Complaints about a third party
A small museum with a single paid member of staff has a temporary exhibition programme of work by local artists. There is no written exhibition policy or selection process for artists (or their work). The exhibitions are set up by each artist with rental paid for the space and a commission taken by the museum on any work sold. The artist pays for a private view and invites their own guests.
On the day of the exhibition opening, one member of staff is on duty, while the artist and the chair of trustees of the museum are unavailable.
Just before the opening event, a member of the local community calls the museum to say that they think that one of the works of art on display is inappropriate and should be taken down immediately. There is a high probability that they will go to the press and there will be a lot of media interest which could reflect badly on the museum.
Should the member of staff take down the works in question, or insist that the museum only rents the space and it is the concern of the artist to justify the inclusion of these works?
Firstly, it is important to assess whether the images in question are indecent – which may mean that this becomes a legal issue – or suggestive. There is substantial legal and practical advice on the use of indecent images in galleries in a briefing prepared by the Index on Censorship.
In this case, the images appear to be suggestive rather than indecent, but the situation nevertheless has the potential to become embarrassing for the young women depicted, the gallery, the school and the artist, and should be taken seriously.
Bear in mind that the press and the public may not make an important distinction between the artist’s responsibility for their work and the gallery’s responsibility for what goes on display.
In this case, the member of staff should first evaluate the complaint. Is it valid and likely to be taken seriously by others, including the press and the local community? If so, the decision on whether to open the gallery is likely to be “above the paygrade” of the staff member.
Further discussion of the merits of opening the gallery are clearly required, and this may justify postponing the opening of the gallery until further consultation can take place with board members, the artist and the school.
It is important that all decisions on such issues are carefully documented so that the museum can demonstrate how it arrived at its conclusions.
In general, discussions of this kind turn on whether there is “artistic merit” in the images.
Decision-makers should also bear in mind the issue of public interest, and weigh carefully the balance of freedom of expression, public interest and decency in this matter.
Museums should institute a child protection policy that sets out the way they will handle controversial exhibitions where child safety issues might arise.
This could be drafted with the help of legal or other professionals with experience in freedom of expression and it can be helpful to consult the police/local authority on best practice in general terms.
It is also important to check the local authority child protection policies and consider contacting the appropriate person in the local authority.
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