The decision to quickly remove a student art project involving a teepee from a California college campus sent the wrong message about artistic freedom and claims of offense.

Last month art students at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) constructed a teepee as part of a class assignment. The structure was intended as a communal meeting space; there was no intention to provoke or offend. But the college received complaints from Native American students and community groups, some of whom expressed outrage over the structure.

After a meeting with members of several Native groups and college administrators, the students decided to voluntarily remove the structure two days before it was scheduled to be disassembled. SBCC president Lori Gaskin sent a campuswide email apologizing for the incident.

The college will host a discussion about the controversy on April 7. In a letter to president Gaskin, NCAC Programs Director Svetlana Mintcheva argues that the school should have taken a more proactive stance in support of free expression:

Art students have a lot to learn by exploring the tensions presented by cultural appropriation. Such exploration is cut short, however, when claims of offense lead to the removal of the work and a public apology on the part of SBCC.

The letter also points out that

the quick removal of the piece and the public apology on the part of SBCC inevitably distort any future conversation on the use in art of artifacts from different cultural traditions, including those of indigenous peoples. They make such discussions more divisive, and could chill students’ creative freedom in the future.

While the decision to remove the teepee was made by the art students, the letter encourages the school to adopt policies that “would make it possible for SBCC to become a place where difficult subjects could be addresses in a thoughtful, deliberate and non-divisive way.” It is the hope that tomorrow’s campus conversation could lead the way towards the creation of such policies.

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