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ART FEATURE: The Art of Controversy: Inside MAG's sculpture-park protest

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In April 2010, the MemorialArtGallery announced a major commission with Brooklyn-based sculptor Tom Otterness to act as the cornerstone of its planned CentennialSculpturePark. Otterness is currently working on the sculpture, and MAG is preparing the site; the gallery anticipates that it will be installed in the fall of 2012.

But a Democrat and Chronicle article last month brought into local daylight a controversial issue from the artist's past. In 1977, at age 25, Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied the dog to a fence, and shot it to death while filming it as a work of art titled "Shot Dog Film." Otterness has apologized for the incident, calling his actions "indefensible," but for many this has not been enough.

At the time of the announcement over a year ago, the gallery received a few concerned phone calls and letters regarding the film. But since the recent D&C article, critics have staged a protest near the MAG grounds and launched an onslaught of e-mails and phone calls to the museum, some of them anonymous and vitriolic, some "very measured, sensitive, compassionate messages of outrage," says MAG Director Grant Holcomb. And the critics have circulated a petition calling for the museum to end its association with Otterness.

MAG has also found support for its decision to fulfill its contract, from members of the arts and wider communities of Rochester. And MAG says it is holding firm - although a statement provided to City on Tuesday asks for more "contrition" from Otterness. That raises the question of whether the museum's leadership might even ask Otterness to make a donation to an animal shelter or similar organization.

"The Gallery's selection process, that included staff and board members in addition to various community leaders in Rochester and museum professionals across the country, resulted in the selection of one of the nation's major sculptors of public art, Tom Otterness," the statement reads. "We plan to move forward with our Otterness commission. However we strongly feel that Tom needs to address the current community reaction in a way that renews his contrition for what he did long ago and that this resonate in a meaningful way with our board and gallery community."

"While we are not going to cancel or step away from the sculpture park project," says the statement, "we are not totally insensitive to the community. We understand that the selection of Tom Otterness has caused concern in some circles. We feel that Tom created this and he needs to find a way to fix it with the public."

Many protesters doubt the sincerity of Otterness's regret and question MAG's handling of the entire process, and some have misconceptions regarding the sculpture, its funding, and the park in general. The controversy brings up issues of censorship, the complicated nature of art, and the responsibility of those who put it on exhibition.

Otterness's sculpture for MAG, which will be a gateway onto the grounds from the corner of Goodman Street and University Avenue, consists of two 13-foot limestone figures that serve as a narrative on sculpture and the act of creation. A female sculptor stands with tools in her hands, in the act of carving a male figure from a block. Farther away from the street and strewn about are works-in-progress - incomplete or imperfect versions of the male sculpture.

Otterness's recent work seems innocuous, but it contains layers of symbolic meanings alluding to issues of gender, money, class, and race. And his MAG sculpture playfully brings to mind differences between the sexes and the difficulty people face when trying to create that "perfect other." The sculpture references the Pygmalion myth, which tells of a sculptor creating, falling in love with, and bringing to life a female figure.

Otterness declined an interview request last week, citing his travel schedule, but he agreed to answer questions by e-mail.

"When I came to Rochester to do research for this commission," he said, "I found out about Susan B. Anthony's life here and her successful campaign to open the all-male university to female students in 1900," regarding the University of Rochester. "The women's dorm was located in the Cutler Union building, which is close to the installation site. So that influenced my decision to reverse the Pygmalion myth."

"I thought a sculptor's studio as an artwork would act as a bridge between the active artist studios and the community across Goodman Street and the museum itself," Otterness said. "I liked the idea of an artist trying to bring stone to life, to make an ideal mate. In this case, she is running into problems. All the guys have something wrong: hands are backwards, heads are off, or their feet are stuck together. Our heroine, though, is optimistic and very persistent."

When choosing a project for the Centennial Sculpture Park, MAG was "looking for narrative, a layered narrative," says Marjorie Searl, chief curator at MAG. Otterness created a work "very deliberately to refer to not only Susan B. Anthony but also to the fact that this museum was founded by a woman." On another level, the sculpture nods to the 1913 bas-relief sculptures on the side of the building, she says, in which is depicted "the more traditional sculptor, a male sculptor, with his tools." Otterness's installation, she says, "takes that and connects to it, but flips it."

One of the loudest criticisms in April 2010, before news of Otterness's video eclipsed all other complaints, was that such a large commission was going to a non-local artist. Tom Otterness is in fact one of four artists to be featured in the park, two of whom are local sculptors, the other two from New YorkState. New York sculptor Jackie Ferrara's commission will be a pathway leading to a new entrance plaza. Rochester-based sculptor Wendell Castle will create what he is referring to as an "outdoor living room" made of cast iron and bronze. And the gallery is in talks with Albert Paley about a monumental piece. The park will also include gardens and pathways designed by a local landscape architect.

Otterness's work was chosen for the sculpture garden based on criteria established by a MAG selection committee that included artists, directors of cultural institutions, architects, faculty, and community members. MAG's criteria included the stature of the artist and reputation in the field, success with site-specific sculpture in particular, and ability to design for durability due to the climate in Rochester. Despite the misconception of some critics, the park and its sculptures are financed not by public funds but by private money drawn from the Maurice R. and Maxine B. Forman Fund.

MAG was also "interested in narrative and accessibility," a work that would be attractive to a broad audience, says MAG Director Grant Holcomb. "The fence comes down, the plaza opens up. There is a lighthearted, if you will, whimsical, narrative going on through Tom's initiative." The sculpture park will also include an amphitheater and seating areas within the space, he says, creating a modern version of a 19th century common "where people gather, sit, eat, have performances, weddings, and events. A community space. Tom met those criteria."

The search began in 2006, and a list of 50 artists was eventually reduced to four finalists. In planning the park, "we were interested in an opportunity to provide continuity with the other projects that had gone on in the neighborhood," says Searl, "so that you walk down to our grounds and it is not an abrupt switch" from ArtWalk to a campus full of less playful art.

Otterness's work functions at multiple levels, Searl says. What appears to be a sculpture about two figures, one carving another from a block, "is really about the whole concept of creativity in general, and that was such a match for this neighborhood and this institution."

MAG was made aware of Otterness's infamous video during the selection process, while the committee was narrowing its choices in 2007. A planned Otterness installation at WichitaStateUniversity was swept up in controversy when a student government candidate who objected to using student funds for the Otterness work brought the film to public attention. MAG spoke with WSU officials, Searl says, and found that they were "totally positive about working with Tom." The commission went forward at Wichita, and MAG continued to look at various artists, but kept coming back to Otterness. He was the "artist who seemed best able to provide what it was we were hoping to accomplish," says Searl.

Among the apologies Otterness has made for the controversial video was one reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in April 2008: "Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me."

Otterness says that the video came out of a dark and angry period of his life. His work now focuses on animals in a positive way. Many of his sculptures, which can be found in many states as well as internationally, prominently feature a variety of animal life. With the work for Rochester inspired by the Pygmalion and Pinocchio myths, viewers could connect them with themes about animating materials, bringing them to life, or searching for a connection.

Other people who have worked with Otterness describe the experience as very positive, says Holcomb, and this "runs contrary to the words used to describe Tom, which are vile - just not the man or the artist we know." No one finds the killing of the dog to have been anything but "despicable, callous - as Tom does," says Holcomb. But "Tom as a person is not how he's described by some of the missives I've received."

Otterness has visited Rochester several times since 2009 to look at MAG's grounds, and to formulate and present his proposal. "He loved ArtWalk, and was very enthusiastic about it," says Searl. "He remains ready to really engage with this community." At no time during the selection process did MAG see any reason to stop the project because of Otterness's character, says Searl. "If anything, I felt that his character was a very solid one. It was very hard to reconcile the story we heard with the gentlemen who was in the flesh. One of the challenges for us is that we have had the opportunity to work with this man, to know him," she says, "but when you read something described in lurid ways, you have nothing to offset that with. But some people don't want something to offset it. To them it's very black and white. I think life, and particularly art, is not necessarily black and white."

Many of the protesters who have left posts on articles about the Rochester commission, on MAG's Facebook page, and on specific Facebook protest pages argue that MAG should not help support the career of someone who killed an animal in the name of art. But the issue brings about a strange form of potential censorship: although the film itself is not being censored (MAG says that all copies were destroyed, and the film is not even available), some protesters want to impede the career of the artist who created it.

Those protesting the Otterness sculpture have been following the history of his career and controversy on the web and in past news articles. Many feel that his apology was too little, too late, and the term "sociopath" keeps arising, even among those who aren't sure that MAG should cancel the commission.

One of the protesters is Dr. Michelle Brownstein, who has been a veterinarian for 25 years and has run HenriettaAnimalHospital for 20 years, and says she has been interested in animal-rights issues since she learned about the puppy-mill industry in sixth grade. Brownstein kicked off the local petition to have MAG rescind Otterness's commission, and says that the list is just shy of 2000 names from people around the world. She also initiated the Facebook group "Rochesterians Against Tom Otterness," and sends out e-mail blasts and Tweets to gain support for her petition.

It's not up to the public to forgive Otterness, Brownstein says: "Atonement is up to him and his god, or whoever he feels is his creator." And she says she doesn't trust that he has changed. MAG should "cut its losses," she says, "and not be affiliated with him."

Another Rochesterian opposed to the Otterness commission, Megan Haley, says she dropped her gallery membership in protest of the project. MAG has dismissed the protesters as a fringe group of activists, she says, and she says that that the gallery is underestimating the consequences of its actions. She says she is concerned about long-term negative impacts, such as the possible trauma to children who learn of the artist's past, or potential vandalism of the work after it is completed. But she says she doesn't think protesters should try to force Otterness to donate money, because that "wouldn't be a genuine" action on his part.

Some of the protesters seem uninterested in the subject of forgiveness where Otterness is concerned. But they also don't consider their actions to be censorship of art or an artist, or an attempt to deny him the right to make his living through art.

Rochester graphic designer and animal advocate Katherine Denison says she is walking a middle road on the issue, and she identifies some of the complexities involved, from the context of the cultural climate of the 1970's and some of the violent art movements of the time, to the concept of a how a violent transgressor might make amends on par with his actions. "I have complicated feelings about it," she says. She is not necessarily opposed to the Otterness installation, she says, but she does think MAG should consider revoking it.

Since the onset of the controversy, Denison has been researching Otterness, and she says she has serious concerns regarding his level of regret and believes the public has a right to question him. "It's such a bizarre and angry thing to have done that it seems to me that if you were truthful about wishing to create a kind of atonement for it, that people could understand publicly, that he would share something about how he's addressed that. He might talk about therapy that he's done. Or give some sense of what kind of spiritual or emotional changes he went through."

Denison is also disturbed by MAG's decision to sign contracts with Otterness before many members of the public knew about his past. She says she wonders why the controversy wasn't disclosed at the beginning of the process, and she doesn't think MAG should be surprised that groups would rise up in the way they have surrounding this issue: "This is the home of intense politics," she says.

"There is a part of me that is on the side of MAG in this issue, thinking that they shouldn't pull [the project] because of a controversy," Denison says. Animal shelters kill thousands of dogs every year, she says, and people around the world consume them as food, but ultimately she argues that with his video, Otterness crossed a serious line. He has touched the public, she says, "in a very primitive way."

In his e-mail reponse, Otterness wasn't reluctant to discuss the video. "I had some very convoluted and confused ideas about both the making and the showing of that film," he said. "It came out of an extremely dark and painful time in my life. I am deeply sorry for taking the life of that innocent dog, as well as the harm I have caused people in even hearing it described. I have lived with people's judgment of me both privately and publicly for 34 years. It may be another 20 years before I understand the effect this has had on my work."

To give shape and shade to the complexities of the controversy, a significant consideration is the time period in which Otterness created his film. The work emerged from a period of war and extreme social unrest, of bombings and powerlessness, and much of the art from the late 1970's resembled a desperate scream. Marina Abramovic was mutilating herself in her performance art, and Robert Mapplethorpe was creating his controversial photographic explorations.

"I can understand people's outrage when first hearing about it," Otterness said in his e-mail. "I don't understand what PETA and others stand to gain by trying to stop me from producing something positive in the world."

As for making a large donation to an animal service or organization: "The idea that my making a donation to a shelter would somehow legitimize or validate my apology seems senseless to me," he said. "I've never felt that it was possible to buy my way out of responsibility for what I did, and I would hate for anyone to ever think that's what I was trying to do. I've spent the last 34 years thinking, privately, about how to make a positive contribution to the world, and certainly I will continue to do so."

One vocalized reasoning behind the call for a donation is that Otterness appears to gain so much monetarily from a commission of this scope. "I think some people have the impression that if the commission's $1 million, he's walking away with $1 million," says MAG's Grant Holcomb. "I don't know the percentage, but I do know the cost of doing business with the materials, and the transportation, and the assistants, and the studio - most of the monies go to cover those costs of the monument itself, not Tom's net. The cost of working on that scale is enormous."

Payments have already been made to the artist and contractors for this project, and there are legal contracts between the artist and the museum. "To just walk away from it, as some people are suggesting, would have substantial negative impact for MAG, and the neighborhood," says Holcomb.

"I was very honored and excited by the commission for MAG, and I have offered them an enormous project for the budget they had," Otterness said. "The methods of stone carving and bronze casting are very traditional and labor intensive, and therefore extremely expensive. In competing for public projects with fixed budgets, any experienced artist will tell you that the profit margins are quite small and any miscalculation can eliminate the profit one had first hoped for."

The museum has seen varied repercussions thus far for standing by its decision to go forward with the Otterness commission. By early this week, MAG had lost fewer than 10 memberships based on outrage about Otterness, while four people have said they wanted to join or increase their membership in solidarity of the decision, says Holcomb.

While the protesters have been vocal, individuals in Rochester have also expressed strong support for MAG's decision. One signer of the petition to keep the sculpture, initiated by J.R. Teeter of Bread & Water Theatre, noted that she "made a donation to the Memorial Art Gallery because Tom Otterness was going to have work there."

