If a controversial piece of art was displayed in the woods and no one saw it, would it still be controversial? And if it was removed—would it be considered censorship?
These are questions that are being asked in light of a recent exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum of a UCR student show: Works On Loan From The 21st Century.
The Works show had its opening reception on June 6. Of the artwork displayed by seven MFA graduate students, there was a photograph taken by Gideon Barnett of an Apollo-Soyuz Test Project Mission Model, one of several museum display photos he exhibited. Barnett had seen the model at the March Field Air Museum on a visit, per his style, he took numerous pictures. Seemingly innocuous, the photo commemorating the mid-’70s USA/Soviet joint space flight didn’t evoke any protests or calls for its removal among the patrons at the Works reception. This happened the next night, June 7, at the opening reception at RAM’s 2008 Annual Members Show. Among the RAM members showing work was Patricia Korzec, coincidentally the executive director of the March Air Museum. When she saw Barnett’s photo of the Apollo-Soyuz model Korzec, she claimed Barnett’s photograph violated the March Air Museum’s strict “no photography” policy, and immediately set in motion a campaign to have the piece removed from the exhibit. According to Barnett, this included the threat of legal action against UCR, as well as RAM.
“I never thought a picture of a spaceship model would cause so much trouble,” says an abashed Barnett, an easygoing first-year grad. Barnett says that he had received oral permission from on-duty docents during his visit to take the shots. Apparently, oral permission was not enough to appease Korzec. Barnett says “the school suggested that I try to pacify [Korzec]” and her concerns, yet a phone call only made things worse, with Korzec injecting national security concerns into the equation.
“I wish I had done a better job supporting him,” said Jim Isermann, chair of the UCR Art Dept., in an email statement sent from London. Isermann personally believes that Barnett followed correct procedure, but Korzec’s threats apparently alarmed UCR risk management consultants, who noted that without Korzec’s express consent the university could be liable for the image if Korzec made good on her threat to sue. When Barnett contacted Korzec personally, she refused to grant permission, citing insurance policies that didn’t allow for reproduction.
In the midst of negotiating a workable solution that would somehow keep the photo up for the duration of the exhibit (which closed June 21) Barnett decided to embellish his piece. He altered it by masking the image with brown butcher paper and placing a sign above it that said, “This artwork has been censored due to a threat of legal action” with Korzek’s direct work number and extension listed. According to Isermann, this was not a “mature response” by Barnett, and likely killed any chance of resolution.
“No one was trying to censor anyone,” responded Korzec in a phone message to the IE Weekly.
The altercation was the tipping point for RAM, an institution that is a bit sensitive to allegations of censorship within its doors, still stinging from the fallout over bare breasts displayed (and then covered up) during the Material Girls exhibit last year, which caused their curator at the time Andi Campognone to resign on the spot. Daniel Foster, executive director of RAM, is on vacation and could not respond to questions about the photograph.
One UCR professor that remains unimpressed by Korzec’s threats is John DiVola, a renowned photographer whose work is currently on display at the Huntington Library’s This Side Of Paradise exhibit. “Museums have allowed photography for 100 years,” DiVola says, while noting that if the Getty in Los Angeles and the MOMA in New York allow casual photography within their walls, what exactly makes the March Air Museum so different? DiVola says that Korzec’s claims that insurance policies prohibit any photography “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
But did UCR in fact abandon Barnett?
DiVola was at one time the Chair of UCR’s Art Dept. “I once had two women install two giant erect penises” in an exhibit, he says. DiVola informed the Dean ahead of time of the installation and received no interference, as long as appropriate signage was inserted.
Barnett now regrets taking his work down, but he is confused by the actions taken by a museum that displays close to 70 pictures on its website of classic American and Soviet military jets and even ICBM missiles. Also ubiquitous on the web are numerous pictures of the actual Apollo-Soyuz module. Barnett wonders why his image was singled out for removal, in light of these other images.