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Earlier this month, officials at Lewis-Clark State College, a public institution in Idaho, removed half a dozen artworks from an exhibition due to concerns that display of the works, which related to abortion and reproductive health, violated the state’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act.

The controversy followed closely on one that got much more attention: Hamline University’s decision not to renew the contract of a lecturer after she showed her class a masterpiece of medieval Islamic art depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Knowing that some Muslim students might find any representation of the prophet sacrilegious, the lecturer, Erika López Prater, followed what is by now standard professional practice, providing warnings that the image was going to be displayed and inviting students to opt out; nonetheless, a complaint from a student who chose to stay was enough for an administrator to declare the professor’s actions “Islamophobic” (the university has since walked back that characterization, and Lopez-Prater is now suing).

In recent years, book bans and “divisive concepts” legislation have dominated the news and public consciousness. Yet, examples of administrative overreach, disrespect for faculty expertise and shared governance, and unwillingness to publicly support academic freedom also extend to the sphere of artistic expression. Just ask curators and directors at the nation’s hundreds of campus art museums and galleries. Which is exactly what I did last year.

From 2021 to 2022, I served as a fellow at the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement and completed a research project that included interviews and surveys of nearly 100 curators and directors of campus art museums and galleries. The first thing to understand about these institutions is that they are enormously diverse—situated in institutions across the country that are public and private, religious and secular, large and small, freestanding and tucked inside art department buildings or student centers, and guided by varying funding mechanisms, mission statements and audiences. The Association for Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) boasts that their members are “the training ground for the nation’s next generation of cultural leaders, the first engagement for many of our young with original objects, and campus centers for interdisciplinary discussion.”

One of the observations I gleaned from my research is that those in charge of presenting art on campus have been quietly grappling with the nation’s roiling culture wars in recent years, in many cases hoping to fly under the radar as they serve what they see as an irreplaceable pedagogical function on campus. Despite a lack of national attention in most cases, controversy has erupted at many academic art museums and galleries, as documented by organizations including PEN America, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), First Amendment Watch, and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). These controversies include:

  • Relocation of an artist’s reinterpretation of the American flag at the University of Kansas after criticism by the state’s governor in 2018;
  • Removal of artwork with Confederate imagery at Mary Baldwin University in 2019;
  • And more recently, removal of a digital student artwork portraying a baroque beheading of Donald Trump from an online exhibition at Wilmington University.

These examples align with my survey results. Campus art controversies typically involve works whose subject matter includes sexuality, nudity, racial stereotypes, politics, violence, painful historical subjects and the U.S. flag. The Hamline incident adds a new bullet point to a long list of potentially problematic subject matter.

Art censorship is generally different from censorship of texts because artists have so many means of blurring any bright line drawn between allowable and forbidden subjects. A ban on nudity, for instance, is frequently skirted through depictions of bodies that are abstracted or small enough to make determinations of propriety a great subject for discussion and debate. A racist image may be manipulated such that students can weigh in on whether the artist has managed to neuter or amplify the power of the symbol.

We can expect more depictions of culturally challenging content in the coming years, with similar blurring of lines. For thousands of years, artists have demonstrated their prowess at originating subversive formal innovations to resist the stated aims of censors. These visual interventions open the possibility of shifting entrenched conversations to new ground. Museum staff members I spoke with generally were happy to exhibit work that enabled these kinds of campus discussions, as long as they felt supported to take risks and exercise their professional expertise in shaping exhibitions and interpretative programming.

Despite the potential for problems and protest, 78 percent of respondents to my survey described freedom of artistic expression in their institutions as “essential,” and the other 22 percent chose “very important.” A majority also felt that academic art museums had more freedom (and responsibility) to exhibit provocative work than other types of museums because they were usually not reliant on ticket sales or wealthy donors and because they operated within an institution devoted to new ideas and experimentation.

In recent years, academic museums in conservative states have hosted exhibitions devoted to LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter themes. A Roman Catholic college gallery hosted an exhibition that stimulated thought and discussion about clerical sexual abuse, and numerous campuses founded by enslavers have led the way in organizing truthful discussions about foundational histories and their legacies. Curators also have crafted participatory projects that bridge the town-gown divide, bringing students and community members together in dialogue about sensitive but critical topics, including gentrification.

The conversations about art that museum professionals organize are not only good for stimulating discussion about subjects students deeply care about, but also essential as a model for how they can voice their point of view effectively within a pluralistic society.

