A painting by high school student David Pulphus. Photo: Zach Gibson.

Seventeen Arts Nonprofits Unite Against Removal of Student Painting in US Capitol

Seventeen arts nonprofits have signed an amicus brief filed by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) in the case of Pulphus v. Ayers, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Last February, Missouri congressman William Lucy Clay filed a lawsuit against architect of the capitol Stephen Ayers for removing a painting by Saint Louis high school student David Pulphus that depicted protestors and police clashing in Ferguson, Missouri. The work was to be displayed in a yearlong exhibition in Washington, DC, after Pulphus won an annual nationwide competition sponsored by the Congressional Institute; however, it was removed after six months when Republican Doug Lamborn took offense to the portrayal of police, who resemble pigs.

Ayers responded to accusations of censorship by stating that the exhibition is “government speech” and that the government has a right to remove the painting, which was inspired by the protests in Ferguson following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. The amicus brief, which was filed on January 5, contains curatorial practices delineated in both the “Code of Ethics for Curators” and the “Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy,” published by the NCAC. The document also contextualizes animal caricatures as part of a long tradition of government criticism.

Signatories of the brief include the Americans for the Arts, the College Art Association of America, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Free Speech Coalition, the Index on Censorship, PEN America, and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. “We are proud to work with our arts partners from across the nation and the national network of pro bono legal volunteers for the arts in this effort, and are thankful for the more than one-hundred and ninety attorneys who volunteer their time in Allegheny County with pro bono support for the arts,” said Mitch Swain, the CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

“The Congressional Art Competition is meant to reflect the diverse voices of all Americans—from every political stripe,” PEN America Washington director Gabe Rottman said. “Members of either party can’t censor paintings because they fail to comport with their worldview.”