(NEW YORK)—PEN America issued a statement today in response to the closing of an art exhibit addressing race relations and anti-Black violence at Arkansas Tech University’s Norman Hall Art Gallery. The exhibit was removed following a protest march by students who called the art “racially insensitive.” Following the march, the artist Dominique Simmons requested that her pieces be removed from the university, which responded by temporarily closing the exhibit.

In response, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager in the Free Expression and Education program, made the following comments:

“That art dealing with racism in America has impacted viewers in different ways is understandable. Cultural managers, particularly at academic institutions, have a responsibility to curate artistic content for the public in ways that are attuned to how it might be received–particularly when it touches on a potentially sensitive topic. But there is no better place to reflect on the questions raised by difficult art than at a university, where intellectual inquiry and unfettered discussion of uncomfortable topics are paramount for promoting knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking.”

“While we don’t know what caused the artist to retract her work, we are disappointed that the closure of the exhibit seems to have occurred so readily, with little chance for serious engagement with it. This deprives all students and campus stakeholders of the opportunity to view this art and grapple with it. We hope that the artist won’t be deterred in her work and that the university will take this opportunity to facilitate conversation about it and the response it elicited. How can we reckon with America’s history of racism and racial violence if our institutions shut down opportunities to use the arts for public engagement?”

About PEN America

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. Learn more at pen.org.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a project to safeguard artistic freedom in the US and abroad.