KANSAS CITY — A national anti-censorship group has raised concerns about the University of Kansas Medical Center's decision to remove an art show at its library depicting small animals and weapons, but the medical center said Wednesday the show was taken down only because the curator's contract expired.
The exhibit of several paintings by Kansas City artist Tom Gregg was installed at the medical center's A.R. Dykes Library in June and was taken down July 30. The oil paintings are of pastel-colored baby animals, weapons and bullets against a pale blue sky and figurines that are part-grenade and part-animal.
In a letter delivered Wednesday to the Kansas Board of Regents, the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, accused the university of closing the show prematurely "because of its content," raising what the group considered "serious First Amendment concerns."
The NCAC and ACLU also questioned the university's subsequent decision to end the library's long-running program of hosting works by local artists.
"As the termination of the changing exhibition program coincides suspiciously with the closing of an exhibition for its content, it appears likely that the administration's real motive in terminating the program is the potential for the display of controversial work," the NCAC and ACLU said in the letter. "There is no apparent alternative reason for the termination of a successful decades-old program that has served to showcase the work of many local artists at the symbolic cost of $1,000 dollars per year, which would, at market rate, hardly cover just the handling costs of one single exhibition."
C.J. Janovy, spokeswoman for the University of Kansas Medical Center, said in an email the Gregg exhibit was not taken down prematurely and was up until July 30, which was when the contract of its curator, Melissa Rountree, expired.
Janovy also said the decision to end the overall program was based on finances because the library "does not have the resources to continue to pay for art exhibits."
"As a health care institution at a time of great budgetary challenge, we are reviewing every aspect of our operation to make sure it aligns with our core missions of teaching, research and patient care," Janovy said.
The Kansas Board of Regents did not respond to a message Wednesday seeking comment.
Kansas has had a strained relationship with some arts groups since 2011 when Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed $700,000 of cultural arts funding, triggering the loss of about $1.2 million in national grants that were dependent on the state showing a willingness to invest in the arts. The money has since been restored, but the new Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, which is under the state's Department of Commerce, has issued about $90,000 in grants this year, choosing to put most of its money into next year's budget to show the National Endowment for the Arts it has money to match grants.
Rountree said Wednesday she was told the artwork drew criticism from campus officials. She also questioned the university's explanation that the artwork had to come down when her contract expired because they were already paid for.
"I have to assume that it is was the images guns and grenades that did not 'align' with 'the core mission' of KUMC," Rountree said.