One curator told me that academic museums “are the places to push the boundaries, to have those discussions, to utilize those spaces for educating ourselves on those topics, as opposed to just shutting them down and saying they don’t exist.” I was pleasantly surprised that in general curators reported relatively few cases in which they’d restricted art in the past. A majority indicated that they had never in the past exercised their authority to prevent the display of art or to remove it from display due to potential for controversy.

However, when asked if they had placed any constraints on art exhibitions in the past, 11 respondents admitted that work had been rejected from display pre-emptively and three reported taking work down after installation due to “controversial content and/or viewpoints.” Content warnings—similar to López Prater’s—were much more common interventions. Thirty-one museum staff reported making certain works visible only to those viewers who chose to walk through a door or around a corner after reading a description of what lay ahead.

The Future Is Fragile

Despite the resounding support for freedom of artistic expression voiced by curators and directors, academic museum staff also revealed a pervasive concern that the future will not be as free. The curators I spoke with cited rising concerns about accusations of causing psychological harm to audiences, student protests and vandalism. They also cited rising concerns about being fired or otherwise punished by administrators. Deans, provosts, presidents, trustees and/or a slew of campus “brand managers,” including institutional advancement and external relations officers, all increasingly have a seat at the table when deciding what can be exhibited.

Threats from politicians are an especially big worry for campus museum staff in public institutions and probably explain a statistically significant and quite dangerous finding in my survey. Staff at private institutions reported significantly fewer past constraints on art exhibitions than their counterparts in public institutions and also predicted fewer constraints on art exhibitions in the future.

For anyone schooled in First Amendment law, this result is entirely counterintuitive. Courts have consistently held that employees of public universities, as government agents, are not permitted to “abridge the freedom of speech” guaranteed by the First Amendment. Over the past century, the Supreme Court has held that this freedom extends to every conceivable form of artistic production, including even tattooing and striptease. Many private institutions state their intention to abide by the same legal principles, but they may not be held liable for breaking this vow.

The existential problem is that a state’s flagship public university may win in court and keep its provocative art on display, while at the same time having its funding slashed by hostile legislators. It’s impossible to get around the fact that funding for public higher education flows from state legislatures, and that in many conservative states running a campaign against higher education (and controversial art) is an effective political strategy. The rise of educational gag orders, in the form of legislation or gubernatorial executive orders, is another cause for concern. Every publicized act of art censorship, or threat of dire consequences, now including the Hamline fiasco, presents both a public relations nightmare as well as a new cautionary tale that provokes a chilling effect on artists and curators—and especially on administrators. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Best Practices

Several academic art museum curators and directors with whom I spoke shared their successes and best practices for supporting the exhibition of thought-provoking and potentially controversial art on campus. Takeaway lessons from my survey include:

  • Smart curatorial strategies, including curriculum integration and wide-ranging networking, enable successful exhibition and interpretation of potentially provocative artwork.
  • Communicating early, often and inclusively with campus stakeholders can help leverage power with allies—and defuse the opposition.
  • Tenure for museum professionals, union membership and representation, and endowed funding untouchable by meddlesome politicians are the best ways to strengthen freedom of artistic expression.
  • Museum staff who participate in professional development, including proactive planning for potential controversies, are more likely to perceive that they enjoy freedom of artistic expression.
  • Professional organizations (including AAMG) should prominently feature professional development opportunities to learn more about concepts and legal frameworks relevant to freedom of artistic expression. Understanding applicable laws can help decision-makers articulate the legal basis for protecting core ideals of freedom of artistic expression.
  • Censorship is just as controversial as controversial art—and administrators need to be reminded of that.

Freedom of choice for potential viewers factors into all of this. Complaints are more likely and hard to manage if seeing an exhibition—or, for example, taking a course on Islamic Art—is a requirement. One museum director in a conservative state summarized her message to community members: “If you hate one thing, come back next time and see something different.”

As a scholar of art censorship in historical contexts, I know that instilling fear through cautionary example is the most potent tool of the censor. After Hamline, I wonder, how will professors teaching Islamic art react this semester? Inevitably, some will pull these images from their lectures, and others will forge ahead—some with renewed commitment and others with more content warnings. These decisions will be made within structural contexts including each professor’s job security and levels of trust in the degree to which administrators value and support faculty expertise.

Hopefully, however, the Hamline debacle will be a cautionary tale more for administrators than for faculty. Thoughtless and reactionary acts of censorship inevitably betray the principles of university mission statements; risk raising the hackles of alumni, accreditors, and philanthropic organizations; and in general are much more damaging to a college’s brand than supporting freedom of expression. We should all take some time to talk and plan before the next Hamline debacle inevitably arises: perhaps a meeting at the campus art museum is the best place to start.

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