Published September 21, 2015
UB is asking the campus community to engage in open, safe and inclusive dialogue after a graduate student’s art project last week offended and shocked many members of the university and generated public discussion.
In a statement released Friday, the university said it was “encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment that values freedom of expression and further builds a culture of inclusion.”
As part of a class project – developed for the graduate course “Installation: Urban Space” (Art 562) offered by the Department of Art – student Ashley Powell posted several signs reading “White Only” and “Black Only” last Wednesday outside bathrooms and above drinking fountains on the North Campus.
University Police immediately removed five signs in Clemens Hall after receiving several complaints; other signs were removed by members of the university community. Some students immediately expressed outrage about the signs on social media. Many were unaware the signs were an art project.
In a letter to The Spectrum Powell, who is black, explained her artistic intent and apologized to those hurt by the signs.
In student-led meetings that occurred last week, a resulting call for campus-wide dialogue is being supported by the university.
Leaders from the Black Student Union are organizing a forum at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 in 112 Norton Hall, North Campus, to discuss student concerns and the emotions and issues provoked by the art project. The students plan to invite members of the art department, faculty members with expertise in race relations, and students impacted by the signs, as well as the broader university community.
Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, is helping the students plan the forum.
“The controversy surrounding this is unfortunate, but it also is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that UB is a place that can grapple with tough issues in a way that illuminates rather than divides,” Miller said.
The university’s statement, shared prominently over the past several days on UB’s social media channels, noted that UB faculty and students on a daily basis “explore sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression, and this week’s student art project is generating considerable dialogue.”
Social media discussions encouraged respectful discourse while emphasizing UB’s strong commitment to diversity and to being a safe and welcoming place for all students, faculty and staff.
"This is what art does best -- spur dialogue, irritate, enlighten, communicate, offer a forum for voices too often unheard in dominant culture,” said Jonathan Katz, interim chair of the Department of Art and director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program. “I accept the fact that we can debate whether it was a successful work or not, but not whether it should have been allowed. We train and encourage artists; we don't censor them.”
BSU President Micah Oliver told Inside Higher Ed that Powell “was very clear that there was no ill will or ill intent behind it from her point of view,” but BSU did not condone the signs because they were "quote unquote artwork."
As an African-American woman and employee at UB who grew up in the Jim Crow South during this era, I find nothing about this work that should be considered art. It is a painful reminder of a life that I once had to live and never imagined that I would see in the workplace.
In regard to the recent "art" project, Shakepeare said that discretion is the better part of valor. I would add that discretion is the better part of most activities.
I wonder what the reaction would have been if a sign reading "Traitor Internment Camp" had been hung outside a Japanese studies classroom or if a sign reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" had been hung outside a Jewish studies classroom. You could list many more groups on our campus and post a sign that offends someone.
In reality, this campus is public property; that is to say, it is owned by the excellent people of the State of New York. You can't go to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and simply post your version of art there, nor can you do that at UB: It belongs to me as a taxpayer of New York State.
Even more simply put, you can't do anything and everything you want, wherever and whenever you want, on campus. That includes "art."
Some form of dialogue needed to occur before this artwork was made, particularly because other students and staff were unknowingly involved in this work. Some process should be in place once artworks cross into other departments outside of the Center for the Arts and seek to involve other students and staff without informed consent or notification that the work is "art" (lack of context).
The banner of artistic freedom provides many rights for artists. But, where are the responsibilities, especially to intended audiences and individuals who were unknowingly involved in the production of the work? Other students and staff are required to go through the UB IRB (Institutional Review Board).
Should student artists undertaking these types of projects have to go through similar formal processes in the future? That question should be on the table.
Darlene Garcia Torres
Both of my parents grew up in the Jim Crow South and as a result, I have heard countless stories of how they were racially discriminated against. There was so much unfair treatment that happened during that time and to have a student make a mockery of this and call it art is obscene.
Before this project may be considered art, a joke or a social experiment it is necessary to also consider it offensive. Countless people have been murdered and/or incarcerated for signs like these.
I think it is totally insensitive and absurd that the university has not even begun to place disciplinary actions on this, either. What's to stop another student or professor from doing a similar project around campus if the university hasn't even clearly addressed that this is an issue? Does the university even see this as an issue?
The University at Buffalo has such a great reputation as a diverse school; however, it is failing to even represent one of the minorities in this school. I do not understand why the art teacher has not faced any scrutiny either. With such a sensitive situation, the professor should have at least made an attempt to speak out to the university before giving an OK.
The student may have been responsible for posting this around campus; however, if her instructor did not see it as a problem, why should she?