CU Boulder Comes to a Resolution with Student Who Said Artwork Was Censored
University of Colorado officials have come to a resolution with the student who said they censored his artwork when they demanded he move it out of a prominent display in the Visual Arts Complex lobby.
Kaelen Williams, a senior seeking a Bachelor of Fine Arts, created 22 paintings and 15 small drawings for an exhibit called “Less Than Nothing” but drew complaints from students about numerous pieces, including one that displayed a noose.
He was informed by the Art and Art History department that his exhibit could remain in the lobby for its opening last Friday, but he would need to move it to a basement room over the weekend. He created an online petition that garnered more than 200 signatures, protested the decision and gained support from anti-censorship organizations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship.
CU late Wednesday night announced in a written statement that the department and Williams had come to the agreement that: Williams’ artwork will remain in its current location through Sunday; he will work with a faculty member to create a mural to be displayed in the lobby next semester; and faculty and students will plan a symposium to discuss art, free expression and academic freedom.
“I think it’s a really, really good solution because we’re addressing the issue, but we’re doing it in a collaborative and constructive way rather than having a fight or a court case or something, which I don’t think anybody is really interested in,” Williams said.
As for the symposium, he said: “We just want to have some kind of discussion event so we can talk about these kinds of issues of speech and imagery, and how do you balance free speech and sensitivity?”
Students complained about several images in Williams’ works, including a noose, hooded figures and satanic images, but he and curator Kendall Goduto said they were under the impression that the noose was the primary point of concern for students. They said they had not considered how the image, which they displayed on promotional posters and in the exhibit, might affect black students in particular.
Robert Stuart, the president of the Boulder branch of the NAACP, said that just as a swastika is not free of its link to the genocide of European Jews, a noose is not free of its link to this country’s “tragic history of treatment of African Americans” — a history that did not end with the Civil War. He said it was important for students to recognize that such symbols have been of great torment and pain, and that the university should teach students that.
Jim White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledged that the Art and Art History department mishandled the situation.
“We understand that his being moved out of the space he was in was disturbing to him,” White said. “We get that. This situation was not handled perfectly, and we accept that. We were just trying to find a way to have a resolution that was mutually agreeable to the student and to us so that we could move on.”
Moving forward, he said, he will work with the department’s chair, Kirk Ambrose, to ensure policies and guidelines are clearly enumerated and communicated with members of the department to help them avoid such situations in the future. Emphasis also will be placed on increased faculty mentorship for students as they curate exhibits and design promotional posters, he said.
“That’s the core of where we’re moving forward,” White said. “I’ll be working with Art and Art History to make sure that the policies we have in place include faculty mentors when it comes to students displaying their art and ensuring that we are teaching in an environment in which we can — I wouldn’t say control the conversation — but certainly manage the conversation.”
The university is meant to be a place where there is a free exchange of ideas, he said, and sometimes content will surface that is disturbing to people.
“As a university, we are constantly probing the edges of what people might perceive as content that bothers them,” he said. “There is no clear line that you can draw, but I think it’s important for us to be sensitive to not only the people who want to display their art or their speech, but to those who would be subject to that.”
Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, firstname.lastname@example.org