The grand opening of the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University will take place tomorrow. Alas, what should have been a stellar moment for the university — a time to demonstrate KSU’s maturation and its commitment to the arts — has been sullied, maybe ruined, by president Daniel Papp’s decision to remove one of the works of art — an act as wrong-headed as it is self-defeating.
Papp isn‘t talking, and the museum staff, it seems, has been muzzled, but Ruth Stanford says Papp saw red because her piece, A Walk in the Valley, references the university-owned Corra Harris homestead in Bartow County, a controversial acquisition because this now-forgotten author had written a racist screed early in her career.
The university’s official reason, to put it in a nutshell, is that the piece is a downer. But here’s the full statement:
“The opening of the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University is an exciting event for the University and the State of Georgia. As such, it is appropriate that the exhibits on display at the opening of the museum celebrate the sculptures of Ruth Zuckerman, the permanent holdings of KSU’s own art collection, and site-specific works.
“Yesterday, during a preview tour of the ZMA, concerns were raised that the subject matter of one exhibit, Ruth Stanford’s piece ‘A Walk in the Valley,’ did not align with the celebratory atmosphere of the Museum’s opening. We therefore made the difficult decision to remove the exhibit for display at a more appropriate later time.”
How ironic that the president himself has put a damper on “the celebratory atmosphere.” How ironic that he has brought the controversy to the surface, calling attention to it in ways the piece never could. Although Stanford alludes to the letter, her work is more about the site, time and memory than about Harris.
The damage might not be momentary. Although the removal could affect the museum’s credibility, it definitely raises questions about the university. Isn’t academe supposed to be a bastion of discussion and dialogue?
WonderRoot executive director Chris Appleton, whose Walthall Fellows are to have an exhibition at the Zuckerman in May, says, “It’s surprising that the president of a state university would not want a public discussion of our region’s history.” While standing in support of the museum staff, Appleton would like to meet with the president before the WonderRoot exhibition.
My heart goes out to the staff members who have worked so hard to make the museum’s coming-out party a statement of the Zuckerman’s ambitions to be a force in the arts. Unfortunately, it seems that the university, which wants so fervently to play in the big leagues, is not ready for that yet.