Removal of Art Exhibit at Mary Baldwin Represents a Failure to Stand Up for Free Expression
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK—The removal of an art exhibit at Mary Baldwin University, which featured images of a Confederate statue, is a concerning outcome that demonstrates a failure on the university’s part to stand up for free expression, PEN America said in a statement today.
The exhibit, titled “RELEVANT / SCRAP,” was created by artists Jere Williams and Pam Sutherland to engage with the challenges of reimagining the spaces where Confederate statues currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. Booked three years ago by the Hunt Gallery at Mary Baldwin University, the exhibit opened on campus on Nov 5, and featured pieces with images of statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in various forms, and mixed with other materials. Two days after opened, the university decided to remove the exhibit, in response to a group of students who expressed concern that it was racist. The university’s statement on their decision emphasized their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and their intention to hold a listening session for students this week. In their statement, the artists agreed that the work should be removed, expressing sadness that it was causing distress on campus, and emphasizing that they are not racist, but that their constructive intentions had been misunderstood.
“In the midst of a rise in hate crimes, and important national questions about the legacies of slavery and the Confederacy, students’ reactions to the exhibit’s content are understandable, and could have been better anticipated when the work was first revealed,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America Project Director for Campus Free Speech. “Mary Baldwin’s decision to host a listening session with students is the right idea; but they could have done so while also staunchly defending the artists’ rights and the value of free expression. Engagement ahead of time to prepare the campus for the exhibit and hear from the artists about their creative process and aspirations might have helped to avert this regrettable result. Once the works were put up on display the decision to withdraw them puts the viewpoint of protesters above those of the artists who created the exhibit, the curators who developed it, and the audiences who may have wished to view it. Teaching students that censorship is the solution to provocative material is a dangerous lesson, one which not only goes against the spirit of hallowed artistic traditions, but also creates a wide opening for others to call for censorship in response to content that provokes or offends, no matter the grounds.”
PEN America has previously emphasized that the values of diversity and inclusion on campus should not be pitted against robust protections for free expression.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org
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