An art exhibit at Salem State University has been temporarily suspended after students complained about a controversial painting that depicted several members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The digital painting by artist Garry D. Harley sparked controversy among students after it was placed in the school’s Winfisky Gallery, according to university spokeswoman Nicole Giambusso.
“We heard on Thursday that students had some concerns, so we set up a forum which included students, faculty, staff, the curator, and the artist,” Giambusso said. “The artist provided context about what statement he was trying to make, and it was a lively discussion.”
Giambusso said the school decided to temporarily suspend the exhibit, titled “State of the Union,” after the forum, which took place Monday afternoon.
A written explanation by the artist said the painting was meant as a piece of social commentary.
The painting was “stimulated by the various ‘fringe groups’ attracted to the message of the ‘Trump Campaign’ and the use of violence and intimidation of immigrant and minority citizens as central organizing principal by the candidate,” Harley wrote.
A description of the exhibit on the university website described the works as being intended to “explore environmental issues, social inequities, and income inequality among other topics.”
Giambusso said another discussion will be held next Monday for students who attended the forum and the Art + Design Department to decide how to move forward with the exhibit.
In a letter sent to the university community Tuesday, Mary Melilli, department chair, and professor Ken Reker, exhibit curator, apologized for making students uncomfortable.
“We would like to apologize to those in the campus community who have experienced distress resulting from this exhibit,” the letter stated. “We are sorry. Yesterday’s conversation made clear the strong emotions this exhibit has caused.”
Melilli and Reker said in the letter they had placed the artist’s written explanation in a binder that was far removed from the piece.
“We understand that not displaying the context in close proximity to the artwork in the exhibit contributed to the strong reaction from our community,” the letter stated. “Many of our visitors were not aware that this resource was available to them and therefore did not have the advantage of the context of the piece.”
The two officials also thanked students for sharing their perspectives on the piece.
“Art is often intended to spark discussion about societal ills,” the letter stated. “In this case, it did just that, but we deeply regret the distress it has caused students.”
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