Columbia artist Jeremy Butler said local artists were faced with unforeseen obstacles after signing a contract with City Hall for the "What is Art?" gallery, unaware they would be prohibited from showing nude work. Lee Snelgrove, executive director of One Columbia for Arts and Culture, which organizes the gallery’s exhibits, said the artists should have been aware of this limitation beforehand.
“There wasn’t necessarily a disagreement. It was in the contract and sort of the guidelines that the city uses for these, and I did advise them of that,” Snelgrove said.
"What is Art?" made its debut at Main Street’s First Thursday event in November when the gallery held a four-hour reception for visitors to enjoy and ask themselves, "What is art?" Six local artists attempted to answer that question: painters Keith Tolen, Rodgers Boykin, Ty Davis, and Sean Sims, sculptor Jeremy Butler and guest artist Ernest Lee. In addition to contributing artwork, Tolen organized and curated the show, a job he feels was made easy by his relationships with the artists involved.
According to Snelgrove, the gallery was created by the board of One Columbia, and those who helped to create the gallery also participated in drafting the guidelines. If pieces do not adhere to those guidelines, the city reserves the right to remove them from the gallery.
“You see, they don’t see the art. All they see is the nudity; they don’t see the art,” Butler said.
Butler was denied the ability to display two of his three sculptures due to their portrayal of the human form.
When selecting the artists to feature in the exhibit, Tolen considered both friendship and theme. The artists’ works are diverse, each contributing something slightly different to the show. The wide span of mediums and styles is what Tolen said he believes will help answer the question posed by the exhibit.
According to Tolen, the question arose when the artists were asked to remove pieces featuring nude subjects from the City Hall Gallery. The artists had the frustrating realization that "there is still much sensitivity toward nude figures," despite the human form having been a common theme in art for years. This experience inspired the group to draw attention to this sensitivity and ask viewers to redefine their personal definition of art.
“This is not to blame or call anyone out for what they consider appropriate art for their venue, yet it is a reminder that sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same. Any brief look at art history shows that nude representations of the human body have had their issues since Adam and Eve. Whether in western art cultures or eastern, the nude figure draws attention,” Tolen said in an email.
According to Snelgrove, exposure to art was exactly the intention behind the gallery’s creation; it was opened with the goal of providing a place for city staff to view artwork in a public space.
“It was fairly, I think, simple expectations in terms of what the gallery’s purpose was. It wasn’t necessarily to make a career for an artist or provide a venue for sales. It was really about awareness and allowing people to experience art in a public setting,” Snelgrove said.
Due in part to this experience, Butler expressed his concern that the arts and culture scene in Columbia is rapidly diminishing, the recent loss of Tapp’s Art Center being a contributing factor. However, he said he hopes this exhibit can inspire young people to develop a passion for art. For Tolen, the show is about encouraging people to elevate the ways in which they think about art.
“We know that the question 'What is Art?' may always spark discussion within creative forums, so it is our hope that not only will we talk about art but that we will seek to discover more artistic ideas,” Tolen said.
"What Is Art?" will remain open in the Gallery at City Hall through Dec. 31 and will tentatively host another First Thursday event in December.