Mary Baldwin University in Virginia removes art exhibit on Confederate monuments
First posted February 11, 2019 8:50pm EST
Last updated June 20, 2020 4:58pm EDT
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After students voiced concern over what they regarded as the racial insensitivity inherent in an artistic display of Confederate monuments, a small liberal arts university in Virginia removed the exhibit, citing the need to be inclusive and centered on student experience.
Mary Baldwin University (MBU) is a private liberal arts university in the small town of Staunton, Virginia, about 40 miles west of Charlottesville. Affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, the school originated as a women’s seminary before becoming a co-ed institution in the 1960s. MBU is approximately 59% white and 20% Black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Pam Sutherland and Jere Williams are the Richmond, Virginia-based artists whose work was removed from MBU’s gallery. Both are white and consider themselves born-and-bred Southerners.
Sutherland and Williams’s exhibit “Relevant / Scrap” was installed in MBU’s Hunt Gallery on Nov. 5, 2018. It focused on Confederate monuments and how they can be both revered and reviled, contributing to a distorted view of U.S. history, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Included in the installation were images of the statues, which were transformed and combined with other materials. Pieces in the exhibit featured segments of Confederate portraits, including of Robert E. Lee, cut up and transposed over other materials, including other Confederate images. Other pieces were composed of cutouts of Confederate monuments with various graffiti on them, including “no monuments to cultural genocide” and “love trumps hate.”
By the next day, Concerned Students of Mary Baldwin, an anonymous group, had circulated an email that called the exhibit racist, Inside Higher Ed reports. Students also raised concerns to faculty and administrators at a student government meeting the same day, according to the Staunton News Leader. Together, their efforts proved successful, as MBU faculty contacted Sutherland and Williams later that day to express the students’ concerns.
MBU removes art exhibit focusing on Confederate monuments
In response to student concerns, the university decided Nov. 6 to remove the exhibit, which was taken down by the following evening, the News Leader reports.
“In accordance with our values as an inclusive, student-centered campus community, we take seriously the concerns about an art exhibition by two Richmond-based artists installed earlier this week in Hunt Gallery,” the university wrote in a Nov. 8 statement, which was accompanied by a photo of an empty Hunt Gallery. “As a result of student concerns and discussions with the artists, the installation has been removed as of last night.”
Sutherland and Williams accepted the university’s decision but said their exhibit had been misunderstood, rejecting the characterization of their work as racist. “We seem to have been misunderstood as people,” the pair wrote. “In our estimation the presence of the work does not violate the safe embrace of shared experiences or differences as stated in the university’s inclusivity statement.”
Though they had not yet produced the exhibit, Sutherland and Williams booked the gallery space three years earlier, a typical timeline for the space, according to the News Leader; the exhibit was in place for barely 48 hours.
In the wake of the exhibit’s removal, the university held a listening session, offering students an opportunity to voice their responses to the exhibit. A history professor also hosted a lecture on the topic titled “Memory, Monuments, and Meaning,” according to the News Leader.
For some Free Speech advocates, the incident at MBU was troublesome: Jonathan Friedman, who serves as project director for campus Free Speech at PEN America, an organization of writers, expressed such concerns. “Once the works were put up on display the decision to withdraw them puts the viewpoint of protesters above those of the artists who created the exhibit, the curators who developed it, and the audiences who may have wished to view it,” Friedman said, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. “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.”