Carbon Sink closeup

The controversial “Carbon Sink” sculpture, formerly located on the University of Wyoming property, helped spark an effort by the legislature to regulate the selection of public art on campus. (Courtesy of Chris Drury — click to expand)

UW trustees wary of enforcing legislature’s public art rule

By 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.”

Carbon Sink installation, before and after

Carbon Sink, top, was removed May 2012 from the University of Wyoming campus. (Jeffrey Lockwood/WyoFile — click to expand)

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.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at
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Published on September 17, 2013

  • Erik

    The Wyoming legislature would do well by taking a field trip to Norway. Despite oil and gas exploration driving its economy, Norway has officially asserted that climate change exists, and is being caused largely by humans burning fossil fuels. By the logic of some Wyo legislators, all of the American oil and gas companies doing business in Norway should have pulled in protest by now. I mean, how dare Norway make an assertion which is so offensive to the oil and gas industry. But guess what? The American companies carry on. Because even though the cost of doing business is much higher in Norway – higher wages, higher taxes, socialized medicine (gasp!) – oil and gas companies are *still* making money hand over fist. So when these oil and gas guys push you around, all you have to ask them is: do you want to keep making money? Yes? Then quit micromanaging art installations at UW.

  • Sue Sommers

    For other ways of handling the “threat” of contemporary visual art, see what the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in SLC offers. This friendly introduction to visual literacy should be available to our legislators, trustees, and anyone who wants a better understanding of art today: it’s fun and high-energy and presented by great people. I’d love to import these guys to my local public school.

  • Paul

    And while I’m at it. . .

    I’m not naive enough to think that corporate influence doesn’t happen at other institutions, but if the blatant oppression of ideas (Bill Ayers, Carbon Sink) continues at UW, there’s not enough Hathaway money in the world to send my kids there.

  • Paul

    Bill, that’s sarcasm, right?

    Because I certainly can’t imagine why on earth someone would want to display art somewhere other than art class. Why, that’s like asking why someone would want to display art in their homes or workplaces. Pretty soon people will be encouraged to rethink their understanding of the world, be inspired, fall in love, or maybe just admire an artist’s talent. Crazy!

  • MullenItOver

    @ Bill – Name just one society that has survived without art. And if you can’t do that, name one educational institution that has chosen not to express its curiosity, passion, goal, gratitude, history, and values otherwise in the form of art on its campus. Thanks.

  • Jack




    Those with a measure of wealth & privilege will do anything to remain at the trough. On censorship! On money grub! We will be #1. It is our manifest destiny. Hail Sternberg. Peabody Coal will save us. Arch Coal will provide. Go quietly you fools, the masters are watching you.

  • Bill

    Why would there need to be art displayed anywhere on campus but in an art class?

  • DeweyV

    Oh the irony . The State of Wyoming’s ever wise Legislators — some of whom were the most blatherous critics of the Carbon Sink art installation at UW — had no trouble spending $ 35 million to straightaway steal the National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputer project from UC Boulder. That supercomputer was designed specifically to study Climate Change. The money Wyoming used to sweetalk it to Cheyenne from Boulder CO was tax money collected from the energy industry. It will analyze the very greenhouse gases that Wyoming’s energy industry copiously smothers the planet with. Money well spent to my mind.

    But these rough and tumble energy guys can’t handle a little bit of symbolic art? A log pile ?? My gawd what thin skins and shameless hypocrisy. And they force the trustees of our only 4-year school to wear a short leash and OBEY ? No wonder other states and educated folks believe Wyoming is just a tribe of rural rubes.

    I hope that NCAR supercomputer proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Wyoming’s sub-B coal is trashing the atmosphere one railroad carload at a time…

  • Bob LeResche

    Dr. Sternberg would do well to reconsider his “what me worry” attitude on this. Unless, of course, he intends to delegate it to Mark Northam and the energy industries along with the rest of his duties, and live happily ever after.

  • sarah

    It is interesting to consider: if one contributes money, one may not be criticized. Especially at an institution of education. How are we to encourage change, improvement, growth and new avenues of healthy, truly modern success? Are we doomed to be mired in our past mistakes because influence peddlers donate money???

  • Shaun H. Kelley

    In a truly free society, the government should FEAR the arts while allowing them free reign. The arts are our cultural “canary in the coal mine”, affording access to points of view that are possibly–and often–athwart the skewed agendas of public institutions. This is due to inappropriate levels of influence from private concerns (read: MONEY). There are PUBLIC attitudes who do not enjoy the financial wherewithal to shape policy, leaving the arts as their only recourse of public expression.

  • MullenItOver

    For someone making such great and influential performance art on campus, one would think that Sternberg might have a more substantial opinion on the matter. Thanks dude.

  • bschaser

    Maybe this is one of the reasons UW was rated near the bottom of all colleges in the US.

  • Robert Hoskins

    It’s a stupid law passed by ignorant bullies. It’s the sort of thing where if trustees had courage, they’d resign rather than have any part of it. But I’ve noticed that courage is in short supply in Wyoming’s institutions.

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