Editor’s Note: This story is the first installment of four articles written in commemoration of the 2017 ArtsATL Luminary Awards, our commemoration of the passionate, creative and innovative spirit of Atlanta’s arts community. Learn more information about the Luminary Awards here.
Story by Doug DeLoach, video by Bartram Nason.
Coming to a complete understanding of the meaning of freedom of speech and expression in early 21st-century America requires grappling with the notion that these freedoms are subject to control. Artists who probe around the cultural edges where control mechanisms are often acutely applied play a vital role as barometers of the social milieu and bellwethers of action in defense of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.
In choosing the Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA) as the first recipient of the annual Catalyst Award for Social Discourse, ArtsATL recognizes the principle administrators of the three-year-old museum on the Kennesaw State University (KSU) campus for championing artists and art at the edges. Beginning with the museum’s inaugural exhibition in the spring of 2014 through the last show of 2016, which closed December 11, the ZMA has consistently presented stimulating artworks and educational programming for the express purpose of fostering spirited discussion and meaningful communication even at the risk of ruffling the occasional feather.
“The mission of the Zuckerman is to broaden the understanding and scope of contemporary art, theory and practice in our region,” says Justin Rabideau, director of the ZMA. “Through engaging exhibitions, programming, and scholarly research, we strive to show how contemporary art and artful thinking can impact lives in a meaningful way.”
Established under the auspices of the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books, the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art was conceived as a means of bringing together the university’s approximately 6,000-piece permanent collection and the campus galleries program, which was founded in 1984 by professor emerita Roberta Griffin. The KSU art collection includes works by Rembrandt Peale, Viola Frey, Norman Rockwell, Howard Finster, Lamar Dodd, Thomas Hart Benton, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, N.C. Wyeth and Athos Menaboni.
In 2010, the museum’s namesake, a longstanding supporter of the arts in Atlanta, launched a funding campaign with a $2 million pledge to build a standalone art museum adjacent to the KSU campus. Bernard Zuckerman’s pledge was matched with a $1 million donation from community donors including the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and the Leo Delle Lassiter Jolley Foundation.
Designed by Stanley Beaman & Sears, the ZMA adjoins the Bailey Center, which houses two gallery spaces. The ZMA comprises three exhibition galleries, plus the Leo Delle Lassiter Jolley Foundation Collection Research Center and the Ruth V. Zuckerman Pavilion, a three-story-high glass atrium housing stone and bronze sculptures by Zuckerman’s late wife. The open, naturally light-rich, 9,200-square-foot, concrete-steel-frame-and-glass building, which took a little more than one year to construct, is sustained by the KSU Foundation.
The ZMA’s grand opening on March 1, 2014 was distinguished by widespread acclaim for the space and largely favorable reviews for the main exhibition. The latter was also tainted by controversy, which attracted national media attention, stemming from then-KSU president Daniel Papp’s order to remove one of the artworks prior to the opening. Ultimately, freedom of expression triumphed over censorship, but not without a pitched battle.
See Through Walls showcased works by 15 artists, each of whom was given a wall, which served as inspiration, according to ZMA documentation, for “exploring the function and inner workings of real and conceptual constructions.” The piece that compelled Papp’s censorious action was A Walk in the Valley. The sculptural assemblage by Georgia State University associate professor Ruth Stanford references the historic homestead and career of Corra Harris, who was a popular author and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the early decades of the 20th century.
At the end of 2008, KSU acquired the 56-acre Harris property in Bartow County, which was donated by businessman Jodie Hill. Public outcry against the deal centered on Harris’s literary career, which was launched when her letter to the editor was published in 1898 by The Independent, a New York-based weekly magazine of literary reviews and topical commentary with a progressive, abolitionist bent (it carried some of the earliest writings by W.E.B. Dubois). In the letter, Harris essentially defended lynching as she described the motivation and character of a mob, which had infamously tortured and burned to death Sam Hose, a Black man accused of rape and murder while working on a farm on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Six years later, Papp ordered Stanford’s artwork, which included shredded copies of Harris’s books, removed because it “did not align with the celebratory atmosphere of the Museum’s opening.” At the opening of See Through Walls, some protesters carried signs and wore t-shirts emblazoned with an image of A Walk in the Valley above the word, “Censored,” while some attendees remained blithely unaware of the controversy.
The local art community rallied around the ZMA. In a comment posted at Burnaway.org, Chris Appleton, executive director of WonderRoot, wrote: “We stand in support of and in solidarity with the staff and leadership of the Zuckerman Museum, including Director Justin Rabideau and Curator Teresa Reeves, as they continue to work for and with the artists of our region. WonderRoot believes that the arts are a conduit for dialogue and understanding about our communities’ disparate experiences.”
In the same comment, Appleton indicated he would request a meeting with the KSU president to discuss the matter further: “It is our hope that this decision and its consequences will yield a constructive dialogue about the arts and the role of the arts in spheres of education.”
Two weeks after the opening of See Through Walls, KSU administrators and Stanford reached an agreement to reinstall the work accompanied by explanatory material and supplemental programming. A Walk in the Valley remained part of the exhibition through its closing in May 2014.
“I ultimately decided that the university’s decision to remove the piece in the first place was a decision not to trust the viewers,” Stanford said in an interview published by the SaportaReport. “I decided I would trust the viewers and welcome any and all opinions. Also, the museum had no role in what happened. The decision was imposed on them. Not to restore it would be to question their mission.”
In June 2014, Papp announced his retirement from KSU. The surprise announcement came three weeks prior to a KSU audit, which reported Papp was in violation of financial policy guidelines by receiving more than $577,000 in retirement pay before he left the school without notifying the proper state university system officials. In October, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia named former state Attorney General Sam Olens president of KSU.
