The University of Southern Maine (USM) has removed three works following a complaint citing the painter’s previous conviction for sexual offenses. The empty spaces left by the removed works, part of an exhibit at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus, have been left empty by the curator. The decision to remove the pieces was made by university officials, who have not commented further. Previously identified in media reports, Bruce Habowski is a well-regarded oil painter whose works have appeared in the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, among others. He was convicted of unlawful sexual contact in 1999 and served a jail sentence.

Statement from NCAC:

The removal of three paintings from “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” an exhibition at the University of Southern Maine (USM), is a disturbing violation of academic and curatorial freedom.

As places for cultural exchange and learning, public universities must uphold and protect freedom of expression in exhibition spaces as staunchly as in their classrooms. USM neglected this obligation in acquiescing to calls to remove Bruce Habowski’s paintings because of the artist’s personal history and its impact on members of the community.

Artists, like all people, are morally complex. Art exists precisely to help us better understand those complexities. Rather than suppressing the creative output of those who fall short in their moral conduct, a university needs to engage its students in a critical discussion of art, politics and ethics. A case where the very presence of an artist’s work is disturbing to some individuals provides a valuable teaching opportunity.

Were universities to simply purge all material produced by those who have violated moral imperatives, there would not be much left to study and students would be deprived of important discussions about ethical conflict. Artists, even great artists, have exhibited many moral flaws: Caravaggio was a murderer, Picasso a serial sex abuser, Dostoevsky a virulent anti-semite.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) urges the University of Southern Maine to return the work to the show, provide opportunities for those upset by the work to be heard, and adopt clear free speech guidelines for future exhibitions. Any such guidelines should align with its mission as an educational institution, uphold curatorial and academic freedom, and demonstrate respect for the critical capacities of its student body and of the larger community USM serves.

Updated 5/8/2018:
The university president’s statement that the work “could serve as a trigger for … students and staff who have been victims of child abuse and sexual assault” is both perplexing and alarming. If even innocuous paintings representing industrial landscapes can be removed under the pretext of protecting students, where does the line get drawn–and who is drawing it? A sterile, empty space may be “safe” but it does not much lend itself to education. It would be good for President Cummings to remember that USM students, including survivors of violence or abuse, are there to learn, discuss ideas and be exposed to a wide range of art and literature, not to be kept in an isolation bubble. These students need to be trusted and respected for their strength, not treated as fragile victims.