Kennesaw State University officials and artist Ruth Stanford have reached an agreement to reinstate Stanford’s installation, A Walk in the Valley, at the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art. The piece will be on view by March 25 and remain through the exhibition’s April 26 end date.
The back story: days before the Zuckerman Museum’s grand opening on April 1, university president Daniel Papp had ordered the piece removed because it was built on the artist’s response to the homestead of author Corra Harris, a KSU acquisition that had sparked controversy because Harris had once written a racist screed.
When the university initially tried to make amends, Stanford demurred. The two parties came to an agreement in which she would reinstall the piece and the university would, according to its statement, “provide explanatory materials and host public programs that address the complexity and controversial nature of the subject matter.”
Stanford, a Georgie State University professor, issued this statement: “While Kennesaw State’s administration and I continue to disagree on certain issues related to the removal of my work . . . we have come to agree that the work should be restored to its place in the exhibition. This has been a difficult experience, but I hope that the conversations it has generated about art, place, history, academic freedom, and free speech have been, and will continue to be, productive.”
They have already been productive. KSU showed itself capable of reversing its position and, its actions to the contrary, affirmed publicly “the administration’s full support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.”
The statement avowed that KSU intended to “use this entire experience as a learning and engagement opportunity for all of our stakeholders.” Most importantly, one hopes that the university itself has learned from this experience: not just that it should adhere to what must be any academic institution’s core values, but also that the art community, for one, will call the university on its lapses.
It’s a shame that this occurrence marred what should have been a joyous inauguration and cast a shadow on its future. The museum staff, a responsible, professional and committed group, can’t do its work if it fears second-guessing from above. This lingering perception must be dispelled if the museum is to be a credible institution, much less an important player in the region, and that can only happen if the university shows the commitment to freedom of expression it espoused in its statement.