A College Decided That This Anti-Racist Art Show Was Too ‘Provocative’ for the Public
In the wake of Charlottesville, the public was not invited to Paul Rucker's challenging show about race and power.
Paul Rucker has never shied away from controversy, but a small college in Pennsylvania may be putting his will to the test. Since 2015, the artist has been touring his bracingly political exhibition “Rewind,” which includes bedazzled Ku Klux Klan robes and images of lynchings.
In the wake of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, the York College of Pennsylvania has decided to close the show to the public. Access to the exhibition, which addresses the history of racial injustice in the United States, is now limited to college ID holders and invited guests.
“The images [in Rucker’s work], while powerful, are very provocative and potentially disturbing to some,” the college announced in a Facebook post on September 5, less than a week after the exhibition’s opening. “This is especially the case without the benefit of an understanding of the intended educational context of the exhibit. As a result, the college has limited attendance to the exhibit.”
The show has been removed from the college website and there is an armed guard on duty in the galleries, Rucker tells artnet News. “It’s really unfortunate because the students have been really enthusiastic, and there are people in the community who would love to take part,” he said.
The York College Galleries website notes that exhibitions are (usually) free and open to the public. We understand that the administration, rather than the gallery’s director Matthew Clay-Robison, made the decision to override its general policy. (York College declined to comment for this story.)
The exhibition has previously been shown without issue in six locations, including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland—both flashpoints in the Black Lives Matter movement. Rucker says he has specifically sought to send the show to smaller cities: “I’m not trying to take this show to New York, LA, or Chicago.”
The exhibition opened at York College just two weeks after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Led by extremists of the so-called alt-right, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the event saw violent clashes that left three people dead. According to the college, these events gave hate groups renewed visibility to the general public, which informed its decision to restrict access to the show.
“We were trying to prevent any sensationalism,” York College spokeswoman Mary Dolheimer told the York Daily Record. She added that the press is also barred from entry to the show, because “we knew that media coverage would bring more attendance.”
Rucker contests the school’s explanation. He said concerns about the exhibition were raised before the tragic events in Charlottesville, although the decision to cancel was made afterward. The school also attempted to shorten the exhibition’s run from seven to two weeks, a request he said he rejected.
“If higher education institutions can’t be a place to have these dialogues, where can we have a dialogue?” Rucker asked. “If we start putting restrictions on our doors, it’s no different than segregation. It’s no different than saying that one group of people can understand these works better than another.”
Despite his appropriation of the Klan hood, Rucker’s work is an unequivocal condemnation of racism and white supremacy. The exhibition also includes artifacts such as slave branding irons, shackles, lynching postcards, and 1920s-era Klan newspapers. There is a series of wooden sculptures honoring victims of racially motivated violence as well as works on paper made by shooting an automatic weapon, a reminder of rampant gun violence in the US.
To help viewers process the difficult material, “Rewind” is accompanied by a 30-page newspaper by the artist, which offers background on the history of racism in the US and the prison system. Since the exhibition began, Rucker estimates he has distributed 10,000 copies.
While he understands the need to take precautions when confronting such sensitive subjects, he maintains that “people can handle it.” He suggested hanging trigger warnings at the gallery exit, rather than the entrance, because “real life is far more disturbing than anything I could ever create in a gallery.”
Some within and outside the York community have echoed that sentiment. “This feels like an insult to the York community: to imply non-students can’t understand the context of the exhibit when it’s already been successfully shown in other cities around the country,” wrote former York student Dillon Samuelson in a response to the college’s Facebook post.
“It has been a long time since I have seen an exhibit that touched me so profoundly,” added Susan Scofield, thanking the gallery for organizing the show. “Others should have the opportunity to experience that as well, for better or worse.”
Hunter O’Hanian, executive director of the College Art Association, also condemned the decision, telling Inside Higher Ed: “I’m not sure what information they have that leads them to believe their student body has more ability in handling the work than the general public.”
The college’s president, Pamela Gunter-Smith, who describes herself as a woman of color, told Inside Higher Ed that the show put the school between a rock and a hard place. Faculty felt prepared to guide students through the challenging subject matter, but that the public was a different matter, she explained.
Rucker is currently an iCubed fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He is working on an expanded group of KKK robes, which will be included in the group show “Declaration,” the inaugural exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Richmond, in the spring of 2018. A press representative for the college assured artnet News in an email that “the ICA and ‘Declaration’ will be open to the public.”
Paul Rucker’s “Rewind” is on view at York College Art Galleries, Wolf Hall, 411 Country Club Road, York Pennsylvania, August 31–October 21, 2017.
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