Calgary venue tells artist to remove poster listing names of trans murder victims

Arts Commons is doubling down after being accused of censorship for removing a public art installation that was meant to draw attention to the issues transgender people face.

Arts Commons has doubled down after being accused of censoring a transgender artist

A poster by artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne lists the names of murder victims who were transgender. (Su Ying Strang)

Arts Commons is doubling down after being accused of censorship for removing a public art installation that was meant to draw attention to the issues transgender people face.

The New Gallery said in a meeting with the venue on Tuesday they were told they had two business days to remove an art installation, consisting of a poster listing the names of transgender victims of violence and three TV screens, from their window gallery in a downtown Calgary Plus-15 walkway.

The now-blank TV screens were part of a video installation that was taken down by Arts Commons after the venue said it had received complaints about nudity and profanity — neither of which are displayed on the poster.

'There's no cursing, there's no nudity'

"I was pretty shocked," said The New Gallery's director Su Ying Strang. 

"The fact that they wanted to take away the remaining component, the censorship in general, I don't think is fair. But at the end of the day, the rest of the work … a poster of names commemorating these individuals. There's no cursing, there's no nudity. I don't understand."

The installation was supposed to run until Sept. 28. 

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.

Arts Commons also offered artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne one night in a private venue to showcase the work, instead of in a public gallery. And now, the entirety of the work will be removed.

The piece, in The New Gallery's space in Arts Commons' Plus-15 walkway, has been turned off. (CBC)

Gilmer-Osborne declined the offer for a single night in a private venue, and criticized the venue for "censoring" work that was meant to have a public impact. 

Arts Commons is a civic partner, and the agency said that with children travelling through the public space during the day, the material was not appropriate.

Arts Commons and The New Gallery met Tuesday in an attempt to come to an agreement over the situation.

Strang said The New Gallery suggested compromises, including screening the video only in evenings or putting up a QR code and link to the website so people could be redirected to view the work online.

"They weren't interested … as they said 'facilitating the request to further criticize them,'" Strang said. 

Decision was not taken lightly: Arts Commons

Arts Commons said the request isn't a criticism of the piece itself and the decision was not taken lightly.

"We think it carries a valuable message and has been created with love and care. This was simply not the appropriate venue for the piece," the venue said in an emailed statement.

It said the request to take the poster and TV screens down, and the refusal to allow The New Gallery to post a link to the artwork, is because it would prefer to host a different piece of art in the space.

Arts Commons also reiterated that the original video broke its programming agreement with the gallery, something Strang questions.

"I don't believe this restriction is always applied equitably," Strang said, stating that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council allows scenes of unsexualized nudity on daytime television as well as some curse words, and that she has heard other pieces of nude art have been freely displayed in Arts Commons.

There are seven to eight profane words displayed in the piece, and a three-second, blurry clip is shown of a nude woman standing on a beach at night while wearing a prosthetic penis.

"The idea that this work is not suitable for a highly public venue, I think, is fairly ridiculous because the whole point of this exhibition is to make trans issues visible and to help spur some change within mainstream media. That's why this is integral."

Artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne says 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)

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

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

This is the second time Arts Commons has been criticized for "censoring" a transgender artist, after the venue put up a wall in front of one of the Plus-15 window galleries in 2006. 

The New Gallery said its main gallery is under renovations, so it's unable to move the work from the Plus-15 gallery to the larger venue. 

But it's looking for other options to host the artwork and is hoping in the meantime people will view it online on its website.

"I encourage anyone who may find the work challenging to talk about it, talk with your family about it, talk to your friends about it, talk to us about it," Strang said.

"I think that's one of the really exciting things art does is it creates an opportunity to connect and to learn something new."