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The Big M-T
Albrecht's artwork to be reinstalled, Emerson denies censorship

artwork by Jesse Albrecht

An agreement has been reached after weeks of back and forth between the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture and the faculty at Montana State University’s Department of Art and Architecture over a piece of artwork that was in this season’s Emerson faculty show by Jesse Albrecht and then removed. The agreement stipulates that Albrecht’s artwork be reinstalled—but the conclusion was not reached easily.

When the artwork was first taken down (originally reported in The Bozeman Magpie on 19 February 2013), there was a huge outcry from the community as well as art faculty. At a scheduled board meeting held on February 26th, fifteen people showed up to voice their concerns to the Emerson Board of Directors. Although the meeting was closed and in executive sessions, they did open it up briefly for public comment.

“We all know why we’re here,” President of the board, Wynn Jessup said, alluding to the Albrecht art removal. “But please remember that is a public comment session and not a debate.”

Each person was given four minutes to talk about the removal of a piece from the Faculty Art Show in the Emerson’s lobby. The first person to speak was ceramic artist and assistant professor at MSU, Josh DeWeese, who was concerned in not only the removal of Albrecht’s piece but the way in which it was done. “It reeks of censorship,” he said. “That act was something many of us couldn’t live with so we felt we needed to speak up.”

Last week DeWeese met with Jessup, the Emerson’s Executive Director Susan Denson-Guy, Associate Professor Gesine Janzen and MSU Professor and Director of the School of Art Vaughn Judge to discuss the situation.

“We felt the situation can be easily addressed by securing the piece,” DeWeese said. “It can be reinstalled and secured by those with the knowledge and expertise [in art installation.]” And then he added, “It’s almost moved beyond Jesse’s piece, it’s a matter of freedom of expression.” The artist’s background as an Iraq war veteran and adjunct professor of art at MSU has been a recurrent theme in the discussion.

Sara Mast, associate art professor, also felt the removal of the piece from the faculty show should be considered censorship.

“When a small group suppresses the freedom of expression of an individual it becomes censorship,” she said. She went on to say that Jesse’s work has been shown nationally and internationally, so it is not a matter of “mis-curation” as was stated in a letter to the faculty the week before the meeting. “Ellen Ornitz has 25 years of experience curating shows and Terry Karson, [Emerson’s Arts Preparer,] has 38 years of professionally hanging exhibits… We stand behind the decision to hang the piece in the show and they are professionals, they have the background to make these kinds of decisions.”

Mast also said that an artist puts a lot of thought into how a piece is hung. That’s how an artist communicates to the public, she said.

“Personally, you have the right not to like the work,” she said. “And we think that’s important. This is how culture moves forward.”

Longtime Emerson tenant and professional artist Susan Burrows Dabney stepped to the podium to talk about the seriousness of the situation. “This occurrence has really affected me,” she said. “I was a board member, my husband was a board member and we paid for the men’s and women’s bathrooms on the ground floor. I deeply love the Emerson and I believe in the Emerson to stand by the arts in every venue and to be the cutting edge in bringing the arts to Bozeman for all ages. It’s not easy. But it’s important. I encourage you to think about this. To take down things because of personal choice is not what presenting art to the community is … Please use the advice of your members who are artists when deciding this issue.”

The Emerson’s letter to the faculty, dated March 11th, denied the notion that Albrecht’s work was censored and stated, “We implicitly understand the value of not only supporting the arts and cultural opportunities that occur under our roof, but also those that occur throughout our community. Through this process, the Emerson has been unjustly labeled as a censor—a label that we adamantly reject. The original decision was not made to appease an individual donor, the expressed opinion of a single individual, nor was it made because it was considered incendiary, as accusations suggest. The decision to remove the artwork was entirely due to safety concerns.”

The faculty response was that they are aware of the Emerson’s right to choose what is displayed on the premises, but they also pointed out the importance of the Emerson as a cultural venue for the Bozeman community and thus for the freedom of expression.

“We have to believe that the Emerson Board shares this view and understands, as we do, the real and perceived impact on artists and the larger community when artistic work from an established and respected artist and war veteran is installed and then removed without a transparent and robust effort to find alternatives first. We urge you to let us work with you to find a solution that returns the work as a whole as quickly as possible,” the letter stated.

On March 13th, the art faculty received the letter allowing Albrecht to reinstall his piece.

According to the letter sent by the Emerson to the art department, “The Emerson would like to work with Jesse Albrecht and the other MSU faculty in the current show to have Jesse Albrecht’s work reinstalled. Given our concerns for safety with regard to the lobby venue, we will require that “Billy Club” be displayed under a Plexiglas vitrine. The Emerson’s executive committee will have final approval concerning the safety and security of the reinstallation. We also appreciate and accept your offer to cover the associated costs of the reinstallation.”

It is believed that the re-installation will occur in the next week or so, with the Emerson staff creating a safe place to show the work and then get a quick approval of the installation by the Executive Board of the Emerson. The show will be up through April.

Of the new developments, the artist had this to say: “I am pleased the Emerson board finally succumbed to the logic and reason the MSU faculty and I illustrated to them repeatedly regarding this matter. I am still very confused on what the fuss was really about, I can carry the piece of wood titled “billy club” through airport security and onto a plane, and it has been shown with no problems at the 406 Brewing Company. The overwhelming support from MSU and the community of Bozeman regarding this matter has reaffirmed what I thought – that the people of Bozeman are willing to stand up for what they believe in … and that they want to see contemporary art.” -TBM

For the full coverage of this disagreement between the Emerson Center and the art faculty at MSU, please link here for our listing.

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