LEWISTON — The University of Southern Maine has removed three works by a highly regarded oil painter from a gallery on its Lewiston-Auburn campus after learning that the artist is a sex offender, a decision that has prompted objections from the show’s curator and the Union of Maine Visual Artists.
The paintings are by Bruce Habowski of Waterville, who was convicted of unlawful sexual contact in 1999 and served six months in jail. The show’s curator, Janice L. Moore, said they were removed when a relative of a victim in the sex crime called the university to complain. Where the paintings once hung are now empty hooks and open white wall space with a signed note from Moore that says, “This painting has been removed by order of the USM president.”
USM President Glenn Cummings declined an interview for this story. The university’s communications department issued a statement that said: “USM received a complaint from a member of the public. The complaint was not about the content of the art, but about the artist. After careful review, USM decided to remove his works from the exhibit.”
Both the university and Moore have not named the artist publicly, but his identity is evident by comparing the roster for the show, called “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” with the artists whose works appear in the gallery. Habowski has shown his work at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, among other venues. Reached by phone, he also declined an interview, saying only that he was disappointed the exhibition is drawing negative attention because of his paintings.
A criminal background check for Habowski, 51, shows that Oakland police arrested him in April 1999 on a felony unlawful sexual contact charge. He was found guilty in Waterville District Court in June 1999, and sentenced to four years in jail with all but six months suspended. He also has two sex-related misdemeanor convictions from around the same time, including one involving a juvenile.
Moore, who lives in Freeport, is livid about the art being removed. “He was convicted for his crime and he paid his debt,” she said. “The act of making art, to me, it seems is a very positive thing. You are contributing to society in a positive way. I don’t understand how that should be punished.”
‘LET’S JUDGE THE ART’
The art in question is part of an exhibition of nearly 30 artists and 70 works of art about Maine’s industrial landscape. It opened March 12 and the three paintings were removed about three weeks later. The Atrium Gallery is part of a central entryway and commons area on the small campus that provides graduate and undergraduate degrees and certificates. The school is tucked away on the southwestern edge of Lewiston, near the Maine Turnpike.
The Atrium is a small gallery, with an annual budget of about $10,000 and a reputation for showing smart and timely contemporary Maine art, in large part because of the stewardship of longtime gallery director Robyn Holman, now retired. The gallery is currently managed by an ad hoc committee under the supervision of an acting dean.
The removal of the art raises questions about free expression, community standards and tolerance, the public display of art and censorship, and comes during a national discussion about the value of art versus the character of its creator. That discussion has been framed by the #MeToo movement and revelations of bad behavior by prominent filmmakers, painters, maestros and musicians. This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled convicted sex offenders Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski from its membership, citing a violation of ethical standards.
Timothy Rhys, editor-in-chief of California-based MovieMaker magazine and a part-time Maine resident, said the issue is layered and complex. Ultimately, he said, we as a society should judge artists based on the work they create and not how they conduct their lives.
“By removing these works of art they are not censoring the art but they are censoring the artist because of who he offends. The definition of censorship is removing something because it’s offensive, but who’s it offensive to? This person paid his debt. He doesn’t owe anything to society anymore,” Rhys said.
“Art does and should transcend the private behavior of the artist. We really need to come to grips that we are not going to all have the same opinion of the person. If there needs to be a judgment, let’s judge the art.”
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AT RISK
There are no easy answers, Moore said, and that’s why she’s upset the university passed up the chance for discussion.
“If everybody has a background check, do we have to edit every piece of music and gallery and stop showing movies? What happens when someone who behaves badly also created something worthwhile? Do we negate all of that? Do we erase it? Do we lose an opportunity to learn and evolve?”
The Portland chapter of the Union of Maine Visual Artists sent a letter to Cummings on Friday objecting to the removal of the paintings on the grounds that such action amounts to censorship while recognizing the horrific nature of sex crimes, said John Ripton, a member of the artist’s union.
He circulated a draft of the letter to union members earlier last week, seeking feedback and endorsements. He declined to share a copy with the Press Herald.
“This has to do with the First Amendment, freedom of expression,” Ripton said. “Glenn Cummings decides unilaterally, or without any meaningful consultation with the curator, to remove the work. The university charter clearly states that the university is the place that encourages open and free expression.”
At the same time, Ripton said, the Union of Maine Visual Artists decries the sexual victimization of anyone, female and male.
Moore, he said, is “completely sensitive to the complaint that had been made on the victim’s behalf. Janice and I are both aware that the delicate complexities of this issue are interconnected and anything short of addressing those wide-ranging relationships may actually do more harm to victims of sex crimes than might be appreciated without deeper consideration.”
CURATOR CALLS FOR GREATER CONSIDERATION
Moore said she heard rumblings of objections within two weeks after the show opened. Someone from the university called — she can’t recall whom she spoke with, but she thinks it was someone from the office of the provost — to ask what she knew about the artist and how she selected work for the show. She said she chose the work based on the quality of the art, not the background of the artist.
Later, she also spoke with Cummings directly, telling the president: “I don’t believe this art should be removed. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
She also told him that she understood the difficult situation he was in, and she recognized that he had a responsibility to protect the students and the university community “and that I understood that needed to be a priority for him.”
She learned of the art’s removal after it happened and after the artist was contacted by the university and told to pick up his paintings, she said.
When she drove to the exhibition April 6, she found the voids on the wall where the paintings hung. Some people suggested she rehang the show to cover those voids, but she decided to leave them with a note calling attention to their removal. Rehanging the show, she said, would amount to a “whitewash.”
“There is no explanation for the removal of three paintings which figured prominently in the space,” she said. “There were nails left where the work once was. This censorship without explanation does not feel right and does a disservice to everyone involved.”
The issue has caused anger and anguish, she said, and is nuanced by many shades of gray. Moore has no sympathy for sex offenders, but she thinks it’s wrong to continually punish the artist – and, by extension, the other artists in this show. “Everybody is jumping on a whole lot of bandwagons and shouting loud,” she said. “I wish we could have a slow consideration and actually discuss it.”
Press Herald Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.