CU Boulder issued a statment last night announcing that graduating student Kaelen Williams and the university’s Art and Art History Department have come to an agreement. While his exhibition will remain in its current sequestered location through Sunday, next semester, with guidance from a faculty member, Williams will create a temporary mural to be displayed in the lobby, as well as help the university plan a symposium on art, free expression and academic freedom.
“These are positive outcomes for the student, the department and the university,” the statement says. “Even so, the university recognizes that it has more work ahead when it comes to reinforcing its values on the importance of free expression, free speech and academic freedom through art and other endeavors. Moving forward, we will build on this example, using it as a learning experience for our academic community, and we invite all students, faculty and staff to continue the discussion in galleries, classrooms, lecture halls and among friends and colleagues.”
In a December 5th joint letter with The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and PEN America, NCAC enclosed a link to its resource Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy, which is designed to provide museums and cultural institutions, including institutions of higher education, with guidelines that help transform controversy into a learning moment about the nature of diverse opinions and an institution’s ability to address them.
“I think it’s a really, really good solution,” Williams said, “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. […] 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?”
Kaelen Williams, a BFA student at the University of Colorado Boulder, installed his final exhibition in the lobby of the University’s Department Art and Art History building. His exhibition, Less than Nothing, is composed of 22 paintings and 15 small drawings. According to the artist, the exhibition was approved to remain in the lobby for two weeks. On the Friday morning of the show’s opening, he was told the entire collection must be relocated to a space in the basement by the following Monday. Before the opening, the Department erected a curtain and installed signs warning of “potentially disturbing imagery” in the lobby. The artist believes that a still life painting of a noose, also used in promotional materials for the show, is the root of the controversy. The posters were displayed for weeks before being removed shortly before the opening.
The artist describes his experience of the university’s reaction in a Change.org petition requesting that his work be restored to its original, prominent location. Williams complied with the Department’s demand for relocation in order to avoid the type of disciplinary action that could impede his graduation.
University art spaces are in high demand and often require multiple layers of approval for use. However, once that approval is granted, demands for removal or relocation based on the art’s content can violate the First Amendment.
NCAC, with support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and PEN America, has written to the administration at CU Boulder, urging them to uphold Williams’ artistic and academic freedom. The full letter can be read below.