Unthinkable? Columbia arts festival bans nude human form, sparking debate in artistic community


FROM MICHELANGELO to Mapplethorpe, artists have been accused of taking nudity too far. But an art show opening today in Columbia has generated a debate about underexposure.

At the center of the controversy is a multi-media exhibition in the Columbia Mall that has upset some local artists and art experts because of a ban of the nude human form.

There is nothing shocking about the First Annual Visual Arts Competition of the Columbia Festival of the Arts -- except, perhaps, the idea of what was excluded.

"Nudes are a traditional form of artistic expression, just like landscapes," says John Connolly, professor of art history at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "To single out one form of artistic expression that has been in the public domain for 6,000 years or more and to rule it out of an exhibition is absurd. It's unthinkable."

After deciding that any type of nudity might offend Columbia mall-goers, the show's organizers barred the category from the juried competition.

One of the judges, Ginny Tomlinson, president of the Tomlinson Craft Collection, says she has "mixed feelings" about the decision. "By these rules, the work of Michelangelo and Rodin would not be considered," says Tomlinson. "But [the organizers] have a right to say what they want and don't want in this show because this is a private space."

Some local artists say the content restrictions represent an over-reaction to last year's national debate about the limits of decency in government-funded art, even though this show involves no public funds.

Open to artists age 18 and over in the Mid-Atlantic region, the contest was sponsored by the Columbia Festival and the New Arts Alliance, a regional non-profit arts organization which coordinated the show.

The alliance asked the Rouse Company to exhibit the top work in the Columbia Mall. As a condition, the mall's management required a content restriction rule to be printed on the show prospectus, according to artist and show organizer Wendy Bush Hackney.

The restriction said:

"If you do work which explores human forms in the nude whether they are sexually explicit or not; which has obscene writings or images; that suggests the use of violent behavior; it will MOST LIKELY be unacceptable for the show.

"It is NOT THE QUALITY but the CONTENT of the work which will prevent its inclusion . . . If your work is deemed unacceptable by these standards, your entry fee will be refunded, as the jurors will not be viewing the work for critique."

The judges were Tomlinson, art consultant Richard Lambard and Bowie State University art professor Clark Mester.

A fourth judge, art scholar Eric Miller, resigned when he learned of the restriction. "I told Wendy that she was prejudging art and that if she was going to prejudge it, she didn't need me as a judge. It's as simple as that," says Miller, a Towson State professor emeritus.

Only two of the 183 submissions did not adhere strictly to the content restriction rules. Hackney gave the judges both "borderline" entries: One was a nude form almost obscured by shadow, the other was a mermaid. Neither is in the show.

"Maybe the mall is not an appropriate place for this kind of show," says Lynne Nemeth, managing director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts. "It occurred to me from a practical point of view that there would probably be some kind of [content] restrictions on the show. No, it didn't bother me."

The Columbia Festival of the Arts, in its third year, is highly regarded for its presentation of performing arts. This year's performances include flutist James Galway with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The festival has been criticized, however, for lacking a visual arts program. Last fall Nemeth accepted Hackney's proposal to create a festival competition and exhibit its winners at the mall. Hackney says the mall was the only available spot near the festival site that was large enough to hold such a show.

She believes the exhibition is an important steppingstone. "We have a long way to go before the people in this community can understand and can look at art objectively," Hackney says. "They have to be introduced to it in a way that's safe for them."

Artist Jeff Gates, founder of Art/FBI, an organization to study and improve the public's perception of artists, questions Hackney's logic. In a letter protesting the show, he wrote:

"We need to educate the public about the nature of art, its ability to show beauty (human forms included) and its ability to question . . . Unfortunately, your decision to restrict subject matter perpetuates stereotypes of artists and the function of art, and consequently, has no educational value at all."

Lessons given by the human form are lessons about the human condition, says Connolly of the Maryland Institute. "The nude in the history of art is literally a reflection of the aspirations and the fears of humanity throughout the course of time," he says.

Many Howard County residents would prefer not to ponder such issues, according to area artists. Tastes in Columbia demand art which is decorative rather than emotionally provocative, explains artist Judy Herrmann. She has two works in this show, photographs of dancers created with her partner Michael Starke. Her primary work, however, explores nude figures.

"I definitely have sympathy for both sides of this issue. But my reality is that I'm going to take any opportunity I can to get my work shown."

The exhibition, which runs through July 7, is displayed on the upper level of the mall near Hecht's. There are 72 works, including sculptures, paintings, ceramics and photographs. Sharing first place is a three-dimensional "cityscape" of Harvard Square by Robert Ralph of Potomac and a still-life painting of an artist's studio by Baltimore artist Nancy Chearno-Stershic.

"We don't support censorship of art as a policy, but we really feel we need to be sensitive to the concerns of our customers," says Danielle Morgenthaler, director of sales and marketing for the mall.

Morgenthaler said a shopper recently protested the content of promotional placards in Victoria's Secret, a lingerie store. Other customers have complained about such novelty gift items as "The Final Word," a device which emits off-color remarks, and a stuffed animal called "Earl the Dead Cat."

"The Final Word" was removed. The lingerie promotions and "Earl the Dead Cat" survived the outcry.

"People are not coming to the mall with the knowledge that they will have to look at art," Hackney says. "We need to be thinking about the fact that people may be offended.

"Here's our choice: You can either be angry, put yourself in a corner and miss an opportunity to show, or you take the opportunity and work toward the goal of educating the community . . . Our intention is that our relationship with the festival is long-term and that 10 years from now no one will remember that we had to start out with restrictions."

Although this show has received no public funds, it has raised concern about art programs at Harborplace/The Gallery and Harundale Mall, which will receive a total of $25,000 this year from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Last fall, the NEA awarded the Rouse Company $50,000 to fund art projects in selected Rouse shopping centers nationwide. The agreement marked the first time the federal arts agency joined witha private corporation to jointly underwrite that corporation's art program.

No Rouse Company content restriction applies to any NEA-affiliated projects, said Leni Sloane, director of the agency's inter-arts program. He said he thought the organizers of the exhibition in Columbia had shown that they had good intentions, but that they should let judges and/or curators decide upon the appropriateness of the entries.

Any content restriction "denies artists their opportunities for expression," he said through an NEA spokesman.

The Maryland Chapter of Artists Equity Association Inc., an organization of professional artists, is protesting the Columbia competition's statement that the excellence of the submissions would be secondary to their content.

"Over half of the members at our last meeting, about 65 people, said they read the prospectus and threw it in the trash can because of the content restriction," says Jim Opasik, president of the Maryland chapter. "And there were a few that did send in work."

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