After abruptly suspending the controversial “State of the Union” art exhibit last week, Salem State University reopened a modified version of the exhibition Wednesday following a meeting with students and faculty.
“It’s been challenging,” said Salem State University president Patricia Meservey. “We knew it would be a thought-provoking exhibit — it’s certainly succeeded in doing that.”
Salem State faculty members decided temporarily to close the exhibition at the school’s Winfisky Gallery after students complained about some of the show’s artworks, including “Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair,” a digital painting by Lowell artist Garry Harley that portrays members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The modified exhibition, which reopened Wednesday afternoon with an artist’s reception, now includes a statement at the gallery’s entrance acknowledging the students’ concerns, expanded artist statements, a public comment board, and a pipe-and-drape enclosure around Harley’s work.
“You’re at least prepared for something that’s very intense,” said Meservey, noting that the campus has previously used comment boards to facilitate discussion about difficult issues. “It becomes more of a conversation rather than an individual experience.”
Meservey added that she hadn’t anticipated how strongly students would react to the exhibit, and that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the show would reopen.
“It was meant to provoke a response, but the intensity was more than I’d anticipated,” she said. “The images of the art were difficult for our students to absorb.”
The decision to reopen the exhibit came after faculty-student discussions weighed the exhibition’s perceived offensiveness against questions of academic freedom and freedom of expression.
“How could we present this exhibit in a way that wouldn’t be so off-putting to students that they’d stay away from the art,” asked Meservey. “Was there a way we could modify it to be a learning experience rather than one that’s hurtful?”
The modified exhibit will now run through its originally scheduled date, Dec. 14.
“We continue to recognize that this powerful exhibit may evoke strong responses from observers,” Meservey wrote in a campus-wide e-mail announcing the decision. “The overall outcome . . . builds on what has been our approach all along: creating dialogue.”