The piece of art is now surrounded by a black curtain, with arrow signs on its exterior directing viewers to enter on one side. It looks strange: a one-work, self-enclosed gallery within a gallery, like its own mini-peep show or a mysterious polling booth. What could possibly be so shocking, illicit, or unsavory that needs to be covered up so dramatically?
In fact, it is a soberly composed digital art-work, Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair, showing a group of six robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members. It is plain, almost documentary in style, not inflammatory nor overtly political in content, but it has fallen foul of yet another angry student body—hence the black curtain.
When the artist Garry Harley’s digital work depicting members of the Klan was selected by Salem State University to be featured in an election-inspired State of the Union art exhibit, he didn’t anticipate that the work would be met with such controversy that the Salem, Massachusetts, school decided to temporarily close its Winfisky Gallery last week.
“We would like to apologize to those in the campus community who have experienced distress resulting from this exhibit,” the university’s Art and Design department said in a statement. “We are sorry. Yesterday’s conversation made clear the strong emotions this exhibit has caused.”
The image elicited uproar from marginalized students on campus, who criticized the university’s decision to exhibit an image that conveyed and, some argued, promoted the KKK’s hatred and bigotry.
Salem State’s initial response was to display statements from the artists—which are usually featured in a book at the center of the gallery—directly next to the works.
While Harley’s Ku Klux Klan image was the most contentious of the 18 works featured in the exhibit, students objected to three other works, including Harley’s portrayal of Jews rounded up after the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, titled They Came For My Brother and I Turned Away—Then They Came For Me a Sunny Day in October. (Both of Harley’s works were inspired by historical photographs.)
The university also covered the gallery’s glass doors so that no one would have to see images without context and posted a sign outside the gallery warning that the exhibit contained potentially offensive works.
But these were not sufficient compromises. Last week, 50 members of the community gathered at an open forum to discuss the exhibit and hear from Harley, who explained that his pieces were cautionary comments on the power of Donald Trump’s hateful, racist rhetoric.
“The conversation was difficult because some students suggested that I was ‘portraying black and Hispanic folks,’ and that wasn’t true, so I was able to offer up original photographic sources that my works were based on,” Harley, 77, told The Daily Beast. “I made the point that I was probably the oldest guy in the room, and that I’d seen this part of our history before and that what we’re dealing with now is a new set of experiences and conditions and concerns.”
But he left the forum feeling as though many students hadn’t heard his message.
“Personally I felt that they had brought a lot of concerns and anger into the room during those two hours, and that my reaction didn’t reach them,” Harley said.
Lisa McBride, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion, disagreed: Many students originally didn’t understand how or why offensive images were chosen for the exhibit, but were more receptive to them after hearing from Harley.
“Once they understood Mr. Harley’s interpretive lens they began to see through his eyes that the election was about love and hate,” she said.
The exhibit reopened today after a meeting on Tuesday night between roughly 15 student and university leaders, including members of the student government, President Patricia Maguire Meservey, and Ken Reker, curator of the university’s gallery.
Harley’s image of klansmen is now enclosed by a black drape with a narrative warning about the piece posted on it, so that viewers can only see the work intentionally.
“As a gallery visitor approaches the painting, they are aware that the image may be disturbing and that they are consciously walking in to view that piece of art,” President Meservey told The Daily Beast. “That was one of the takeaways from the dialogue with the community—we wanted participants to be aware of what they were going to experience.”
Meservey called the drape a “protective covering” similar to a photo booth, with a “very generous entry” that doesn’t totally enclose the art (although it looks like it does). “You have to enter around the curtain,” she said, adding that it didn’t deter people from entering during the exhibit’s opening reception on Wednesday.
“The exhibit is a very powerful exhibit with strong images and as they [the students] viewed the images they reacted to the images absent some of the context of the intent, and found that very difficult and very painful, and I would say that’s also understandable,” Meservey added.
Rather than hiding the work away, the dramatic black drape just gives it added frisson, and will arguably draw more people out of sheer curiosity as to what work of art could merit such special concealing treatment.
Harley hasn’t seen the newly reopened exhibit but said, “I’ve been in front of a museum where there are security railings out of concern of vandalism, but I can’t imagine a draped piece with this sort of approach. I don’t know whether to be amused or concerned that it’s something that is so out of the norm. It’s their campus and they’re in charge.”
Reker said he had “mixed feelings” about the curtain and the function that it serves.
“We erected it to placate concerned students for whom the image had caused so much pain and vitriol,” he explained. “It’s a very complex issue, and this is a small art department at the university that oftentimes is innocuous to the rest of the campus. I viewed the exhibit as an opportunity to reach out to a wider community, and it has indeed sparked a broader dialogue between the art department and the rest of the university. That’s a good thing.”
Charles Edward, an alum who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2013, said he was disappointed with the school’s “kneejerk” decision to temporarily suspend the exhibit because of upset over Harley’s piece.
“Instead of taking it down because of how politically charged the campus climate is right now, I felt like they should have used it as a teaching tool to help people understand the background and history of the work,” he said, noting that the university was originally named the Salem Teaching School.
“They didn’t honor that name when it came to this situation. Art is supposed to be provocative and get people thinking, and I feel like they tried to do away with that at first.” However, he applauded the school for using a community forum to discuss the contentious exhibit, and its decision to put the works back on display with more context.
Meservey said, “The gallery has been open for 30 years and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, this the first time we have had a controversy. We are learning as a community. I think one of the very hopeful messages that I will take from this is a student who commented that we are one Salem State and we will grow together.
“I specifically thanked the faculty for taking the risks for bringing the thought-provoking exhibit to campus, one of the beauties of working as a university of higher education. Will we learn? Yes. Will this experience make us risk averse? No.”