January 9, 2007
Mr. Ned Crouch, Director
Customs House Museum & Cultural Center
P.O. Box 383
Clarkesville, TN 37041-0383
Re: William Gentry Exhibit
Dear Mr. Crouch,
I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression, regarding the recent removal of the William Gentry art exhibit, "The Fat is in the Fire," from display at the Customs House Museum.
It is our understanding that the artwork, Mr. Gentry’s senior project for his Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Austin Peay State University, was removed only 18 hours after the exhibition opened. According to press reports, this action was prompted by your concern that Museum members and others in your community could take offense at the work, which uses a deep-fried American flag to convey messages about obesity and poverty in the United States. You also stated that showing work, which might be interpreted as desecrating the flag, would jeopardize the museum’s public funding.
We are concerned that your statements demonstrate a disregard for First Amendment principles. Even though some people might take umbrage at the way the American flag is used to convey a message – artistic or otherwise – our legal system has routinely upheld the First Amendment principles at the heart of such expression. In Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that banning flag desecration was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The Court recognized that the flag could be used in a variety of ways to express political ideas. Even though some people might find the frying of the flag offensive, it remains constitutionally protected expression. As the director of publicly funded museum, you are obliged to follow First Amendment principles, which prohibit government officials from discriminating against ideas on the basis of the viewpoint expressed in them.
While we understand your concerns, as the Museum’s Director, that your membership might be negatively impacted by controversial exhibits, we suggest that there are many ways to respond to such concerns that also recognize the free speech rights of artists, as well as members of the community who might choose to see the work. For instance, you could place a response book in the gallery and invite the audience to write their impressions, or you could hold a discussion with the artist where different positions could be voiced. You could also put a notice in the gallery specifying that the Museum does not necessarily endorse the ideas expressed in the artwork on display. We believe that these approaches not only show a healthy respect for a diversity of viewpoints but also enhance the Museum’s reputation as a cultural center.
Our understanding is that the Museum is currently revising its procedures for exhibit approval. It is of paramount importance that the principles and procedures you adopt respect both the First Amendment and freedom of artistic expression. We would be happy to send you samples of free expression statements and exhibition guidelines adopted by other cultural institutions and we will be available to assist you in developing guidelines which would guarantee the viewpoint-neutral selection of work and establish a process for responding to potential complaints.
We look forward to your reply.
Arts Program Director