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Art for the People

July 31, 2012

Government buildings are not typically thought of as destinations for fine art.  Instead, we tend to associate them with debatably less pleasant activities, such as paying taxes, visiting court, lobbying public officials, or participating in hearings and meetings.  But in addition to playing host to the activities and the infrastructure of a municipality, many of these buildings have become showcases for the creative talents of the community.  Recently, a controversy over an art exhibition at the John Bryan Community Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the hub of the village’s government, has raised a question about the role of a public government building as a platform for art.

I have been fortunate to live and work in cities —New York, Philadelphia, and Kettering, Ohio—that like Yellow Springs, are strong advocates for the arts, with a core belief in art as a reflection of a vibrant and healthy place to live.  It has been demonstrated time and time again that a government’s investment in the creative sector positively impacts its local economy, the wellbeing of its residents, and the perception of the city to audiences near and far.

Philadelphia exemplifies a city that continually receives national and international recognition for its commitment to the arts, particularly with the recent reestablishment of the city’s Office of Art, Culture and Creative Economy.   Philadelphia’s investment in programs such as Art in City Hall and Public Art has set a precedent for cities supporting the creative sector through showcasing the talent of its residents. The City of Kettering is a local example of a city’s legacy of fostering its creative economy by supporting programs and facilities like The Fraze Pavilion and Rosewood Arts Centre, which attract thousands and thousands of visitors every year.

Another local city known for its creative industry is Yellow Springs, an artists’ haven and a well-known destination for creative expression.  This past March, a debate took place over an art exhibition in the John Bryan Center.   Installed in the upper level hallway known as the John Bryan Community Gallery, the exhibition “Women’s Voices Out Loud,” was organized by the Yellow Springs Arts Council and showcased the artwork of local women and their expressions of “ideas, hopes, concerns, stories and more in the language of art.”  Among the artwork were a handful of “controversial” pieces of female nudes—drawings, paintings, and sculptures from life or from imagination.

Government employees began to express discomfort with the visual content of a handful of the works.  Although not depicting sexually explicit subject matter, these works lined a hallway that employees walked through daily.  Although there was not an established policy on how to handle situations in which an exhibit offended local workers or residents, in the past, artworks that were disturbing to employees or the public were removed or relocated to less visible spaces.  In this case, when the controversy arose, some artists in the village decided to voice their solidarity with artists in the exhibition by installing more artworks featuring nudes.

In the simplest of terms, many of the exhibiting artists felt their First Amendment rights were being violated, and that the point of the exhibition was misunderstood and perhaps exaggerated.   They felt that removal of the artwork by the village would be censorship.  On the other hand, some of the village employees felt the nudes brought hostility and discomfort to their work environment.

The issue that emerged was that there was no consistent policy in place for evaluating or limiting the art displayed in the building.  The village was faced with a decision point: how could it continue to use the space as a gallery for art and free expression while also being respectful to workers and constituents?  Where would the line be drawn when issues like these arose?  Who would officially speak for the importance of this space and these artworks in the government?  Who would decide what works were appropriate or worthy of display?

This is not a black and white issue.  Clearly, all art is not going to make a public feel good at all times; it’s purpose is to reflect a culture, a moment, and to communicate an issue or an idea.  Art’s subjectivity affects everyone differently and often its success can be measured in the conversation it stimulates—so is this appropriate in a space that serves as a limited public forum, like a government building?  Artists certainly have the right to create what they want to create, but what about public display of their work—do they have the right to show their work in spaces that could create hostility and discomfort to public employees in their workplace?  If the artists are taxpayers in a city, does their work have the right to be shown in a tax-funded building with no possibility of censorship?  Would a consistently enforced policy create too many boundaries and therefore be a form of censorship and limit on freedom of expression?

To grapple with these important questions, I decided to look into the ambitious Art in City Hall program in Philadelphia.  Three major exhibition spaces are located throughout nine-floor building, including in its hallways, like in Yellow Springs, and in a designated gallery space, like Rosewood Gallery in the City of Kettering. Unlike Yellow Springs and Kettering, thousands of people walk through these spaces every day.  Modeled on how art is utilized in the city, the program is designed to celebrate emerging and professional artists; highlight nonprofits, community arts organizations, city schools and universities; and focus on the city’s mission to support its creative interests, including partner organizations, citywide festivals, and themed exhibitions.  The organizers of Art in City Hall want the art on view to be recognized as a vehicle to transform people’s lives and their community, as social engagement, and as a forum for some of present day’s critical issues.

Tu Huynh, Philadelphia’s City Hall Exhibitions Manager, answered a few questions relating to the process and policy of the program.  Art in City Hall (like the Rosewood Gallery and other public institutions with similar programs), works closely with a diverse group of arts professionals who serve as a volunteer advisory committee.  This committee includes a variety of artists, educators, arts administrators and public officials. The mission of the program is clearly defined: to keep the security of the artwork a priority, and to ensure that local committees are responsible for the selection and advocacy of the art on display.

When work is chosen to be on display in City Hall, it is selected with the knowledge that this is a public space with audiences of many backgrounds and perspectives viewing the work.  Controversy rarely happens, mostly because of the responsibility the program has towards appropriate work for the spaces.  Huynh wrote, “We prefer not to show frontal nudity, graphic violence or works that have an overt political agenda aimed at an existing official.  I would also throw in “sensational” works with an appeal for controversy.”

While this does not put boundaries on the subject matter or type of artwork that can be seen in these spaces, Huynh does not consider it censorship.  “It’s site-specific rules, and a public institution is much like PBS, or a school…that is not to say we’ve never had nudes, politically charged works or pieces that intend to grab your attention.  It has to be done well, with substance, and our committee needs to agree and be able to argue about its accomplishments. ”

Although the question of which art is appropriate for a government building may continue to spark controversy, one positive outcome of the recent debate is that it has inspired members of the community to thoughtfully evaluate the role the village should play as a supporter of the arts and as an advocate for public spaces.  An effective policy solution to this issue might do more than just answer questions about appropriate content, it might actually create a more engaged audience for art.  For example, if an advisory committee were formed that included artists, government workers and community members, perhaps those included in the process would feel a sense of pride and ownership in the village’s arts programming.  As Huynh wrote:   “It’s about providing a voice for the arts at the heart of city government…. but it’s more than just a gesture of the City’s commitment to the arts, it’s about who we are, what we’re about, and what we do.”

Learn more about art in our local communities by visiting the City of Kettering http://www.ketteringoh.org, and visit Philadelphia’s Office of Arts and Creative Economy at www.creativephl.org.

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