Gerry Harleys work featuring klansmen drew such a furious student response that Salem State shut its art gallery. Now the picture is back on display, but concealed behind a drape.”>
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. It is as if it is its own mini-peep show, or a mysterious polling booth. What could possibly be so shocking, illicit, or unsavory that it 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 bodyhence the black curtain.
When the artist Garry Harleys 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 didnt 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 universitys Art and Design department said in a statement. We are sorry. Yesterdays conversation made clear the strong emotions this exhibit has caused.
The image elicited uproar from marginalized students on campus, who criticized the universitys decision to exhibit an image that conveyed and, some argued, promoted the KKKs hatred and bigotry.
Salem States initial response was to display statements from the artistswhich are usually featured in a book at the center of the gallerydirectly next to the works.
While Harleys Ku Klux Klan image was the most contentious of the 18 works featured in the exhibit, students objected to three other works, including Harleys portrayal of Jews rounded up after the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, titled They Came For My Brother and I Turned AwayThen They Came For Me a Sunny Day in October. (Both of Harleys works were inspired by historical photographs.)
The university also covered the gallerys 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 Trumps hateful, racist rhetoric.