Case Study

Art exhibition relocated at the University of Colorado Boulder


In November 2018, a University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) student art exhibition was moved from the lobby to the basement of the university’s Visual Arts Complex and placed behind a curtain accompanied by warning signs. The decision to move the exhibition followed a series of student complaints about a painting of a noose featured on the promotional materials for the show. After the student artist wrote his own petition, PEN America, along with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent a letter to the university’s chancellor, Philip DiStefano, urging the university to move the exhibit back to its original location to ensure that the school was not restricting speech and was adhering to its codified university principles on free expression. CU Boulder quickly responded, reaching a resolution with the student stipulating that the exhibition would remain in its current location but that Williams would create a mural for the lobby of the Visual Arts Complex the following spring. The statement also announced that faculty and students were working to plan a symposium to further discuss the relationship between art and free expression.

PEN America Analysis

PEN America stands resolutely against censorship as a way of promoting greater inclusion. While it is critical to be sensitive to how works of art are displayed and curated, it is often the purpose of public art to be provocative, to pose uncomfortable questions, and to spur dialogue and debate. Campus leaders bear the onus of facilitating a community conversation on free speech and aesthetic expression and must commit to upholding this principle regardless of potential controversy. In this case, the university defended its decision to move the exhibition by claiming that context and responsible curation are crucial to art displays. We agree, but in moving the artwork while failing to do the work of providing that context (for example, through didactic wall text, signage, handouts, or workshops), the university shirked its responsibilities. Although the failure to return the exhibit to its original location was misguided, it is commendable that CU Boulder directly engaged the student in its decision-making process and provided him with another outlet for expression. Furthermore, the university’s commitment to hosting a symposium on art and free expression is a laudable attempt to deepen the conversation and engage the broader campus community on these issues. 

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