Two students earned the opportunity to have their artwork displayed publicly on the Indiana University Kokomo campus, and then the sculptures disappeared.
Near the end of July two pieces of student artwork from a summer sculpture course were selected by art department faculty to be displayed outside on the university campus. About a week later, without warning, the university removed the two sculptures. Now, nearly three months later, the university will be putting the pieces back on display, but two competing narratives emerged about why the pieces were taken down. An IUK art professor isn’t buying the university’s explanation for what he believes to be censorship.
“I’m a little concerned as I don’t want to embarrass the campus, but I do want them to know you can’t just trample on people’s civil rights when you feel like it,” said Gregory Steel, an IUK art professor who helped select the pieces for display and taught the course during which they were constructed. “I think we still have a First Amendment, at least as far as I know, unless they’ve gotten rid of that already.”
One piece in particular is believed by Steel to be at the center of the controversy. It’s large, nearly 10 feet tall, pink, and resembles female genitalia.
Mary Ade, an IUK senior, learned to weld for the summer sculpture course so she could construct the unnamed piece. The work itself, said Ade, was born of a past sexual assault and served as a way for her to heal and hopefully help others who have endured similar difficulty.
“That experience really changed my relationship with my body,” said Ade. “So a lot of the work I’ve done, and this sculpture specifically, is about coming to terms with that after sexual trauma and that sort of thing. It really is deeply personal to me, and it matters to me. And I think it should matter to other people too because I know I’m not the only one who has gone through that experience. What I’m really trying to do is make the art that I needed to see when I was 18 and didn’t know what the hell to do. That was my goal with this piece, to contribute to my personal healing process, but also hoping to reach out to other people who have gone through a similar experience.”
Steel, Ade, and other art department faculty responsible for selecting the pieces for display were caught unaware when the sculptures were taken down about a week after being put up in July. When they initially were selected by an art committee for placement, what ensued was a small ceremony with the students’ family to commemorate the moment.
But after they were removed, the involved parties were left in a state of shock.
“I had no idea that it got taken down until my mom went to go see it about a week after they put them up,” said Ade. “She texted me and said, ‘It’s not there.’ I was like, ‘What? I haven’t heard anything about it being taken down.’”
After Steel found out the pieces had been removed, he immediately began searching for answers. Finally, last week he received word that the pieces would go back up, but he’s not buying the university’s reasoning for taking down the artwork in the first place.
“There’s been this sort of ongoing set of distractions,” said Steel. “They kept telling me something about a policy, then something it’s not a policy, then there’s another policy. It’s really kind of a long, drawn out — I don’t know what you want to call it — a diversion from addressing the issue … I found out last week that someone apparently complained about the sculpture, which is why they took it down. But I don’t know the nature of the actual complaint or who it was that complained or what the complaint was about specifically.”
This explanation differs from the one offered by IUK. University officials maintain the content of the piece didn’t serve as a reason for its removal, but rather that proper approval hadn’t been received for its placement.
“It was taken down because it didn’t go through the correct approval process,” said Marie Lindskoog, IUK director of media and marketing. “Then it went through the correct approval process, and now they’re going back up. Those decisions come from Bloomington, not from this campus. So to speak about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate, we don’t make that judgment call. We submit it for approval, and we received approval. So the sculptures are going up as planned.”
Steel took issue with this explanation, maintaining that the complaints did indeed come into play with Ade’s artwork. He got word, via email, last week that the pieces would be put back up where they originally were placed. But, if the university’s explanation is to be believed, that architectural approval served as the only reason for the removal, then why were complaints even referenced in the email the art professor received stating the pieces would be put back?
The art professor said the email he received said the pieces would be returned to their original spots, but that placement of the pieces may be reconsidered if concerns are fielded from the community.
“Here’s the problem, right? Initially we were told that’s why they took them down because there were complaints from the community,” said Steel. “That was the original reason they took them down, so now [IUK Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke] is putting them back up with this sort of caveat. My question is were there complaints from the community or were there not complaints from the community?”
Further adding to Steel’s confusion is the fact that the approval process took much longer for these pieces than in the past. After the pieces initially were removed he also was told to resubmit paperwork for architectural approval. He completed that about a week after the artwork was taken down. Normally, he said, approval takes about two weeks. In this instance approval took about two months, furthering the professor’s suspicions that other factors were at play.
The controversy even has fielded concern from an outside agency. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) responded to the removal of the pieces, opting to send a letter to IUK’s chancellor voicing concern over the removal of Ade’s work.
“FIRE is troubled by IUK’s decision to remove two student sculptures in response to complaints,” said Sarah McLaughlin, FIRE’s senior program officer. “Public institutions like IUK are legally and morally bound by the First Amendment and accordingly must not allow complaints from offended members of the campus community to determine what artwork their peers are allowed to encounter. We are writing to IUK Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke to express our concerns, and we hope that IUK chooses to restore the sculptures and stand by the artistic freedom its students and faculty members should enjoy.”
Regardless, with the pieces set to go back up, Steel said speaking up for his students was needed after he felt as though the university unjustly censored the artwork.
“In all of this, no one was defending Mary,” said Steel. “She’s like many young women in our culture who have been conditioned to be quiet and sort of take their place and not do things. So I felt even stronger about coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, what about Mary?’ All this time people are worried about their own personal feelings with these things, but nobody is defending Mary. If we can’t do that on this campus then we might as well not have a campus as far as I’m concerned.”