UW trustees wary of enforcing legislature’s public art ruleBy Gregory Nickerson September 16, 2013
More than a year after the 2012 “Carbon Sink” art controversy at the University of Wyoming, trustees of the institution are looking for ways to lessen the burden of a legislative directive that they review works of art proposed for installation on the Laramie campus.
At a meeting held last week, several trustees made it clear that they would rather not vote as a board on individual pieces of art that came up for approval.
“I certainly don’t think we want to sit in judgement of every piece of artwork that may be displayed — permanently or otherwise — at the university. I don’t think that’s our job,” said university trustee Dick Davis, a lawyer from Sheridan.
Trustee Jeff Marsh of Torrington agreed, saying the board should seek to, “avoid the problem of us becoming art critics.”
Trustee Betty Fear of Big Piney felt that the board having final say over artwork would make it a target for criticism. “The last thing I want to do is approve art, because no one agrees on what is good art,” she said.
Instead, the trustees would prefer art selection to go through the President’s Public Art Committee. Nominations would then go through a final review by the university president in consultation with with the chair of the board of trustees.
“If we have a committee and it goes through the channels and the president makes the final decision, that’s enough isn’t it?” Davis said.
Delegating most of the process to an outside committee might suit the trustees and the university president, yet it is uncertain if that will meet the approval of lawmakers. In a footnote to the supplementary budget bill passed in the 2013 legislature, lawmakers issued a directive calling for the university to:
(i) Report on the current practices for installing permanent artwork on the campus and recommend a policy requiring trustee approval of artwork which is permanent and which becomes a fixture on university properties.
At least one trustee had concerns that trustees delegating most of the art approval process to another committee would not satisfy the directive. “We shouldn’t pick a fight with the legislature over something like this,” said trustee Dave True, whose family founded True Oil company in Casper. “Is this a big enough thing to pick a scab with the legislature, or can we come to a middle ground?”
The directive is part of the legislature’s effort to increase review of campus art following the installation of “Carbon Sink,” a temporary outdoor sculpture placed on the campus in 2011 and removed in 2012. The sculpture combined beetle-killed trees and coal in a downward spiral, a configuration that made references to burning carbon fuels, climate change, and pressure on forests through the pine beetle epidemic.
Carbon Sink artist Chris Drury indicated the purpose was to inspire people to consider the consequences of how modern society fuels itself. But several legislators took exception to the sculpture, seeing it as an attack on the key fossil fuel industries that support the state economy and government revenue.
University president Tom Buchanan later wrote an email to UW Art Museum curator Susan Moldenhauer directing the removal of the sculpture much earlier than anticipated.
Some observers believed that Buchanan made his order because of pressure from lawmakers and the energy industry, though Buchanan later denied that was his motivation in an op-ed published in WyoFile:
“Let me be clear. No one contacted me or pressured me to remove the “Carbon Sink” installation. My motivation in requesting the removal was simply that all of the temporary installations had already provoked whatever artistic statements or thoughts they were intended to make, and it was time to move on.
“After the “Carbon Sink” installation was removed, several individuals inquired about the removal, recalling the early criticism of the installation. These conspiracy theorists created a narrative from selectively chosen pieces of information.”
The debate over the sculpture was shaped in part by UW professor Jeff Lockwood in an essay published in WyoFile. His second essay about the removal of Carbon Sink attracted national media coverage. A subsequent investigation by Wyoming Public Media uncovered emails in which legislators and industry lobbyists threatened the university’s state revenue and private fundraising if it left the sculpture in place.
To some Wyoming observers, that came as no surprise. “Energy industry people will have an influence on art selection processes and cultural institutions. That’s going to be part of what happens,” said Bruce Richardson, a former chair of the Wyoming Arts Council and English professor at the University of Wyoming’s Casper College center. “Critics have every right to say what they want to,” he added.
However, Richardson didn’t think that the desire to avoid such criticism warranted giving trustees responsibility for the art selection. “I’d be happy if the trustees declined to get involved with the details of selecting public art,” he said. “When you have trustees making individual decisions about things that are happening at a university you get in trouble.”
On the other hand, trustees felt they got in trouble by not reviewing Carbon Sink, which was part of an effort to promote art on campus during the renovation of the UW Art Museum.
Trustee Betty Fear remarked that lawmakers who disliked Carbon Sink turned to them in 2012 for answers about how such a politically-charged piece art could be installed on campus.
“They wanted someone to say, ‘Oh yeah I supported it,’ but we were all saying, ‘I didn’t know anything about it,’” said trustee Fear during last week’s meeting.
Amid the first wave of criticism about Carbon Sink, the university formed the President’s Public Art Committee, which was appointed in January of 2012 to create a formalized process for approving permanent works of art on the campus. Works are to be judged on artistic merit and constituent input from students, faculty, donors, and lawmakers, among other factors.
Currently, the President’s Public Art Committee is made up of five members including committee chair Chris Boswell, who is the university’s Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs.
Also serving on the committee are Susan Moldenhauer, director and chief curator of the UW Art Museum; Ricki Klages, head of the Art Department; Mark Collins, interim Vice President for Administration, and John Stark, Vice President of the University of Wyoming Foundation.
The President’s Public Art Committee formalized its rules for art selection in October of 2012, but early the next year the legislature upped the ante by asking for trustees to be involved in the art approval process.
The question now is whether trustee approval means voting on art selections as a body, or simply establishing the process for executives to approve the Public Art Committee’s nominations.
“The footnote says [the legislature wants] the trustees to review art, but that’s not practical,” Bostrom said in an interview with WyoFile. “The direction we are leaning to is that the request for approval would be presented with the university president, who in consultation with the board of trustees would make that final decision. We hope that would satisfy the intent the legislature is asking for.”
Bostrom says the trustees will meet with legislative interim committees later this fall to discuss if their preferred process is sufficient. For his part, UW president Robert Sternberg said the process for approving art isn’t an issue of great interest to him. “Among the things that are important to me, this is not in the top 150. I’m happy with whatever works,” he said.Note: This story was updated on September 18 to clarify the range of opinions regarding President Buchanan’s motivation to remove Carbon Sink.
For more on the Carbon Sink issue, read these related posts: “Carbon Sink; University of Wyo doesn’t have to bend to energy politics,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer “Buchanan on Carbon Sink: UW didn’t kowtow to powerful interests,” an op-ed by University of Wyoming president Tom Buchanan “Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer “Art & Energy: Coal’s reaction to ‘Carbon Sink’ sculpture reveals the power of art — and the essence of education,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood “Reactionary,” a cartoon by former Greg Kearney Also, listen to: “Documents show artwork removed early due to pressure,” a radio story by Irina Zhorov of Wyoming Public Media, and “Disputed Art disappears from university campus,” by WNYC.