What is art? And who decides what is art? When a work of art is determined to be offensive to a group of citizens, who decides its fate? These are the types of questions museum professionals consider with great care, daily.
Because the public entrusts museum directors and curators with such concerns, the museum industry holds itself to the highest standards of ethics and academic excellence, encouraging best practices through a community of shared information, experience and support. Museums impose upon themselves many of the same rigorous accreditation standards required of established universities.
This national community of scholars has turned its attention to Macon, confident that the Tubman Museum -- its director, staff, trustees, members and supporters -- will continue to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to its mission.
Despite recent protests and public pressure to remove work by a regional artist from its gallery, the Tubman responded to demands and threats with an affirmation of its commitment to freedom of speech and artistic expression. We are reminded that censorship disguised as a moral imperative of exercising respect for religious and cultural beliefs is particularly destructive to our community.
Common to all museums is the commitment to preserve, present and interpret objects of artistic and cultural significance. Common to all in the museum industry is the respect for artistic expression, the framework upon which we define our role in society. Removing a work of art from an exhibition in response to public protest is -- without question -- inconsistent with national museum standards, especially a work that has been formally accessioned into an institution’s permanent collection. It’s unfair to demand this of any museum or academic institution.
But, peaceful protest? Keep it coming. Art is most effective when it stimulates further inquiry and widens knowledge. Museum curators have a responsibility to develop exhibits and programs that invite public participation, creating open space for conversation and learning. Art demands an observer’s active participation. It engages, provokes, infuriates. It inspires, elevates and equalizes. Our ability to appreciate the full breadth of human accomplishment and creativity is dependent upon uninhibited artistic expression.
When groups or individuals attack work as offensive, the response must be the same as the response to controversial ideas voiced in a boardroom, classroom or public forum: discussion and debate, not censorship. Protecting artistic and academic freedom in the creation and presentation of works of art and ensuring greater opportunity for imaginative exploration and expression, best serves the public.
Museums, like libraries and universities, are among our greatest democratic institutions, providing ideas and information across the spectrum of social and political views. No more appropriate venues for dissidence exist. The Tubman is well equipped to foster constructive conversation that expands our understanding of each other. Let’s listen.
Susan Welsh is the executive director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon.