Column: Why the Museum of Fine Arts is showcasing two controversial, uncomfortable pieces of art

Published June 29 2017

A new exhibition of works by area artists at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg includes two works that explore the challenging themes of violence, extremism and radicalization in today's society.

In Worktable #9, he of Righteousness (Minneapolis, St. Petersburg), Gregory Green has created a life-size simulation of a bomb-building workshop, though it does not include materials that would make it functional. In Love Letters/White Flag, Noelle Mason has hand-embroidered the journal entries of the Columbine High School shooters onto white handkerchiefs.

Despite the troubling subject matter, neither of these artists is glorifying violence. Instead, they have painstakingly created works that provoke thoughtful, respectful dialogues about issues of our time. They challenge us to look past the noise of 24/7 news headlines and examine messages that are in front of us on a regular basis.

Some visitors and others in the local community have wondered why a panel of curators from four well-respected Florida museums would select these two works to be included in the Museum of Fine Arts' portion of the "Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration" exhibition, knowing that the decision may lead to controversy.

The answer is simple: The Museum of Fine Arts is a safe place for exploration and discovery. That sense of safety envelops and supports us when we confront disconcerting narratives expressed through art. By exploring works inspired by current issues, we can stand together and pause in thought together.

When I learned that the "Skyway" curators had chosen to include these works in the upcoming exhibition, I spent time thinking carefully about how to respond. I concluded that as the largest and only comprehensive museum in the Tampa Bay area, it was important for the MFA to show these works and stimulate dialogue. Acting as a catalyst for reflection is one of many ways museums serve their communities.

We cannot and will not censor art or artists because the subject matter is uncomfortable or not pleasing, or because it may be misinterpreted. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of our democracy, and museums must remain a safe place for people to encounter thought-provoking works and reflect on the experiences that connect us.

As the "Skyway" exhibit continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, docents are on hand to help explain the two works, and a statement on an adjacent wall advises visitors that they are entering an area with difficult subject matter. Also, we have made it a priority to include clear statements about the works and the artists' intent in materials related to the exhibition.

Franz Kafka once wrote that we should only read the kinds of books that wound us. "We need books that affect us like a disaster," he wrote, "that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves. ... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Similarly, while art often brings us respite, beauty and light, we sometimes need art to be the axe to break through the frozen sea within us.

I encourage you to look with appreciation on the works that lift you up in the "Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration" exhibition, which is on view all summer at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, and the Tampa Museum of Art.

But I hope you'll also look thoughtfully on the works that shake you up a little, and take the time to reflect on the artists' intentions, knowing that our museum is a place where artistic exploration and freedom of thought are at the core of our mission every day.

Kristen Shepherd is executive director of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Before joining the MFA in November 2016, she held leadership positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.