Over the past few months striking progress has been made on the Memorial Art Gallery’s Centennial Sculpture Park, as well as the ArtWalk Extension project that has transformed the surrounding neighborhood. Sections of the forbidding iron fence that previously surrounded the gallery’s grounds have been removed, and the at-one-time boiling controversy over the large-scale sculptural installation by internationally renowned artist Tom Otterness has been reduced to barely a simmer. City spoke again with representatives for the MAG, with protestors, and this time with Otterness himself to learn more about the sculpture park and its place in the context of the Neighborhood of the Arts, as well as the greater Rochester community.
The Centennial Sculpture Park is projected to be completed by October 2013, and will include more than 20 sculptures, new gardens, and a word-laden walkway through the museum’s campus. A year’s worth of celebrations kick off this month with the premiere of Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik’s original composition based on work in the MAG’s collection. Future programming will include major speakers, gala events, and unveilings and dedications of monumental works by Albert Paley and Wendell Castle.
As I’m sure you know, the Gallery has recently come under some criticism. In light of this, I thought it important to share my thoughts on Tom Otterness’s selection as one of the artists whose work will be featured in our new Centennial Sculpture Park, and to provide some perspective.
Imagine that the cruelest act you ever committed were exposed for everyone to see and discuss and analyze. Then imagine that that single act is all that we know about you and, by that act alone, you will be judged. Who among us could bear such scrutiny?
“When you are trying to decide whether someone deserves your forgiveness, you are asking the wrong question. Ask instead whether you deserve to become someone who consistently forgives.” –D. Patrick Miller, A Little Book of Forgiveness
“Thirty years ago, when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.” – Tom Otterness
The critics – in Rochester and elsewhere – have every right to protest, but important principles are at issue here. The broader one is whether we should forgive people for an indefensible mistake in their youth. The narrower issue: whether public controversy should influence a museum’s exhibitions and acquisitions.
Let me get down in the weeds, briefly: If the past actions of an artist should influence a museum’s selection, where do we draw the line? Do we consider only acts committed when the artist was an adult? Only acts committed within the past five years? Within the past 10 years?
Do only actions by an artist matter? What about the subject matter of the art? Should museums avoid purchasing or exhibiting anything that offends anybody? Only if it offends a large group of people?
If the artist apologizes, is a verbal apology enough? If not, who should determine the proper atonement – and to whom that atonement is paid? Should the artist pay that atonement for the rest of his life? On every commission? Who should decide?
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In April 2010, the Memorial Art Gallery announced a major commission with Brooklyn-based sculptor Tom Otterness to act as the cornerstone of its planned Centennial Sculpture Park. Otterness is currently working on the sculpture, and MAG is preparing the site; the gallery anticipates that it will be installed in the fall of 2012.
But a Democrat and Chronicle article last month brought into local daylight a controversial issue from the artist’s past. In 1977, at age 25, Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied the dog to a fence, and shot it to death while filming it as a work of art titled “Shot Dog Film.” Otterness has apologized for the incident, calling his actions “indefensible,” but for many this has not been enough.
At the time of the announcement over a year ago, the gallery received a few concerned phone calls and letters regarding the film. But since the recent D&C article, critics have staged a protest near the MAG grounds and launched an onslaught of e-mails and phone calls to the museum, some of them anonymous and vitriolic, some “very measured, sensitive, compassionate messages of outrage,” says MAG Director Grant Holcomb. And the critics have circulated a petition calling for the museum to end its association with Otterness.
I want you to know that, as a long-time contributor and as president of another local cultural institution, I strongly support the selection of Otterness’ work for the Centennial Sculpture Park and I support the process by which he was selected. Everything, as far as I can see, has been done in an orderly, professional, and ethical fashion.
The bell cannot be unrung here. At some point in this selection process someone, should have stood up and said I think the Emperor is buck naked. Someone should have come forward and said, let’s hold on here, the community in which we stand will care about this issue, because they care about cruelty and lawlessness, and torture, we need to show that we respect how they feel, and we should have a public transparent forum before we start throwing money around that we will not be able to get back.
It’s really hard to make good moral choices once they are going to cost a lot of money, it’s an unfortunate truth. And that is what all the discussion points sound like to me, damage control. How to create the appropriate spin so they don’t loose their shirts here. It’s not about censorship.
I do animal rescue both as a job and as a hobby. I live with more rescued animals than I care to mention here. And I traveled to New Orleans to help save animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nobody loves animals more than I do. And I’m here to say that I have no interest in Tom Otterness and the controversy that surrounds him. This is a non-issue to me. It’s true that he did a horrible act, but it happened once, 34 years ago.
We have so many REAL, on-going problems that it’s a shame to get distracted by non-issues. We have a huge problem with pet overpopulation. Breeders and pet stores sell the products of puppy mills. Local governments are passing breed-specific legislation, banning pit bulls and other so-called “vicious” breeds. And if that’s not bad enough for you, then there’s animal agriculture: around nine billion animals are slaughtered each year in the US. These animals, while they are being raised, release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute more to global warming than does the transportation industry. And the manure causes environmental devastation on a more-local level. (And by the way, why are there no vegan options on the menu for the restaurant that’s inside the MAG?).
These are all big problems that deserve our attention. Tom Otterness is an inconsequential nobody, and we should save our moral outrage for other, more-important issues. Needless to say, I’m not signing any Otterness-related petitions, and I don’t care one way or the other what the MAG does about him.
If you want to help animals, then adopt homeless pets from shelters or rescue groups (not from breeders or pet stores), make sure all your pets are spayed/neutered, and stop eating animals and animal products.
The MAG is placing seemingly innocuous sculptures made by a man that committed a violent act right in the line of vision of my children and the children of a city that already has enough violence issues.
In 1977 Brooklyn artist Tom Otterness adopted a puppy from a shelter; tied it to a fence; and shot it. Otterness, then 25, videotaped the killing as a work of art and showed it in a gallery.
In 2010 The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester announced the commissioning of Otterness to build two sculptures for its University Avenue entrance. The outdoor sculptures are to be built in the fall of 2012.
Expression is at the heart of our community values. As Rochesterians we have the great fortune to live in a place that daily evokes the names of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and many others who have sought to better our city and the world at large with their efforts. We value dialogue, discussion and critical thinking in our public discourse. Fairness and equity should be our goals in both our private and civic lives.
10-02-11 Rochesterians Against Tom Otterness (RATO) formed almost four weeks ago in response to several local news items reporting his artwork will be in the Memorial Art Gallery Centennial Park.
Go to petition page
Rochester NY’s Memorial Art Gallery has announced that a major sculptural installation by Brooklyn artist, Tom Otterness will anchor a new Centennial Sculpture Park on the grounds of MAG, in time for their 100-year anniversary in 2013. Require majority of Otterness’ commission go to local animal rescues.
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We want Tom Otterness to continue his work on the sculpture garden as the project was originally intended as his work is some of the best in his field recognized all over the world for his creativity and it is fundamentally unfair for someone to be judged soley on an act that took place over 40 years ago.
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