state fair, but I am extremely disappointed that the piece was removed. This piece (which includes his and her chastity belts) is not objectionable as much programming on TV or advertising in magazines! The New York Times ran an article about three Sundays ago concerning how “film and TV have stretched the bounds of decency,” but the arts are made the target.

BW-P: The arts are vunerable and there must always be a scapegoat…
DPV: If there must be a scapegoat, let it be anthills! The media should be proactive [on the issue].

BW-P: Do you have suggestions for avoiding this problem in the future?
DPV: I believe that unless a community is willing to clearly state the parameters of what is allowable, and to inform both juror and artists, it should never remove anything [from an exhibition]. Someone who knows nothing about the arts making these decisions?! In looking back, I wish that I had walked out.


FROM ANTHONY RADICH
Executive Director of the Missouri Arts Council

In the past several months, some members of Missouri’s arts community have raised questions regarding the removal of a work from the State Fair’s Missouri Top 50 visual arts exhibition. In order to address those questions and to provide some context regarding the decision to remove the work, Anthony J Radich, Executive Director of the Missouri Arts Council, has provided the following information:

The Missouri Arts Council has funded the visual arts program of the Missouri State Fair for six years; it is an activity of which the Council is proud and plans to continue to support. The Council has long been committed to cultivating appreciation of and access to the arts throughout Missouri, especially for citizens for whom opportunities to experience the arts are limited. As such, the Council considers the state fair to be an excellent forum for art programming because it reaches an audience that may not regularly experience arts programming in their home communities, which are often small, rural Missouri towns. The Council has worked diligently to ensure that the arts are showcased in the best possible light at the state fair. In order to meet this goal, the fair has used Council funds to improve the display facilities in the fine arts building; improve the general quality of the art featured in the building; increase the number of artists participating in its art competitions; and improve the quality of artists participating in the fair’s artist-in-residence program. The Council commends the fair for the significant progress it has
made and continues to make in these areas.

A few years ago, as part of its effort to improve the quality of art at the Fair and to stimulate artist participation, the Fair initiated the Missouri Top 50 a juried exhibition of works that have been competitively selected by a professional, nationally known juror. “The Missouri Top 50” exhibition, which is installed in a pleasant gallery in the fine arts building, replaced a non-juried exhibition of works by self-described “professionals.” That original exhibition was quite crowded and of generally poor quality; it did not accurately depict the professional caliber of Missouri artists. Furthermore, the inclusion of Missouri Top 50 competition resulted in a number of truly professional Missouri artists participating in the state fair arts programming for the first time.

The Missouri Top 50 exhibit has thus provided an enriching arts experience to a host of Missouri citizens who, as noted, may have limited opportunities to experience the arts elsewhere. The state fair’s awareness of and sensitivity to the needs of its constituents is laudable; by the same token, the fair has an obligation to provide arts programming that is
similarly sensitive to that same audience. This sense of obligation is the underlying reason for language contained in the brochure that describes the Missouri Top 50 exhibition and invites artists to enter.

Specifically, the brochure states clearly that the exhibition is subject to certain restrictions; among them is the following statement:”The Missouri State Fair reserves the right to reject any objectionable works of art.” This statement has, incidentally, always been included in the competition’s prospectus, and it is designed to allow fair administrators to exercise discretion on behalf of its constituents regarding the exhibition of works. Because the Missouri State Fair is marketed primarily if not exclusively to families and youth, the fair is responsible for being sensitive to what that audience will consider appropriate. The removal of a work from the exhibit earlier this year was, therefore, quite consistent with the letter and spirit of the terms under girding the event – the purpose of that decision was to honor the Fair’s obligation to its patrons.

It is important to note another compelling exigency relevant to the removal of that work from the fair’s exhibit; namely, the national context in which it occurred. As members of the arts community are well aware, the arts are currently experiencing, on the whole, a rather inhospitable environment in this country. The recent and ongoing national debate
about the arts has features some remarkably vitriolic voices, and the resulting environment is characterized by a general cooling in public support for the arts. In this new, dramatically changed context those who advocate absolute artistic freedom have
lost ground, in both the public and political sectors – no longer will either of those sectors defend the right of artists to display any work of art, anywhere. In fact, I do not personally agree with that position; nonetheless, the current environment exists, and the concept of unbridled artistic freedom has, for the time being, been defeated. I recommend that we recognize this fact and re position artistic freedom as an ideal state that can be achieved only after a period of public education. Related to this point is the fact that, in this new, unfriendly environment for the arts, public art funding in particular is under intense scrutiny. The Missouri Arts Council, a public funding agency, provides direct support to the state fair for the fine arts building program and the Missouri Top 50 exhibit; the fair provides the majority of funds and very few private funds are used. In this case, as in others, artists must expect public funders to be sensitive to the public’s attitudes regarding art that is sponsored. After all, it is the public’s money.