A letter from a supporter acknowledges that while there is no denying that the controversial work "was a terrible decision... we do not believe one reprehensible action should define a life or a career. In reviewing both his website as well as articles and reviews about his long career, it has clearly not defined him. We fully support your decision to commission his work and look forward to seeing him amongst the others selections for the sculpture park."

Members of the local arts community have also expressed support for MAG. Allen Topolski, artist and chair of the art and art history department at the University of Rochester, says that like everyone else, he finds the dog-killing abhorrent. "Violence can't hide behind art, and it shouldn't be sheltered by anything," he said in an e-mail. But it's important to allow ourselves to see people fully, he said, not define them by one solitary act.

"Like with any matter at all (and like with the sentencing approaches taken in our court system that often factor in things like remorse) the larger picture needs to be fully considered," he said. "In this case, what is fully considered is a 30-year period during which Otterness developed a popular, sensitive, accessible, and socially responsible body of artwork. We make mistakes - his was a big one - but it was also over 30 years ago. That is a long time. He has not skirted accountability, and it is unlikely that he will now."

The debate also raises considerations of the implications of a cultural institution buckling under pressure from a segment of the public. Overturning this commission "would imply a connection between one heretofore unrelated individual's 30-year-old mistake and an institution's current progressive move forward toward fulfilling its mission," Topolski said.

"For every artwork that we purchase that is above a certain dollar value, we are obliged by our bylaws to present a justification - the strengths, the weaknesses," says MAG's Searl. Otterness's video "was something that we were aware of," says Searl, "something that we needed to take into consideration. But generally speaking, there is no category for vetting the character of the artist."

Otterness is not the only artist to have committed a morally reprehensible act. Artists and other creative people who have transgressed yet retained a level of respect and admiration include the painter Caravaggio, who killed a man after losing money to him in a game of tennis. L. Frank Baum, the author of the beloved "Wizard of Oz," called for the extermination of the remaining Lakota Sioux in newspaper editorials. And Pablo Picasso reportedly held lit cigarettes to his mistress's face.

In fact, the extent of assaults and abuses by artists and musicians toward their female companions is in itself a sobering topic. And while none of that excuses Otterness's act, it provides an idea of how quickly museums, book stores, and playlists might empty if people judged artists solely on their personal ethics.

"If a Caravaggio was offered to us, and we wouldn't take it because he murdered somebody, they should fire me," says MAG's Grant Holcomb.

In considering the transgressions of artists, and what constitutes a moral deal-breaker in doing business, things get very tricky very quickly. "This raises a very good point," says Holcomb. "There are some who believe that an abortion is the taking of a life." Then should the gallery start sending questionnaires to women artists, asking about their reproductive histories? Would it be fair for a cultural institution to refuse to work with a woman if she had had an abortion? What are the implications of an institution pulling a work of art that is controversial, instead of becoming a forum for discussion?

When an art museum does not stand by art based on controversy, "it loses stature as an art museum," says Holcomb. "Basically you're not standing up to your mission. You're not standing up to your ideals. No one condones the act. We're an art museum, not a star chamber. And we acted as an art museum, and we will act as an art museum. We will also listen at least with compassion and sensitivity to other points of view, when they are measured and well-stated. But to do otherwise I think diminishes the gallery."

Regarding the issue of an institution standing by an artist or work it has chosen to represent, "Museums have an obligation, like the rest of us, to do their best work, and do their work best. And if it's an art museum, their work is showing good art," says Dr. Alison Nordstrom, curator of photographs at George Eastman House. "And if people object to showing a work of art on the basis of somebody's personal life or youthful indiscretions, then they're sort of missing the point," she says. "The purpose of museums is to get people talking."

MAG plans to move ahead with the sculpture park as planned, while attempting to come to a good resolution with the community. "To me the issue is art, and we can deal with the art, its past, its present, and its future," says Holcomb. "Now we're in the realm of grand themes of art. One grand theme of art is compassion, and another grand theme of art is forgiveness."

"There is a lot for all of us to learn in this," says Holcomb, who says he hopes MAG can provide a forum that seeks, "along with these other community entities - from animal rights to interfaith to restorative justice - to deal with issues that can inflame but at the same time, we hope, heal, as we move through them."

"If it comes out of this conversation that more people focus on supporting organizations of animal welfare," that is a positive, says Searl. "I would like Rochester to be a model for moving forward, for this artist, but also for other artists, for other situations, where there could be dialogue, there could be growth, there could be a willingness to stay close to the discomfort, to the pain of it," without shutting anybody off. "And that's a very big thing to ask," she says, "but if any institution can do it, I think we should be able to do it."

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