Artist, Vermont gallery grapple with community standards

Thursday, August 6, 1998

A Burlington, Vt., art gallery and a Boston-based artist struggled last month with community standards after a curator determined that a painting of a man with an erection was too explicit for the general public.

“It wasn't a vitriolic or mean-spirited or name-calling event,” said Doreen Kraft, director of Burlington City Arts. “We agreed to disagree.”

Selene Colburn, the 28-year-old Boston-based artist who pulled her exhibit from the gallery, agreed that the dispute was cordial, noting that she didn't run around crying “censorship” after the gallery's decision.

Colburn said she didn't feel her work was compromised “because I can show it somewhere else. I do feel like they compromised the public. I think they underestimated the public because they didn't give them an opportunity to make an intelligent response on their own.”

For weeks, Colburn was eager to return to her hometown of Burlington, Vt., and open her show, “My Museum,” at the downtown gallery.

But the day before the exhibit, Colburn learned that the curator had determined that one piece — a collaboration between her and a San Francisco artist that included a tattooed man with an erect penis — was too sexually explicit and would not be shown.

Unable to persuade the gallery to keep the piece, Colburn pulled the entire exhibit.

“One day I was going to have this great show and get to show everybody my work,” she said. “And then the next day, I didn't feel like I could have it.”

The exhibit, “My Museum,” was to have opened July 17. But on the day before the exhibit was to open, curator Pascal Spengemann examined the complete exhibit and expressed concern about a pastel of a nude man with an erection. The piece, drawn by Dale Wittig of San Francisco, included one of Colburn's sketches.

Kraft said Spengemann and a couple of board members examined the piece in question and determined that the work “looks like it's beyond what we're able to do.”

Kraft said that a public gallery, unlike a private one, has to abide by some community standards because children tour the gallery. Specifically, the piece violated a gallery guideline that prohibits nudity of a strong sexual nature or that promotes hate or violence.

Kraft said the city developed the standard eight years ago in response to a practice in which council members routinely prohibited the exhibition of any artwork containing nudity. She said the city had nearly 400 residents examine eight different pictures of nudity to determine the community's comfort level.

The survey, Kraft said, resulted in a more liberal and progressive standard.

Using that guideline, Spengemann made the final decision to not show the piece.

“We had a long heart-to-heart talk” with Colburn, Kraft said. “We agreed to disagree, and she pulled her show out.”

Colburn said “My Museum” was to be a fund-raising effort for the gallery and would have included several dozen of her pieces as well as six works from other artists who had incorporated her designs. She said she pulled the entire show because she didn't want to compromise her principles.

“I was worried about accountability,” she said. “A lot of people wouldn't have been able to look me in the eye if I had put down one of these potentially homoerotic pieces and kept the rest of the show.”

Although another gallery in town displayed the six collaborative pieces, including the painting of the man with an erection, Colburn said the artwork was a small part of her exhibit.

“That's not my show,” she said. “My show is gone. No one is looking at my art, but everyone is looking at the big boner show. It couldn't be further than what my original intentions were.”

Without an exhibit, the gallery quickly arranged an invitational show. Calling it the “Firehouse Open,” the gallery gave the first 50 artists to walk through the door an opportunity to display their works if they met the gallery's criteria.

Kraft said the city arts program decided to hold a community forum this fall to talk about the 8-year-old standard and whether the issue needs to be revisited. She said a date hasn't been scheduled.

“It's a good dialogue basically. We're encouraged,” Kraft said. “The most important thing is to get people to talk. Probably every generation should look at it. And you have to be ready for it, so you can turn back the standard if necessary.”