For the reasons described, the removal of the work in question was not inappropriate. In spite of this, I believe that the Missouri Arts Council staff should work with the state fair administration to avoid future public controversies related to the removal of art from an exhibition. I think this can be accomplished by articulating a more careful and complete definition of the audience for the Missouri Top 50 exhibition and including that description in the prospectus, and by including a preliminary procedure that eliminates works deemed problematic by the fair prior to their review by a judge. Because no such processes were in place this year, the perhaps inevitable result is an artist who has been treated less than fairly and undeserved negative publicity for the state fair.

Especially in these times, we members of the arts community must be realistic about the concerns we voice regarding occasional public sector limitations on the display of the arts. Although none of us is comfortable with such limitations, I would like to note that public funds sponsor a wide range of artistic expression in this state, many instances of which would be considered inappropriate for display at the state fair. In the case of the fair, the issue is not censorship, rather, the issue is sensitivity to a specific audience and venue.


 

FROM THE DESK OF…. JANET SIMPSON
Missourians do not expect to be chilled in August. But I bet Andy Davis felt the cold when he was informed that his work The Honor System had been censored from the Missouri Top 50 art exhibition.

We will never know what the public reaction to The Honor System would have been. But we do know that the exhibition juror Diane Vanderlip found the piece to have artistic merit and selected it for the exhibition. And we know that later it was deemed “objectionable” and removed from the exhibition.

This is the “chilling effect” of preemptive censorship. It is a response to ideological restrictions which Congress and others would like to place on government arts funding. And it is most troubling here because it comes from within the arts community. Our arts community.

In fairness I should say that I do not have first hand of knowledge of this event and that there are discrepancies as to what really happened. But I do know a work was censored from this professional art venue and it is clear that the censorship was by art officials.

As Director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition I have consistently denounced censorship and I do so again here. The exercise of the First Amendment rights are so precious and valuable to our democracy that their defense must be absolute.

The censoring of The Honor System happened after the piece had met all the criteria for inclusion. As it stands now the competition follows standard practice, i.e. a call is made to artists; artists respond, slides are reviewed and art selected by a respected curator; and the art is displayed. The glitch here is that process was subverted by removing an artwork that had gone through this process. The work was removed because of its content and nothing else.

To argue that this is not censorship, but rather a case where government “sponsorship” was withheld to avoid offending someone, seems to me to be completely without merit. Free speech can only exist if everyone has access to public venues–and I reiterate that the artist had undergone the prescribed test for inclusion.

Marjorie Helms, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Art Censorship Project, in “The Taxpayers’ Money: Why Government Funding of the Arts Doesn’t Mean Government Control” writes: “When a city, state, or federal government establishes and supports a public university, it’s financing a ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The same is true when the taxpayer’ funds parks, sidewalks, or other public space [read: “art exhibitions”] is given over to free speech activities. A city government isn’t thought to sponsor every speaker, no matter how kooky, who makes use of public land. The ‘taxpayers’ who fund these open forums are not buying particular ideas that they like, they are buying one bigger idea – freedom.”

I do not know if the exhibition organizers or funders considered any alternative to removing Davis’ work. Garry Noland wanted to let the public know the work had been removed and invite them to view it in his room on the fair grounds. But this was not allowed.

The arts are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I don’t doubt that removing Davis’ work was viewed by the responsible parties as serving the greater good. But this strategy has thus far not served the arts community well. Rather than distance ourselves from “controversial art” and further marginalize our community, we need to support our
processes and our artists.

