KENNESAW — An AIDS exhibit at Kennesaw State University is under fire from state lawmakers who have denounced it as sickening.
The exhibit, titled “Art AIDS America” was originally curated by the Tacoma Art Museum in October. Kennesaw State’s Zuckerman Museum of Art is the only Southern stop on its national tour, according to the museum.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who chairs the Georgia House committee that funds universities, called the exhibit “sickening” and “a blatant political statement.”
Ehrhart said he called KSU president Dan Papp to complain about the exhibit this week.
Papp did not return calls from the Journal by press time.
Moving forward, don’t expect to see such exhibits at KSU in the future, Ehrhart said.
“I’m going to make it real clear, let’s just put it that way. I had a lot of success in getting Tech’s attention in spending taxpayer money on ridiculous things,” said Ehrhart, referring to his criticism of how the Georgia Institute of Technology handles accusations of sexual assault. Ehrhart said when Georgia Tech ignored his requests, he eliminated the university’s request for a $47 million building.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said after visiting the museum he was both disappointed and disgusted.
“Typically, communities send their garbage to the dump and dispose of their body waste at the local sewage treatment plant,” Tippins said. “KSU has chosen to celebrate and elevate it to an ‘art’ exhibit. Trash is trash. I think it speaks for itself.”
State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said the exhibit undermines the university’s reputation.
“Making this kind of trash publicly undermines the otherwise great work that’s happening at Kennesaw State University and makes it much more difficult for those who love the university to talk about the great things that are happening there,” Setzler said Thursday. “I think this sadly trivializes the very serious issue of AIDS, which is something that we as a nation are committed to dealing with in a serious way.”
The exhibit has its supporters. Donna Krueger, owner of dk Gallery on Marietta Square who serves on the museum’s board, argues in a letter to the MDJ that “all art by nature is provocative and meant to evoke emotion.”
Krueger said the exhibit was not meant to be a political statement, but to further the awareness of AIDS, its history and the artful response to the epidemic since the 1980s.
“The emotions that art provokes are going to be different for every person just like the opinion of the worthiness of any one single piece,” Krueger writes. “Everyone has an opinion. Art in any setting means one thing to one person and brings another meaning to another. That’s not bad. That’s good! That’s what brings community together.”
The impetus for the exhibit coming to KSU began with Robert Sherer, a professor of drawing and painting and “one of KSU’s most distinguished visual artists,” according to university spokeswoman Tammy DeMel.
Sherer “is best known for his use of unconventional media (HIV-positive blood) and for four incidents of art censorship,” according to an online biography.
Ehrhart said painting with infected blood should be against the law.
“I mean, you could infect somebody and kill them with that. Why don’t we just paint with the Ebola virus?” he said.
Sherer’s work is featured in the exhibit.
“The exhibit’s curators approached Sherer and out of those conversations, the Tacoma Art Museum invited the (Zuckerman Museum of Art) to be a venue,” DeMel said.
Sherer called it a critically acclaimed exhibit and the first and only national traveling museum show dedicated to the subject of the impact of AIDS on the visual arts. KSU was lucky to get it since the High Museum in Atlanta wanted it, he said.
As for the students and faculty, they have embraced the exhibit, Sherer said, noting it’s been a good teaching tool.
The exhibit “put KSU on the national map as far as high cultural arenas are concerned,” Sherer said.
“It’s sad now that there’s a small group of busy bodies who are looking for something to get upset about to have focused their attention on that exhibition.”
The decision to bring any exhibit to KSU’s museum is made by a committee comprised of the curatorial staff, the museum director and the assistant vice president for Museums, Archives & Rare Books. The exhibition was organized by the Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with the Bronx Museum and was funded by the Warhol Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the Leslie-Lohman Museum. Kennesaw State was responsible for shipping and insurance ($53,546.50), installation ($2,723.18), the museum docents ($8,320) and the salaries of the KSU police officers who were assigned to the exhibit. DeMel did not provide the Journal with the cost of the police detail during the time of the exhibit, which opened on Feb. 20 and closes Sunday.
The exhibit includes political pieces, such as a mixed-media installation that includes pictures of the late President Ronald Reagan, conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr., conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and televangelist Jerry Falwell, mixed in with what appear to be Nazi storm troopers under a pink triangle.
An electronic scrolling sign reads “Let the record show” before going into a countdown on how many people died from AIDS before Reagan publicly mentioned the disease. The countdown goes on and on, leaving the impression that Reagan didn’t care about the epidemic.
The wall includes quotes from Helms, who suggested a quarantine of the infected, Falwell, who suggested the disease was punishment from God, and Buckley, who defended Reagan.
“So Republicans can be trashed but don’t touch one of their sacred cows,” Ehrhart remarked of the piece.
Other pieces include a painting by Jerome Caja of a naked man wearing a clown mask engaged in a sex act with a skeleton. The piece is titled “Bozo f---- death.”
Another Caja piece is a framed Band-Aid, using materials of “blood and eyeliner.” On the Band-Aid is a bloody picture of a man’s face. The piece is titled “Shroud of Curad.”
There are also framed pieces of soiled underwear.
Ehrhart believes “a fully loaded porta-potty would be a better artistic expression” than the exhibit at Kennesaw State.
Yet Sherer called the criticism narrow minded and politically motivated. He suspects one of the things that angers “the right wing” when they enter the exhibition is the history.
“When they go to that exhibition it becomes very, very clear when one sees it that if the powers that be, and, of course, I mean like Reagan and Bush and what not, if those fellows had back in the early days of it realized that it was a virus — a virus doesn’t know what your sexuality is. It’s a virus,” Sherer said. “And if they had seized the opportunity with that and had been much more proactive and put some money up front, they would have greatly decreased the spread of it. But because they thought at the time that it was a disease that only killed gay men, and they were all perfectly OK with that, they allowed it to spread. It wasn’t until AIDS started ravaging in the heterosexual community that they started to pay attention to it, and by then it was too late, it was running rampant.”