Arts Commons accused of censorship for removing LGBTQ artist's work

Arts Commons is being accused of censorship, after it took down a public art installation due to complaints the organization said it received about nudity and coarse language.

Beck Gilmer-Osborne said they were given a choice to edit their artwork or have it taken down

Artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne said they were given a choice of editing their video art installation, or the piece would be turned off, after Arts Commons said it received complaints about nudity and profanity. (Beck Gilmer-Osborne)

Arts Commons is being accused of censorship after it took down a public art installation due to complaints the organization said it received about nudity and coarse language.

Beck Gilmer-Osborne's three-channel video piece titled A Thousand Cuts was set to run in The New Gallery's window in a downtown Calgary +15 walkway until Sept. 28.

But instead, Arts Commons — which owns the window space that The New Gallery curates — sent the gallery a letter on Aug. 29 saying the piece would have to be edited to remove the objectionable content, or it would be taken down.

"I found that kind of strange because for starters there's not really that much nudity or swearing in the piece," said Gilmer-Osborne. "I did not feel comfortable with changing the piece … so it got taken down."

I'm not necessarily saying they don't support trans or gender variant artists, but I don't feel supported in the space.- Artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne

The gallery said it also offered Gilmer-Osborne a private space to exhibit the piece instead — just not the public gallery.

The Montreal-based artist said there are maybe seven to eight profane words displayed in the piece, and a three-second, grainy clip is shown of a nude woman wearing a prosthetic penis.

The work is composed of clips from movies and television shows that show transgender characters portrayed by non-trans actors. It can be viewed online here.

Gilmer-Osborne wrote an open letter that was posted to The New Gallery's website, criticizing Arts Commons' decision.

"To Arts Commons: I implore you to deal with complaints against challenging art work (especially when the content deals with marginalized communities and bodies) in a more constructive way, rather than shutting down a conversation before it can begin," Gilmer-Osborne wrote.

The piece, which was supposed to run in The New Gallery's space in Arts Commons' +15 walkway, has been turned off. (CBC)

The window gallery is one of nine Arts Commons has provided for free to local artist-run groups to run since 1992. 

While Arts Commons owns the spaces, each gallery curates their own content.

"Arts Commons has programming agreements in place with each of our partner organizations, who curate the galleries, with the understanding the work curated is 'sensitive to the fact that the Plus 15 is a public pathway open to all ages and that viewers will experience the work without having made the choice to participate as they would upon entering a gallery,'" Arts Commons programming director Jennifer Johnson said in an emailed statement.

"While Arts Commons believes the piece, A Thousand Cuts, has merit, the language and images contained in the video and audio component are not a fit with our commitment to creating a public space for all."

The organization did not provide details about how many complaints were made, or what part of the work people found objectionable.

Not 1st time Arts Commons has 'censored' trans art

In 2006, Arts Commons — then the Epcor Centre — also was criticized for censoring a transgender artist, when the venue put up a wall in front of a Plus 15 window gallery without first speaking to the artist or gallery that curated the space.

The work, titled 'Gaylord Phoenix in the Flower Temple' by Edie Fake, depicted a cartoon of a gender-fluid man, touching his genitals — drawn as a noodle with paisley patterns. 

A 2006 photo shows a wall installed by the Epcor Centre in front of Edie Fake's work "Gaylord Phoenix in the Flower Temple." The wall was put up without consultation with the artist or the gallery that curates the space. (Photo courtesy of the artist and TRUCK Contemporary Art)

At the same time, posters were displayed in the same venue that depicted a photo of a nude woman, and there were nude male and female steel sculptures in the main lobby. Neither were censored.

The controversy that erupted at the time was part of Arts Commons decision to establish programming agreements with the galleries, the organization said.

Gilmer-Osborne is frustrated that instead of talking about their art — which is intended to provoke discussion about violence against transgender people by showing inauthentic representations of them in media — discussion has centred on the controversy.

"I feel like the merit of the work is, it's very important," they said.

"I'd like to see moving forward some different rules or regulations in their windows spaces so they can show confrontational work because I don't think there's anything wrong with that. The censorship is just a little exhausting."

Double-standard?

Gilmer-Osborne also questioned why their piece was censored when a controversial lecturer who has been criticized for supposedly transphobic views was allowed to speak at Arts Commons this summer.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson delivered a lecture at Jack Singer Concert Hall in July. 

The professor, who is also an author, has spoken out about Bill C-16, which provides protections for transgender Canadians. Peterson made headlines a few years ago when he criticized political correctness on university campuses and refused to use gender-neutral pronouns.

More than 1,200 artists signed a letter calling for the cancellation of the event.

"Arts Commons supported him being there based on the idea of free speech. So I find it kind of strange and a bit hypocritical … I'm not necessarily saying they don't support trans or gender variant artists, but I don't feel supported in the space," Gilmer-Osborne said.

The New Gallery director Su Ying Strang plans to meet with Arts Commons Tuesday to ask them to reconsider the decision to take down the work, but Gilmer-Osborne said they're not holding their breath.

With files from Colleen Underwood.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article incorrectly stated 400 artists had signed a letter protesting a controversial author set to speak at Arts Commons. In fact, the letter was signed by more than 1,200 artists.
    Sep 11, 2018 1:18 PM MT