Today the New York Daily News features my updated report on Pratt Institute and the controversy surrounding the work of the conservative student artist Steve DeQuattro, which I first reported in this space on Monday ("Conservative Artist Boxed Out at Pratt"). Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed also has an even-handed report out today on the different interpretations of the episode called "Censorship or a Mirage?," which includes the media coverage on the story since Monday.
Pratt is my father’s alma mater. I wish I could now say that Steve DeQuattro merely saw a mirage of political intolerance at the school. Unfortunately the facts of the case, as additional details have come to light, only confirm his side of the story. There has indeed been an attempt by students and faculty to keep his conservative political work outside of the group show supposedly open to all graduating seniors.
What kicked off the controversy was a letter sent by Mr. DeQuattro's student gallery-mates to his professor over his inclusion in the group show. While the content of this letter remain sealed, some of the tenor of the student objections came through in an interview I conducted with one of Mr. DeQuattro’s objecting exhibition mates, who has asked that her name not be used in connection with this story. She reported that she and her fellow students decried Mr. DeQuattro’s craft and work ethic, not his content. When pressed, however, she elaborated on her objections in this way:
We wrote to the head of painting, his professor. We were concerned. Steven is a very political, and we’re talking about painting, and he’s talking about slavery. It offends us for someone to make us look like we are a joke and stupid, and we’re bigots.
Mara McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the institute, corroborates the political nature of the student complaint, describing the overall incident as "a procedural issue within an academic department complicated by students taking offense at the work of a fellow student." The use of the word “offensive” was also related to Mr. DeQuattro by his advisor, Dennis Masback, who initially received the letter and described its contents to him.
This letter led to the documented interdiction by Donna Moran, Pratt’s Chair of Fine Arts. On February 17, she wrote the following memo to Mr. DeQuattro removing him from the group show and instructing him either to exhibit his work alone in a non-gallery classroom space across campus or in the gallery space after the group shows had ended. While claiming that Mr. DeQuattro’s content was not a consideration in her decision, it nevertheless provided the impetus, in that her involvement came at the behest of the offended students. The introduction of the bureaucratic argument over a missing form likewise only emerged as an issue after the student objections. It should be noted that at no point did she defend Mr. DeQuattro's work, and his place in the group show. Her memo reads:
DATE: February 17, 2011
TO: Stephen DeQuattro
FROM: Donna Moran, Chair of Fine Arts
RE: Senior Exhibition
Cc: Professors Masback, Redmond and Stauber Assistant Chair, Scott Malbaurn
It has come to my attention that there has been some dissention in regards to your senior exhibition. I have not entered into the discussion until this point because I was hoping that it would be resolved within the drawing and painting area. However, it does not seem to be resolved and I feel it is now necessary for me to step in and make what amounts to an executive decision.
For some reason, there has been discussion about the content of your work. This is not a consideration in my decision as you are free to show any work that you and your professors decide on for a quality exhibition, no matter where and when you exhibit.
The seniors who turned in their gallery request forms had worked diligently on designing their exhibitions. This is something that the department encourages and applauds. You did not even turn in your gallery request form. It is clearly stated in the request “Undergraduate Fine Arts Department: Painting & Drawing Request for Senior Exhibition Gallery” form that the deadline for this was November 6, 2010 for spring semester.
You did not turn in your form or successfully negotiate an exhibition with students who had designed their shows. Because your lack of taking responsibility in regards to a professional attitude about your senior show, I have made a decision that you can either have an exhibition in Main 500 for a week, treating that space as a gallery space or in East 240 gallery the week immediately after the last scheduled show.
This will not change your ability to graduate on time, if you successfully pass your courses this semester and have the appropriate credits to graduate.
Part of what we need to insist on for the seniors who will be going out into the art world is that they learn to be professionals and treat their responsibilities in a professional way. Please keep this in mind after you graduate if you have an opportunity to exhibit your work in a commercial gallery.
If you would like to meet with me about this please email me for an appointment time. My email is XXXXX@pratt.edu
Chair of Fine Arts
As this letter makes clear, Pratt did indeed attempt to remove Mr. DeQuattro from the group show. Pratt may argue that they never prevented Mr. DeQuattro from showing his work on campus, but Professor Moran did try to keep his art from standard public view in an unprecedented way. Pratt has since attempted to spin Moran’s intent to sideline Mr. DeQuattro from the group show as merely an offer of “alternative space.” Upon receiving the official letter, however, Mr. DeQuattro says he was not interested in what he preceived to be a forced marginalization. He considered exhibiting in the gallery space, in the group show, to be not only a requirement but a right for graduating seniors at Pratt, regardless of whether other students took offense to the work. He wrote back to Professor Moran by email:
On Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 1:07 PM, Steve DeQuattro
Dear Ms. Moran,
I am just receiving your e-mail for the first time, I apologize for not being more on top of the pratt e-mail system. Let us get something straight, I did indeed fill out the form in request of a gallery, in fact Dennis gave us these gallery request forms last semester in class where I filled it out and returned it to him same day, during class time. The issue seems to be not that I did not fill out a form, but rather that because I needed to be registered for 19 credits this semester, which is over the credit limit, it was quite late before I was actually registered for all of my classes. Dennis informed me that because of this, I was moved from my original date, to a later one. This was not an issue for me, as I was never informed of the original date, so to me it seemed that there was no change.
