How a student painting caused a major controversy at SAIC and changed the School.
The SAIC campus was teeming with controversy on May 11, 1988 after student David K. Nelson, Jr. (SAIC 1987) displayed his painting Mirth & Girth for the annual Traveling Fellowship competition, a private student exhibition held to showcase the work of graduating students. The painting was a portrait depicting the recently deceased and first African American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, scantily clad in women’s undergarments.
The painting was hung in a prominent spot in SAIC’s Columbus Drive Building, visible to students and faculty as well as museum staff who would pass through regularly. In 1988 Tom Buechele, who is currently SAIC's Vice President of Campus Operations, was Student Government Treasurer. “There was a lottery and the graduating students, if they got a good number, they would get a better space, and David Nelson got a great spot in the hallway,” says Buechele.
The events that followed caused one of the largest First Amendment and race relation controversies in the history of the School, straining SAIC’s relationship with the city of Chicago. Complaints about the painting’s depiction of the popular former mayor started shortly after it was displayed, and soon spread to the Chicago City Council. The Chicago Tribune detailed the events of the controversy in its article “The Mayoral Painter’s 15 Minutes of Fame.”
In her essay for The File Room, titled “Private Fantasies Shape Public Events: and Public Events Invade and Shape Our Dreams,” Carol Becker, former SAIC Dean of Faculty, describes the day’s events: “[SAIC President] Tony Jones convened a small group of faculty, administration, and staff as an ad hoc advisory group to help him determine what actions, if any, should be taken. This group crammed into the Provost's office. As they deliberated, phones rang off the hook condemning the painting, and the press continued to gather in the administrative offices demanding a statement. Then suddenly the opportunity to make an academic decision was taken away as nine black aldermen, who had just marched over from City Hall, stormed the School.”
Miscommunication and rumors only added to the growing turbulence between the School and city officials. Three of the aldermen, Allan Streeter, Dorothy Tillman, and Bobby Rush, took the painting down and attempted to remove it from the School. After much commotion in President Jones’s office, the painting was seized and "arrested" by the Chicago Police Department.
Concerned with issues of censorship and the violation of their First Amendment rights, students protested the removal of the painting. The Chicago Tribune reported: “In a volatile shouting match with the students, the aldermen yelled: How could an artist paint such an insult, how could the School of the Art Institute give display space to such racism? Where are the artist's constitutional rights to free expression? the students shouted. Where's the artist? the media demanded.”
After the painting was removed, around 300 students and faculty gathered in SAIC's Columbus Auditorium to discuss the events. “The conversation went on for about two hours, and there was a current in the conversation expressed by some faculty, and particularly by Scott Tyler (Dread Scott) who was a student at the time [and who created a separate controversial work one year later],” recalls Buechele. “He was trying to explain to the rest of us white kids who didn’t really understand what was going on [in terms of Chicago's racial politics and the importance of Harold Washington to the African American community]...so there was an attempt very early on to put this into context.”
Becker ends her essay saying, “As the immediate impact of the painting incident recedes, perhaps those involved will discover that the event actually has served to create a rupture in the continuity, dramatic enough to expose hidden contradictions and decisive enough to force an irrevocable awareness of the need for synthesis and change.”
“At the end of the day, the debate was so healthy. It caused us to realize this divide between SAIC and the city of Chicago, and what we should do to become better partners with the city. Many initiatives came out of the discussions that followed,” says Felice Dublon, SAIC's Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs.
In the years since the Mirth & Girth controversy, there have been many changes internally at the School as well as in its relationship with the city. SAIC established a Director of Multicultural Affairs position. Over the years, that position’s responsibilities evolved and was renamed the Director of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion. The School created the Diversity Advisory Group to bring together students, faculty, and staff to work toward a more equitable, just environment. This commitment to diversity was recognized with a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award in 2014 and 2015. SAIC developed the College Arts Access Program (CAAP), which works with Chicago Public Schools students to prepare them with the skills necessary for admission to SAIC and other higher education institutions. And most recently, SAIC has brought art and design programming to the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side in order to help residents build their skills in art, design, and technology.
Harold Washington is remembered as saying, “Chicago is one city. We shall work as one people for our common good and our common goals.” Although May 1988 created a period of confusion and strife within SAIC, dividing the School on many fronts, the dialogue ultimately led to a stronger SAIC community and a more productive relationship with the city.