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.
Chris Dahl, President of SUNY, Geneseo
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.
Elizabeth R. Agte, on City Newspaper’s website, October 20, 2011
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.
Alex Chernavsky on City Newspaper‘s website, October 20, 2011
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.