“Art in Protest” banned at School for Workers
Bowing to pressure from a state assemblyman who has called for the institution’s very extinction, officials of the University of Wisconsin-Extension School for Workers withdrew sponsorship of an exhibition called “Art in Protest,” set for the UW Pyle Center March 29 – 31.
The move drew cries of censorship and political interference from artists but mostly yawns from elsewhere.
On Monday, Feb. 27, organizers said the show will go on with private funds and without university sponsorship. It is being revived as the “Censored Art Show,” at the Goodman Community Center on March 9 – 10.
The show, about protests that catapulted the state into the international political spotlight, was challenged by Rep. Steve Nass (R – Whitewater), a Republican who has represented the 31st District since 1991. Nass aide Mike Mikalsen told school officials that the political timing of the show — during what he called the height of the recall season — was not good.
The episode shows how radically conceptions of politics and academic freedom have changed in Wisconsin since the 2010 elections. Why should a Wisconsin public school dedicated to labor issues not host an exhibition that pretty much amounts to a current events lesson on the issues facing the labor movement in Wisconsin today?
Mikalsen provides a nuanced response:
“The art show in question was being developed to be a “celebration” of the “Wisconsin Uprising.” The event planning and up front costs were being covered by this taxpayer supported entity. The UW Extension, as a state agency, has taken no position on the collective bargaining reforms in 2011 Wisconsin Act 10.
The School for Workers isn’t permitted to set the public policy positions of the UW Extension. Officials at both the School for Workers and the UW Extension came to the conclusion that this event could and would be perceived as taking one side in the debate over Act 10. They considered the concerns raised by our office and took the appropriate action.”
In its statement withdrawing sponsorship, the school said, “We are living history. The theme, “Art in Protest,” was chosen many months ago to recognize this momentous juncture…We have reluctantly decided that the March 2012 time frame is not the ideal time for this first Labor Arts Exchange. We hope to find a more suitable time in the future to commemorate the artistic and cultural efforts of working people and their organizations, celebrating their art and creativity with a broader focus beyond the immediate political discourse.”
As Mikalsen told the Madison Capital Times,
“Rep. Nass had once tried to cut (taxpayer) funding for the School for Workers, and that is still something he believes should be done. But we mostly reminded them that Rep. Nass and other Republicans are working closely with UW-Extension on WiscNet and some other pretty important issues, and that if this issue were to go bad and upset conservatives and our supporters around the state, we’d have a problem working together.”
“We just said, “Look, you can’t be running events celebrating the protests, which were heavily aimed at Republicans, and then expect that Republicans are going to smile nicely and sit down and try and work issues out with the university.””
The move outraged cartoonist Mike Konopacki, a show participant who did his cause no favors by issuing a fake press release allegedly from Nass’s office saying that congressman Paul Ryan had called for the Smithsonian Institution to remove its artifacts from the Wisconsin protest movement of last year. That fake press release included the “smile nicely” quote, but escaped the attention of the editors, who allowed it to be posted for about 40 minutes.
Rep. Nass, who has a Masters degree in School Business Administration from his hometown UW-Whitewater, also chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, and serves on its Committee on Education, its Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, and also serves on the Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities, thereby packing quite a punch among the cap-and-gown set.
its faculty have long brought teaching, research, and outreach to thousands of workers, unions and employers throughout Wisconsin and the nation.”
It was one of the original components of the Wisconsin Idea, and evolved at a time when trade unionism was gaining increasing recognition in the industrializing United States. One of its missions was to increase the quality of union officials, so that workers need not be represented by “thugs” — a term that has come into increasing use in Wisconsin by union opponents.