Art Scandal in Baton Rouge

I’ve lived here for almost 21 years now, and I have recognized that Baton Rouge has not been the most progressive of places. That is until recently. Within the last 5-10 years, there has been steady movement towards a more cosmopolitan attitude and an awareness in the business community that for Baton Rouge to grow, it must create a climate that attracts and keeps a younger generation.

But every so often something happens that is so bizarre, so ludicrous, that reflects on our parochial past, that begs the question “What the hell were they thinking?”

A well-meaning group of young professionals determined to make Baton Rouge a better place, Forum 35, has sponsored an art “event” known as “ArtMelt“. It is known for being THE hip art social event of the summer (okay, the only hip social event of the summer), crowded galleries, a wide range of visual art, lots of people, and did I say crowded galleries? And while it is a juried show, it is not curated, so you get a really wild mix of good, great, not-so-good, and diverse art. And this year they estimated attendance at 10,000 people (did I say it was crowded?). As a community-oriented organization, it’s great. As an arts exhibitor, the jury is still out.

This year’s edition of the ArtMelt was last Friday. On Thursday, there was a private preview part of the exhibit at the Shaw Center. One of the works, Real People #3 by a former student of mine, Kenneth Wilks, was a diptych with one photograph of a woman accompanied by a second photograph of the same woman nude.

Friday morning, a group of high school students was going to view the exhibition, and the powers that be within Forum 35 decided that the nude photo should be removed from the exhibit. Needless to say, Wilks was upset. He stood where the missing photo should have been with a sign saying “I’ve been censored. Ask why.” He was then escorted by the Baton Rouge Police out of the building, and beyond. Here’s an article in our local arts rag, 225 Magazine. At the end of the story, you can see the public comments and “they ain’t pretty.”

Aside from the fact that one of my students had to endure a very public humiliation, this incident reminds me of how people who are not artists should not make decisions about art exhibitions. In general, ArtMelt does a good job with this. They have a jury of professional artists make the selections from 600 submissions from around the state. And while they don’t “curate” the show, the mere fact of such a celebration of regional art is worth, well, celebrating.

The problem occurs when business sensibilities are used to make decisions about art. Not only did they take down part of the diptych without his permission AFTER they accepted it in the exhibit, they took down only part of the art piece, thereby destroying the whole point of two photographs. Anyone with a sense of what art is or how it communicates would understand the utter nonsense of all this. That was not the case here, and Forum 35/ArtMelt has deservedly taken a big hit on their credibility.

This is not the first time there was a hubbub over art in a public exhibition. Sometime around the late 90s or early 2000s, our friend Roberta Cohen had a work removed from an invited exhibition at the Baton Rouge Gallery because someone complained about its sexually provocative imagery (a coarse abstraction of a male with an erect penis). The piece was not about sex, but rather about rape, and was a powerful evocation of its violence. There was quite a ruckus locally about this, and it split the local art community as I recall.

At least, Forum 35 has learned to respond quickly to its mistakes. They published a public apology on their website the Monday following the incident. Maybe they will learn that they should have artists more directly involved with the event from the get-go. Maybe, maybe not.


One thought on “Art Scandal in Baton Rouge

  1. Forum 35 sent this to 9-News too late for our 10pm newscast..but read on…"Forum 35 regrets the decision to temporarily remove the piece without in depth consideration of its impact on the artistic integrity of the piece, the artist, and the arts community and its supporters. Forum 35 and the Art Melt Committee will work to ensure this mistake is not made in the future. The decision to temporarily remove the piece does not reflect the views and opinions of Art Melt affiliates, sponsors, or vendors. Forum 35 values the arts and considers a vibrant arts community a necessary component of a truly great city."

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