The removal of a photograph of a woman worshiping before a semi-erect penis from the Fayetteville Underground gallery caused a mass exodus of the gallery’s “resident artists” in October, including such well-known Ozark artists at Hank Kaminsky, Sabine Schmidt, William Mayes Flanagin, Mike Haley, Susie Siegele, Ed Pennebaker and the photographer whose work was censored, Alli Woods Frederick.
The black and white photo, “Axis Mundi,” and another photo showing the back of a woman’s head facing a man’s groin (“Beloved, Let Your Eyes Half Close”), paired as part of Frederick’s “Love and Worship” grouping, were removed Friday after the Oct. 6 First Thursday opening at the gallery, which occupies a suite at 101 W. Mountain Drive. Frederick, who lives in Greenwood, did not learn that the works had been taken down the day after the show until Saturday. She’d agreed in a talk Friday with then-curator Jeanne Parham that they could be moved to another gallery while a donor was given a tour, but she thought that would be for one or two hours at the most. “I was shocked” when she learned the work had been removed entirely from view, Frederick said. “I found out they were locked in the office.”
Once word got around that Frederick’s work had been censored, artists began removing their work in protest, including sculptor Kaminsky, who also had a solo show up, in a side gallery. Twenty-four artists — including Frederick — removed all work that was on exhibit or stored at the gallery. (Kaminsky said he has not removed pieces from the gift shop, jewelry he described as erotic.) The support from her fellow artists “was so humbling, so unexpected,” Frederick said.
New gallery manager Joelle Storet filled October’s empty gallery with work by 26 area artists.
Director Sharon Killian — who put the number of artists who left at 22 — said Monday that it was at her direction that gallery board member Elizabeth James took the work down from the wall. According to Martha Molina, a Springdale art teacher who was volunteering at the gallery the day after the opening, James described the work as pornographic. The Saturday volunteer, photographer Helen Maringer, also said James told her the works “verged on pornographic” because they were photographs rather than paintings.
In response to an email from the Times to James asking if she had characterized the work as pornographic or verging on pornography because of the medium, James responded, “No, those are not my words. I did not characterize the photographs. I did say that the photographs were placed inappropriately in the gallery.”
Killian said she had the work removed because the gallery’s signage warning of potentially offensive art was inadequate. She herself did not see the sign until she asked someone to show it to her. Killian said the warning was placed too high — she said it was hung 7 feet up the wall — and that the photographs were hung in the main gallery in such a way that if patrons wanted to eat or drink or watch the musicians play, they’d be unable to avoid seeing them. “Appropriate curating wasn’t done,” Killian said.
Killian said the gallery had offered to hang Frederick’s show in a different gallery and have a closing reception, and that Frederick seemed to think that was a good idea, but that Killian did not hear back from her. Frederick said she was happy to hear of the offer but in the end decided not to take the gallery up on it; she called an email sent by Killian about the arrangement to gallery artists premature.
Killian also made the surprising allegation that the image of the warning sign provided the Times was not the sign that was up Oct. 6. She said the sign she saw said nothing about the work being “sexually explicit,” though that is what the sign sent to the Times says. Killian maintained that artists removed the real sign when they took their work from the gallery.
But Maringer, who provided the image, said the sign image she sent was indeed on the wall during First Thursday, and was hung at eye level. The date stamp on the photograph was Oct. 7.
Artists expressed surprise at the removal of the photographs. “We have nudity in the gallery every month. We’re not Chuck E. Cheese,” Sabine Schmidt, who is also a photographer, said. Schmidt left the gallery in March “because of the direction of the board.”
An exhibition in June of erotica by the late outsider artist Tim West was placed in an area within a side gallery in such a way that people who did not wish to see it could avoid it, Killian said.
The dispute illustrates what artists described to the Times as growing unhappiness with Killian’s leadership by the nonprofit’s resident artists who had been associated with the gallery since its first incarnation, when it was located at One East Center. (Resident artists volunteered their time at the gallery in support of the nonprofit.) Schmidt said the board was “disenfranchising the artists.”
Killian said there would be no more resident artists “with the abandonment of the gallery with the people that were there.” She said the gallery would be run in a sustainable way that “doesn’t have to depend on artists giving volunteer time in exchange for being on the walls.”
“I want to share something,” Molina told the Times. “I’m a schoolteacher in a conservative community,” she said, but a history teacher who also teaches there told her he was sad about the problems at the Underground. He told Molina he’d taken his son there before a trip to Paris to see how he would react to art showing nudity, and have a conversation about it with him. “That’s really the purpose of our Underground, to educate the community about art,” Molina said.
Though it’s not pertinent to the gallery’s actions, Frederick noted she had called the Fayetteville city attorney’s office in advance of the show and described “in detail” the work to Assistant City Attorney Blake Pennington to make sure she was not running afoul of a lewdness ordinance. She got his OK, and the mayor’s as well, she said. (Pennington confirmed that the city had no interest in busting a private gallery for its content.)