It has now come to my attention that the only thing getting in the way of my show going on successfully is the intolerance of Pratt students. There has been an effort to segregate me and my work from the rest of the community, putting me in a class room that is not, nor has ever been a gallery, and certainly does not occur as one of the places one would visit on a typical monday of gallery openings. I believe this effort to be reminiscent of the claims of Southern Democrat governors in regards to the public school systems, in which students were put in "separate but equal" schools. as we all know, it became obvious that separate could never be equal, and thus the separation at hand was indeed discriminatory.
The assumption was made that the promise of a show of my own would be appealing to me, but it is not, I do not want special treatment, I want to be treated as everyone else, I have been at this school for five years, taken classes under two majors, and I simply ask for the equality of opportunity this wonderful country of ours grants all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or political ideology. Therefore, it must be obvious as to why your offer of moving me to a week after the last show is scheduled is one I cannot accept. I can do the math, this would place my show after the school year is over; a clear attempt to silence my work by minimalizing the audience.
If the prejudice of these students is such that they cannot bear to show their work next to someone who is affiliated with the political party that freed the slaves, gave women the right to vote, and pushed for the civil rights act to be passed, then they are the one's who should give up their show date and location. They should be the ones showing after school ends, they should be the ones put in the dungeon on the 5th floor.
This controversy highlights the success of my artwork, I came to believe that those who claim to be 'tolerant," and "liberal" are the least tolerant amongst us, and are not liberal in any sense of the word, and here is this intolerance on display for all to see. any effort to silence, what probably is, the only display of a conservative/libertarian political philosophy in years if not the entire history of Pratt institute, is no different in my mind that the crimes the democrats committed again blacks under the Jim crow laws. Separate can never be equal, the idea is in opposition to our founding document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, amongst them Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." and yet, this entire effort is trampling on my right to pursue happiness, the very fact that I am the one who's date and location is in jeopardy illustrates the absurdity of the whole situation, again, it is the prejudice and intolerance of those I'm scheduled to show with that has made this an issue, not my complaints (I have none, and would be happy to show beside them); thus, give them the option of showing on the 5th floor, and give them the option of showing after school ends, I will not willingly forfeit my rights to cater to bigotry.
In her email reply, which I excerpt, Professor Moran responded:
You are not the decision maker here... You will not be showing with that group. Where and when are our decisions not yours.
Following this exchange, a closed meeting was called to address Mr. DeQuattro’s ouster from the group show. Pratt now says that through this meeting, which took place a week before my press coverage, the school resolved Mr. DeQuattro’s complaints and restored him to the group show.
In its own report, Inside Higher Ed wrote:
Moran says the Pratt Institute expects that DeQuattro will show his cereal box, and several accompanying pieces, during the last week of April. Masback, DeQuattro's professor, wrote yesterday in an e-mail to Moran (which she forwarded to Inside Higher Ed) that DeQuattro had been "notified verbally and by email" that he is to show his work with the other students, and "said he was fine with that."
Mr. DeQuattro confirms he would have been “fine with that,” if indeed he had been restored to the group show (and not merely relegated to exhibiting “during the last week of April” in an “alternative space.”) An email from another one of his classmates following that meeting indicates that his offended gallery mates still believed DeQuattro would be forced to exhibit his work on his own outside of the group show. In addition, Mr. DeQuattro was still declining this offer. Excerpt below:
--------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Kyle XXXX
Sorry it took me a while to contact you,
I offered to design, print, finance and disperse a poster which would contain You, Laura, Rin and my name if you agreed to show in Room 500 main building. You refused.
Yesterday, Ms. McGinnis suggested to me that Pratt is now working to restore DeQuattro to the original group show: “The students have since been advised to seek mediation through Pratt's Office of Student Affairs in order to design a four-person show.” If true, I applaud the school in these efforts, and hope Mr. DeQuattro is allowed to exhibit his work in the group show--without the additional harassment of “missing forms,” or the double-speak of “alternative spaces.” And let's also hope that next time it doesn’t come to this.