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Exhibition Program Halted At KU Medical Center

Laura Spencer

After more than 20 years of showing rotating artwork, mostly of local artists, an exhibition program at University of Kansas Medical Center has closed. Officials say it’s the impact of steep cuts to state funding. And the KU Chancellor defended the school's commitment to free speech Tuesday. But others are calling it censorship. 

Inside and outside the library

Monday marked the final day of Hawk Week at the University of Kansas, a time to welcome new and returning students. Outside Dykes Library at the KU Medical Center, on 39th Street in Kansas City, Kan., rows of tables were ready for students, who lined up for free hotdogs, sausages and shaved ice.

Inside the library, on the second floor, a long wall with light brown fabric-covered panels is empty except for nails and pins. Until recently, fifteen of artist Tom Gregg’s still-life oil paintings hung here for an exhibition called Unsold: Grenades, Bad Apples, and Cute Animals.

"The exhibition was due to come down on August 2," says curator Melissa Rountree. "On July 24, I got a call from an administrative assistant saying that the works needed to come down immediately."

A "labor of love" comes to a close

Rountree says this phone call was followed by a series of emails; the interim head of the library informed her the 20-year-old exhibition program was discontinued due to budget cuts, and her contract, signed just about a year ago, would also not be renewed. Her total payment: $1000 for six shows, "which works out to $166.66 per exhibition. In a way, it was kind of a labor of love," she says.

The works were taken down July 30, days before the exhibition was scheduled to close.

Rountree is the former curator of the Hallmark Fine Art Collection. She says she was also told Gregg’s artwork did not align with the core mission of the campus.

"There was nothing wrong with the exhibition, there was nothing distasteful," Rountree says. "They were beautifully painted objects."  

Paintings return to the studio

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Paintings in Tom Gregg's studio in the West Bottoms.

Tom Gregg’s studio is in old, mostly empty, brick warehouse, in the West Bottoms. Gregg’s based in Kansas City – but he primarily shows his work in New York City.

Sketches and photographs are tacked in a cluster on one wall, along with paintings, some lining the floor. There are images of decaying fruit, and a trio of grenades with a floral background that were part of the exhibition at Dykes Library. And the painting Gun: a gun, like a piece of fruit, in a bowl, with bullets scattered on a pink pastel table.

"And you put it out there and how people are going to respond to it is an unknown," says Gregg. "But I think an art audience probably has a greater range of exposure to certain kind of ideas or cultural ideas, a little more forgiving, perhaps. And I don’t think these paintings are shocking."

Officials blame budget cuts, free speech organizations allege censorship

After Tom Gregg’s exhibition closed, a national anti-censorship group, National Coalition Against Censorship, and the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri alleged it was in fact censorship. They sent a letter, signed also by artists and arts advocates, to the Kansas Board of Regents. The Board replied, noting reduced state funding for the KU Medical Center.

"When we discovered that we were facing an $8.2 million budget cut in the next two fiscal years, we had to look really hard across the university to see how we could absorb that cut and try to maintain those core missions of educating health care providers," says C.J. Janovy, the director of communications for the KU Medical Center.

The KU Chancellor also weighed in on Tuesday.

"Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little responded to the NCAC and the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri," says Janovy. "She re-iterated that the University of Kansas is committed to free speech and the exploration of ideas."

"It’s a shame, it’s just too bad," says ACLU’s Chief Counsel and Legal Director Doug Bonney. "The university claims to be committed to first amendment values and free speech, and artistic speech is just one segment of free speech."

An uncertain outcome

Bonney says the ideal outcome would be for KU Medical Center to decide to continue the exhibitions at Dykes Library. But it doesn't look likely.

"The problem is that there’s not much room here to try to work with the Med Center or KU to re-establish this venue that had been in existence for 20 some years. There doesn’t seem – in the two responses we got – a real opening for that," says Bonney, who adds that it's also not a case that lends itself to litigation.

As for the recent "Hot Dog Bash" sponsored by Dykes Library, KU Medical Center’s C.J. Janovy says spending on that event ties in to the core mission: educating students who will be future health care leaders.

"I think if it’s a choice between hot dogs and some other things that don’t directly relate to that core mission – then the answer is hot dogs," says Janovy.

She says future plans for the now former exhibition space at the library are pending.

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Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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