Editor’s note: The Salem News is publishing a photo of the painting of Ku Klux Klansmen that has caused concerns at Salem State University, because this is a story about art that cannot be easily understood without seeing the art in question.
SALEM — An art display intended to highlight hopes and concerns felt during the 2016 presidential election has triggered the temporary shutdown of Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery.
The exhibit, titled “State of the Union,” launched in the Winfisky on Wednesday, Nov. 9 — the day after President-elect Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the most divisive elections in recent history.
The idea, born in September, was to paint the emotions felt by some during the election season, according to exhibit curator Ken Reker, an Art + Design professor at Salem State.
“With this contentious election and the difficult dialogues that were going on, I wanted to create a show that lifted some of those hopes and concerns for people in the art world,” Reker said.
The minute the exhibit opened, however, some viewers expressed outrage. By Tuesday, the debate exploded on social media, with some calling for faculty suspensions and questioning why “hate would be considered as art.”
The chairwoman of the Art + Design program and the exhibit curator decided to shut down the gallery temporarily, pending an on-campus discussion set for Monday, Nov. 28, where faculty and students will discuss the issue and determine whether the exhibit should continue.
The controversy focused on a painting by Lowell artist Garry Harley depicting Ku Klux Klan members in full attire, and another showing Jewish people being rounded up for a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
A third work drawing attention depicted a woman “being traumatized as if she was a victim of sexual assault,” said Lisa McBride, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Salem State.
Angry commenters on social media said they were offended the by exhibit, and particularly the painting of the Klansmen, suggesting that it perpetuated, and even supported, racial inequality in America. Comments numbering in the hundreds also described, and heavily criticized, disagreements between white attendees and people of color, often chalking it up to white privilege.
Lack of context
Reker said a big part of the problem is that there was no context for the works, and the theme of the exhibit was not explained other than in a guestbook that some viewers missed.
“There was no context on the walls,” he said. “I had kind of followed gallery protocol.
“When the objections began to flood into our diversity coordinator, over this past weekend, I printed the same statements (that artists had submitted in the guestbook) and attached them next to the works on the walls.”
McBride was also getting complaints.
“On Thursday morning, the students became aware of the exhibit and expressed distaste and anger to me,” McBride said. “We then put together an open forum for the next Monday (Nov. 21) so that students could actually interact with the curator so he could explain, first of all, what was the point of the actual exhibit.”
That event included Harley, who had a chance to explain his basis for the works.
“Much of the heat and discussion, and the concern and the annoyance, of some of the students — not all of the students, but some of the students — was about the process, of how the show had come together,” Harley said. “They felt that they weren’t given proper context.”
A diverse group of about 50 people attended the forum.
After the emotionally charged event, the decision was made to shut down the exhibit.
“It has been suspended temporarily. It was kind of an appeasement to kind of let things cool down a little bit,” Reker said. “We’ll discuss the process of how we’ll continue.”
An email sent to university faculty and students late Tuesday afternoon announced that the gallery had been shut down and set a meeting for faculty and students this Monday, Nov. 28, to discuss what to do next.
It will not be open to the public, McBride said.
SSU admin: This is art’s job
So far, McBride said, there’s no regret about the exhibit or its content.
“We know that universities — all universities — are struggling. We’re blessed that we had this just so we can talk about it. We have policy, bias report policies, that protect people from being discriminated against outside the classroom,” McBride said. “This was an art exhibit — so you push those fine lines.”
So far, it has taken humility and courage, she said, for all parties involved — those supporting the art, and those angered by it — to speak up.
“It took courage for those students to stand up. It took courage of the program chair to say, ‘We’re going to temporarily close this,’” McBride said. “After the holidays, we’re going to work on this together. It’s better we go through this now, because this year is going to progress.”
Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523, DLuca@salemnews.com or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.