“Through art, we can have meaningful and engaging conversations, which are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable,” says Rabideau. “We want to enact change in people’s hearts and minds through the arts, by acknowledging the power of the humanities, not by confronting people in a directly or overtly political way.”
In February 2016, the ZMA team was presented with another opportunity to acknowledge the power of the humanities when the museum hosted Art AIDS America, a major traveling exhibit organized by the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) in Washington. A decade in the making, Art AIDS America was co-curated by TAM chief curator Rock Hushka and Jonathan D. Katz, director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo.
“Three years prior to the show at the Zuckerman, the curators were here, reaching out to all of the museums in the Atlanta area, asking whether they would be willing to host the show,” recounts Rabideau. “I met with the curators and said the Zuckerman wanted to take this on, knowing full well it was going to cover topics that were difficult. We knew it would have content which would be tough for some members of the audience, but we also understood that the story this show was telling was vitally important for our community.”
Prior to its installation at the Zuckerman, Art AIDS America stirred discontent during the last few weeks of its inaugural run at the TAM when local activists staged protests focused on a lack of diversity among the participating artists. While only four of 92 participants in the exhibition were African American (and only one a Black female), critics pointed to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, which showed that African Americans accounted for an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010 and represented 41 percent of Americans living with HIV infection in 2011.
Recognizing the legitimacy of the problem, Rabideau and his colleagues worked with the TAM curators and others to address the issue before the opening of Art AIDS America at the ZMA. A roundtable discussion at the Goat Farm, which included representatives of the art community from Spelman, Morehouse and Agnes Scott Colleges, Wonderroot, Dashboard and the High Museum of Art, yielded valuable input from which additional programming was devised.
Some pieces from the original exhibition lineup were replaced with artworks by African Americans from other collections including the High Museum and the Bronx Museum, the next scheduled stop for Art AIDS America after Atlanta/ZMA. Local organizations, such as AID Atlanta and SisterLove, Inc., were enlisted to assemble Art AIDS Atlanta, an exhibition within an exhibition, and supplemental programming, which specifically addressed the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS on the African-American community in the metro area.
Toward the end of Art AIDS America’s run at the ZMA, three members of the Georgia legislature who represent one of the metro region’s most conservative constituencies raised a decidedly public stink about a few pieces among the exhibit’s 110 photographs, paintings, prints, sculptures, videos and mixed-media works. “Gratuitous pornography disguised and sold as art” is how one legislator described the material, which he deemed offensive after seeing photographs of the artwork. The legislators threatened to cut state funding for KSU if the school did not accede to unspecified future screening requirements.
“That sort of controversy should not unduly detract from what the exhibition accomplished,” says Katz, “which was to start a tragically rare conversation about the impact of AIDS in our culture among people who either had no direct relationship with the disease or may have been born after its most horrific days were concluded.”
Working in concert with the original curators, the ZMA significantly transformed Art AIDS America, not only for its run in Atlanta, but also for subsequent showings in New York and Chicago. The cooperative effort represents a nearly unprecedented episode in the annals of major traveling art exhibitions.
“We see ourselves as a laboratory of learning, as a place where people can share and grow and test boundaries and what it means to create art and to exhibit art,” says Ana Tucker, public relations manager for the ZMA. “We want to create an environment where people can come in from all different backgrounds and experiences and engage with big topics.”
The ZMA’s curatorial strategy encourages the exploration of traditional themes in nontraditional ways. The goal is to engage contemporary viewers and spur fresh conversations about subjects many would consider fairly exhaustively covered.
“Because we are part of the university, we are in a wonderful, somewhat unique, situation in that many students are first-time museum goers,” says ZMA curator Sarah Higgins. “At the same time, they’re in an academic construct in which a tension exists between accessibility — making things legible — and making things rigorous and challenging.”
Higgins had a major hand in curating A View Beyond the Trees, which ran this past summer from June through August. The exhibit featured solo projects by contemporary artists Joe Hamilton (Melbourne, Australia), Dawn Holder (Clarksville, Arkansas) and Stacy Lynn Waddell (Durham, North Carolina). Their work was shown alongside a group of 19th-century American landscape paintings from the ZMA collection. The companion exhibit, titled The Light of Distant Skies, was researched and curated by KSU art history professor Dr. Daniel E. Sachs.
“I was challenged to ask questions, such as, ‘What makes landscape relevant to me? How can I talk about this in a way that feels really current?’” says Higgins.
In answering those questions, Higgins curated an exhibit that explored the way depictions of landscape reflect contemporary attitudes and the politics of what it means to view a landscape. She considered the legacy of a colonial gaze embedded within landscape painting, which in America necessarily takes in the 19th-century belief in manifest destiny, the notion that the early settlers were destined by God to expand the New World’s territorial boundaries from coast to coast.
When Stacy Lynn Waddell turned her gaze upon the landscape of her time, she was compelled to render landscapes associated with the murder by police of young African-American boys and men. Using formal cues including text (“Black Lives Matter”) and symbolic materials (an impression of a chain-link fence rubbed onto gold-leaf paper), Waddell created landscapes that, she says, “become a stand-in for the event.”
“It is incumbent upon artists to think about social activism,” Waddell says. “This is a really difficult time, politically, which means it’s a difficult time socially. These times are going to shift even more with the new President. There is a lot of tension in the air.”
As a champion of artistic expression unencumbered by reactionary control, and as an innovative educator and instigator of relevant, meaningful dialogue within the metropolitan community and greater Atlanta region, the Zuckerman Museum of Art stands as a model for artistic institutions and a deserving winner of the first annual ArtsATL Catalyst Award for Social Discourse.