Complaints about a third party

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

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. One art exhibition, by a local artist who also happens to be an art teacher at the local girls school, features teenage girls in school uniform in rather suggestive poses.

The member of staff is called on the day the exhibition opens to the public by a concerned member of the public, a local clergyman, who insists these particular works are 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.

On the day the artist is not available, nor is the chair of trustees. 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?

Response:

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.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Index on Censorship: child protection

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