University closes art exhibit after complaints over KKK pic

Salem State University has shuttered a controversial art exhibit after offending students.

The university invited artists to create works inspired by the 2016 presidential election, Inside Higher Ed reports. The works in the “State of the Union” exhibit were intended to “draw attention to oppression,” but ended up offending students, instead.

Garry D. Harley, an artist from Massachusetts and Trump critic, created two digital works based on historical photographs. One photo portrayed a group of members of the Ku Klux Klan, while the other portrays the roundup of Jews after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

Harley believes that the photo of the KKK members show the kind of hate that has been “given respectability” by the Trump campaign, while the photo involving the uprising of the Jews shows “the kind of inhumanity that can be unleashed by bigotry and hatred.”

The university covered the glass doors to the gallery to ensure that the images weren’t viewed without context. Additionally, the university posted a sign outside the gallery informing viewers that the exhibit contained some works that could offend.

The university originally encouraged students to focus on the artists’ intentions regarding their work. Dr. Lisa McBride, the head of diversity at Salem State told WHDH she was, “very pleased with the fact that we’re challenging out students to think critically. Some art is, in fact, provocative and so the key is how do we prepare any person to enter into this room as an informed American.”

Some minority students took to social media to express their outrage over the exhibit.

“#SalemStateUniversity smh Professors even refused to take this photo down, wow. #BLACKLIVESMATTER,” one tweet reads.

"Why did Salem state think it was OK to put a pic of the KKK in the art gallery during election time?? [Shaking my head]," one tweet said. Another tweet accompanied by a photo of the artwork depicting the Klan stated, "Salem State thinks this is an acceptable piece of art to hang up in their public art gallery…”

“Very upsetting and it absolutely needs to be taken down,” student Ajah Joseph told WHDH. “This dialogue is happening among students of color who feel threatened by this image.”

The university held an open forum to discuss the exhibit last week, and issued an apology, and ultimately decided to close the exhibit after students at the event voiced concerns about the “pain” the exhibit had caused.

"We would like to apologize to those in the campus community who have experienced distress resulting from this exhibit. We are sorry. Yesterday’s conversation made clear the strong emotions this exhibit has caused," Mary Melilli, chair of art and design at Salem State, and Ken Reker, curator of the university's gallery, said in the statement

"Art is often intended to spark discussion about societal ills. In this case, it did just that, but we deeply regret the distress it has caused students," the statement added. "We thank the students for sharing their views, and we look forward to working with them to determine how to move forward."

The university, however, also received criticism that it was engaging in censorship. Salem State’s Facebook page had several comments criticizing the choice to close the exhibit.

“I'm appalled that any institution of higher education would choose to remove the art," one comment reads. "Art is supposed to generate strong reaction, and not everyone is going to like/approve of the art…[I]f you remove the painting, you also remove the opportunity for people to discuss the KKK and how it relates to the history of the U.S. and to the art exhibit as a whole. Does Salem State have any plans to remove courses which might discuss slavery or Jim Crow or any other subject which might cause their snowflake students to melt?"

Harley offered to remove the Klan image from the exhibit, but the students rejected that idea as well.

"I saw a lot of projected anger in the room, and it had nothing to do with a thoughtful understanding of the piece," he said.

Harley also said that he thought the university was surprised by the students' backlash. He said that part of displaying art is defending the freedom of expression, but notes that they “weren't prepared to do that.”

Campus Reform reached out to the university for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ AutumnDawnPrice