Administrators at Mary Baldwin University last week removed an exhibit created by two Richmond artists after students called the installation racist because it featured images of Confederate monuments, according to a statement from the private liberal arts university in Staunton.
The exhibit, titled “Relevant/Scrap,” included images of statues from Richmond’s Monument Avenue that the artists said were intended to evoke the “complexity” of the debate over Confederate monuments. It was taken down Wednesday, about 48 hours after it opened.
In a letter to a Mary Baldwin dean, the artists, Jere Williams and Pam Sutherland, said their work had been misinterpreted, but they agreed that it should be removed from the university’s Hunt Gallery.
“We assure you that we are neither in agreement with the ideology of the Lost Cause nor racist (as many of the students called us),” the artists wrote to College of Arts and Sciences Dean Martha Walker.
“Our intention with this work is to use art making processes to create an aesthetic experience of the problematic challenge of reimagining the spaces where the monuments to the confederacy currently reside in Richmond.”
Williams and Sutherland are both art instructors at Collegiate School, and both have displayed their work at Richmond-area galleries.
The art controversy underscores the hazards of the debate over Confederate statutes in Richmond and elsewhere, even for those who may have no intention of casting the monuments in a positive light.
On Thursday, the university released a statement saying the exhibit had been removed “as a result of student concerns and discussions with the artists.” The statement was accompanied by a photo of the empty art gallery.
“Moving forward, Mary Baldwin will review its policies and procedures for selecting and booking cultural exhibitions on campus, including facilitating student input,” the university said. “Mary Baldwin’s commitment to being an inclusive, accepting community is a defining feature of our university.”
A Mary Baldwin news release announcing the exhibit’s opening appears to have been removed from the university’s website.
Mary Baldwin spokeswoman Liesel Crosier said the artists were booked for the gallery three years ago, before the artwork had been produced. Crosier said the exhibit included several depictions of Richmond’s Confederate statues in “prints, drawings and three-dimensional installations,” including an interactive piece that invited viewers to write comments next to images of the statues on preprinted cards.
“The students thought that the imagery was culturally insensitive and did not align with Mary Baldwin values,” Crosier said.
An Instagram account titled “yallracistatmarybaldwinu” posted several photos of the exhibit, including cards with the figure of Robert E. Lee next to messages like “love trumps hate” and “you lost get over it.” Another piece showed the outline of Stonewall Jackson presented as a green car air freshener with the label “CHRISTIANITY.”
Other photos showed what the account said were watermelon seeds meant to represent the tears of African-Americans. The artists did not immediately respond to a message Monday inquiring whether the exhibit included pieces with watermelon seeds.
The social media account also posted photos of messages taped up on campus featuring notes like “Congratulations you graduated from MICROaggression to MACROaggression!!!” and “If it looks racist it is racist!!!” Another note called for the removal of Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox.
The university said it plans to hold several “listening sessions” this week and a presentation from a history professor titled “Memory, Monuments and Meaning.”
In an artists’ statement accompanying their exhibit, Sutherland and Williams said they hoped the work would illustrate the “cacophony” of voices involved in the statue debate and allow art to be a “healing lens through which history can be amended.”
“Being white in the South meant for us that these monuments could be treated like furniture in the environment, relegated to the background through habituation and affiliation,” the artists wrote. “In other words, we were privileged not to see them as contesting our rights or place in society. As we grew up it became clear that these public monuments did not represent the values of everyone.”
Collegiate School, where the artists are instructors, said Monday: “The two teachers who produced an independent art exhibit for Mary Baldwin University in Staunton have taught at Collegiate collectively for the last 30 years. Although their project was not Collegiate-affiliated, we are confident in accepting their explanation that their desire was to create dialogue through their art.”
Mary Baldwin’s decision drew criticism from some free-speech advocates. In a statement, Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech project, said the students’ reaction “could have been better anticipated.” But the university could have allowed its students to be heard “while also staunchly defending the artists’ rights and the value of free expression.”
“Teaching students that censorship is the solution to provocative material is a dangerous lesson, one which should be of grave concern to the artistic and academic communities alike,” Friedman said.
Crosier said the university “opened a dialogue” with its students and the artists, “and the result was that the artists requested to have the exhibit removed.”
The exhibit had been scheduled to run Nov. 5-30.