I have always been proud to be associated with the arts in Missouri. One key reason has been the Missouri Arts Council. The agency works to be a reliable partner to the arts organizations it supports, and in my experience it has been. KCAC will receive $15,695 from MAC this year. This money supports our programs – like this issue of Forum. My regard for MAC isn’t only because of the money we receive. Support, information, and assistance of every kind is just a telephone call away. I have felt that the MAC Radich, and KCAC are part of a team to promote and nurture the arts in Missouri.

It is for this reason that the censoring of Davis work and Radich’s involvement is particularly troubling to me. I am well aware that the current climate in our country is one of intolerance, and that those who seek to silence all voices but their own will not be swayed by reason. And that the arts have become “the bloody battlefield of ideologues,” as suggested in Cultural Battlefield, edited by Jennifer A. Peter and Louis Crosier. I know we must be smart or we will be destroyed. But when we do not defend and support artists’ work, are we not ourselves doing the work of those who would destroy us?

Janet Simpson
Executive Director


RESPONSE FROM BILL ARTHAUD
Director, Missouri State Fair

Freedom of expression is a right valued not only by artists, but also by a healthy, dynamic society. Balancing this freedom with responsible actions, particularly when public funds are used, may not be popular but is necessary.

We at the Missouri State Fair work diligently to maintain a traditional, family-oriented atmosphere. Missouri taxpayers understandably feel a sense of ownership in the fair, and they expect us to provide an enjoyable experience for them. In my opinion Andy Davis’ work-specifically its inclusion of chastity belts – was not conducive to such an experience, and I asked that it be removed. If other works had been deemed unsuitable, they would not have been displayed, either.

My intent in removing Mr. Davis’ work never was to embarrass him and certainly wasn’t to create an attitude perceived to be unfriendly to artists. We are not in the business of censorship. We want to encourage artist participation, but we also expect artists to consider what type of venue we offer when they select what works they wish to enter.

The events and comments that have arisen in the weeks following my decision make clear the need to revise the rules and regulations governing the art exhibition at the Missouri State Fair. Currently, fair officials have the right to reject “objectionable works of art,” but that phrase is not defined. Although an all-encompassing definition would be difficult to produce, perhaps more explicit guide lines and an explanation of the venue would better guide artists and judges. In addition, works that are considered unsuitable ideally would be dismissed before display and judging, accompanied by an explanation to the artist. We would hope any such incidents would be few and far between as the result of improved guidelines.

Because the Missouri State Fair is an event for all Missourians, I welcome comments from every one. Likewise, I appreciate the opportunity to add to this discussion. Through an open dialog, we will reach a better understanding of the many viewpoints that make up this issue. The result will be a high quality exhibition that provides a means of expression yet remains a positive component of the Missouri State Fair.


GARY NOLAND RESIGNS RESIDENCY
In a November 2, 1995 interview, a Berkeley professor of philosophy noted that “moral outrage is expensive.” The implication is that uncertain economic futures make people feel less willing to “rock the boat,” fearing it will jeopardize their positions. Money for the arts and humanities are hard to come by these days. Clearly, this uncertainty motivated the Missouri and Sedalia Arts Councils to censure Andy Davis’ work from the Missouri State Fair’s Missouri Top 50 exhibition.

Anthony Radich, fearing obscenity challenges to Davis’ sculptures by fairgoers (read Missouri State Legislature funding), abridged the artist’s civil liberties. What’s equally disturbing is that by committing this action, Radich paternalistically omitted the possibility that citizens could make up their own minds.

The Sedalia Arts Council, which receives funding from the Missouri Arts Council, followed lock-step with MAC’s Executive Director. These two organizations are supposed to be on the side of free speech and those who consider it the most important thing in their lives.

Art and obscenity have one thing in common: there are many definitions and examples of it. If you ask this writer, cattle injected with growth hormones and antibiotics, not to mention produce dusted with herbicides and pesticides, is obscene. Both were just a few pens over from the Missouri Top 50 exhibition. Obscenity to other fairgoers could include the $1 billion B-2 bombers hangared 18 miles to the west or the Million Dollar Fantasy Ranch a little farther west.

Finally, what about the art community’s response to censorship? Radich pulled Davis’ work from the exhibition in plain view of other artists in the exhibition. This is an affront to all artist/citizens. Imagine the impact if artists, in a show of solidarity with Davis, had “struck” the exhibition pulling their works from the exhibition in protest. You may be the next one who needs help.

Garry Noland
November 5, 1995