How Much Influence Should Extractive Industries Have Over Public Art?

A recent New York Times article dredged up a controversy that’s been going on in Wyoming since this spring. The issue at hand is whether the University of Wyoming caved to pressure from politicians and coal companies when it removed a piece of public art from its campus a year ahead of schedule.

The art is called “Carbon Sink,” and it’s by British artist Chris Drury. It incorporates swirls of coal and dead wood to call attention to the connections between coal burning, climate change and increasing numbers of invasive species, like the tree-destroying pine beetles.

Like Kentucky, Wyoming is a large coal-producing state, and the art at the public university wasn’t warmly received by politicians and the coal industry. As Wyoming Public Radio reported last month:

Peabody Energy wrote and said their two million dollar donation to UW was in question.  And President of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, Bruce Hinchey, had his own teachable moment when he wrote to a who’s who list of Wyoming industry, quote: “The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate.”

Wyoming Public Radio filed an open records request, and uncovered documents suggesting the University of Wyoming caved to this pressure and removed the art a year ahead of schedule. The official reason given when “Carbon Sink” was dismantled in May was a sprinkler main break that flooded the piece.

The situation in Wyoming raises some interesting questions about the academic independence of public universities, and what happens when opinions are expressed that are seen as counter to a state’s major economic drivers.

From the NYT:

Amid the fallout from the controversy, lawmakers passed a measure that requires artwork for a newly renovated campus recreation center to reflect Wyoming’s history of transportation, agriculture and minerals.

The measure also gives Gov. Matt Mead, along with the university’s Energy Resources Council — composed primarily of energy industry representatives — final say on the art selected.

Mr. Mead, a Republican, said at a recent news conference that he did not feel it was appropriate for him to review the art.

Jeff Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities who has been outspoken in his frustration over the university’s handling of the sculpture, said outrage had grown among students and faculty members.

“I’m disappointed that the university caved in to that sort of extortion and that sort of implied threat,” Dr. Lockwood said. “And I’m angry that this sort of behavior on the part of private industry, as well as their effectiveness in lobbying our elected officials, would lead to an act of artistic censorship on a university campus.”

Here in Kentucky, the coal industry still plays a significant role in the state’s economy, and has made big donations to the University of Kentucky, like for the Wildcat Coal Lodge. I haven’t heard of those financial contributions affecting anything in UK’s curriculum or choices in public art–but if you’ve heard otherwise, leave me a note below or send me an email.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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