CONCORD — An artist and a curator are crying censorship after the Umbrella Arts Center removed an artwork from its 2020 Art Ramble, an exhibition at Hapgood Wright Town Forest. An Umbrella spokesman says the artist didn’t live up to an agreement to alter the work.
“The bottom line is they didn’t want it because it’s political,” said Barbara Fletcher, whose sculpture “Invasive Eaters” prompted the conflict. “It’s pure censorship.”
“Invasive Eaters” is a mixed-media sculpture, with materials including wire, plaster, paint, polyurethane, something Fletcher called “exterior foam,” and bittersweet vine. And probably more. The piece depicts an Alice-in-Wonderland-style tableau, with Alice presiding over a table overflowing with invasive species. Circling the table are figures that resemble Senator Mitch McConnell, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, and President Trump.
This year’s Art Ramble — subtitled “Water Change: Where Spirit, Nature, and Civilization Meet” — was curated by Susan Israel, president and founder of Climate Creatives, a consulting agency promoting cultural change around climate through art and architecture.
When Israel presented Fletcher’s proposal to the Umbrella last May, staff recognized the faces in the mockup. The Umbrella’s director of Arts & Environment, Nancy Lippe, and executive director Jerry Wedge oversee the annual outdoor exhibition.
“We communicated with Susan that we could not accept this piece as a nonprofit exhibiting on public land,” Stewart Ikeda, the Umbrella’s director of marketing and strategic communications, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
Over the intervening months, Israel negotiated with Lippe and Wedge. In an e-mail provided by Israel to the Globe, Lippe suggested the piece might work if none of the faces were recognizable. Israel agreed, although in an e-mail to Fletcher she suggested the artist do what she wanted.
Fletcher moved forward crafting “Invasive Eaters.” In the end, she said, she couldn’t abide with the agreement.
“They wanted generic faces. I attempted to do that,” she said. “It would have taken the meaning away from the piece.”
She delivered it anyway, along with a second, abstract work for the show, and Israel installed it in September.
“[T]he piece delivered was much larger than proposed, and did in fact depict the same images of political figures as in the originally rejected proposal,” wrote Ikeda. “Given the discrepancy between what Susan had assured us in July and what was installed, we asked that the piece be removed from the exhibition.”
“We installed it Tuesday or Wednesday. … It was gone by Monday,” Israel said. “They didn’t say, ‘This isn’t what we talked about, what can we do to resolve it.’”
In a July e-mail to Israel, Wedge said the reason for excluding “Invasive Eaters” boiled down to the organization’s 501(c)(3) status, citing IRS language prohibiting nonprofits from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
“We are a creative community and welcome freedom of expression. Political topics are by no means taboo,” Ikeda wrote to the Globe. “We also value our 501(c)(3) status and will follow the requirements the IRS sets out. This is an election year, and the president is a candidate.”
Attorney Luke Blackadar, director of legal services for the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston, called the Umbrella’s reading of the IRS regulation “a mischaracterization.”
“Hosting a piece of artwork critical of the government on publicly owned land — you can say we’re putting it here for discourse,” Blackadar said. “I think that won’t jeopardize their tax-exempt status.”
“Most people will understand this is an exhibition space,” he added. “The point is to share works of art, which can be provocative or challenging or politicized.”
According to Blackadar, the IRS bars 501(c)(3) agencies from soliciting donations for political campaigns or spending inordinate amounts of time, money, or manpower lobbying for specific legislation.
“The Umbrella would want to avoid saying ‘Vote for Trump,’ or ‘Vote for Biden.’ That’s strictly prohibited,” he said. “But this is so far removed from that.”
The Umbrella could have posted a disclaimer, he added, stating the sculpture represents the views of the artist and not the presenting organization.
Israel is concerned that the Umbrella’s removal of Fletcher’s piece is a red flag.
“The fact is, we are in a time period when people are afraid to speak out,” she said. “We cannot just roll over and allow this administration to shut us up.”
Meanwhile, “Invasive Eaters” appears in “Art and Activism” presented by the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Women Artists at a SoWA pop-up space that opened this week.
“I’m still in shock,” said Fletcher. “But in the end, maybe it’s just as well. It will be seen downtown.”
2020 ART RAMBLE: Water Change: Where Spirit, Nature, and Civilization Meet
At Hapgood Wright Town Forest, Walden Street, Concord, through Nov. 8
ART AND ACTIVISM
At 460 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 23. Presented by the National Association of Women Artists, Massachusetts Chapter. www.nawama.org/calendar