Then, she flipped the long canvas around, so its main image, a woman raising her hands in supplication, would face the wall and no longer be visible to visitors to the gallery space.
"This hurts," she said, stepping off the ladder. "I'm very emotional doing this. I am doing what I shouldn't be doing -- turning my piece the other way."
Vahdat is an Iranian-born artist who has been creating work about human rights for many years. She came to the U.S. 30 years ago after several members of her family were executed for being of the Baha'i faith, she said.
Her artwork, titled "A Prison Called Iran" features a contour drawing of a female nude, her arms raised in supplication. It is a subtle and layered work, with the main image obscured by rows of faint black lines, red script letters that repeat the work's title and red netting the veil the work from top to bottom.
The work is intended to be a metaphor for the lack of freedom in Iran, particularly for women. It is a beautiful and vulnerable image, hung, not coincidentally, at about the time of the second anniversary of Iran's Green Movement.
"So many women are in prison and tortured," Vahdat said. "Even silent protest can lead to execution."
The Intercontinental informed the organizers of the show that the piece was not appropriate for the space last week, according to Tim Smith, the hotel's general manager.
Asking Vahdat to silence her work, so to speak, is an unfortunate act that never should have happened but was probably inevitable. It raises questions about many well-intentioned art programs in nontraditional locations and how they are managed.
In the last few years, several local hotels have created art programs of various sorts, in an attempt to provide a draw for locals while providing artists with exposure to new and sometimes international audiences.
The Marcus Corp., which owns the Intercontinental, has been the leader in this. It started a residency program at the Pfister Hotel, now in its third year. The Intercontinental created a physical gallery space in its freshly designed lobby and about six months ago entered into a partnership with the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for curatorial services. It provides $5,000 toward the art school's scholarship fund as part of the arrangement, which funds a student curator who works with advisers from MIAD. Other hotels, such as the Iron Horse, the Aloft and the Hotel of the Arts Days Inn also have staged exhibitions.
This all sounds wonderful, right?
Well, let's look at what happened at the M Gallery. The gallery is not supervised on a day-to-day basis by an art professional, is also used for events and is a space that will attract casual passersby. In other words, the space has some natural constraints.
In practical terms this means the gallery can't accommodate three-dimensional works (unless you want caterers hauling art around) and time-based mediums such as video also become a challenge. Also, content and didactics need to be thoughtfully considered to accommodate the more public venue, a place that hotel visitors, theatergoers and others will happen upon.
It'd be very easy for a gallery like this to be superficial, to hang art that behaves like scene setting for fundraisers and wedding receptions. In the right hands, though, it's a wonderful opportunity. What's needed in a space like this is curatorial expertise and finesse. And the Intercontinental is to be applauded for recognizing the need for outside curation.
The female form tends to surface in the history of art and nudity is never a straightforward issue when it comes to quasi public venues. This warranted some clear understanding in advance of this incident. A complaint was made by a potential hotel client, who was viewing the space, and a decision was made, according Smith.
This of course raises questions about how easily the human form is by its nature deemed inappropriate, depening on the context. Would a photograph of a classical sculpture have offended anyone? Of course not. Vahdat's image is not overly explicit nor is it at all sexual.
But perhaps the more fundamental point is that the piece is not at all suited to the space. It is a work that deserves a more contemplative setting rather than an on-again, off-again fete location.
MIAD decided to host the "MARN Mentors" show, which is the culmination of a project in which established artists and emerging ones are paired up for mentorship and collaborations. The exhibit, organized by the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network, tends to feature a large number of artists and diverse works.
I can see why MIAD, which coordinated the show and its installation, and MARN would want to showcase some of the city's better artists in such a high-profile spot, but this may have been where the first error was made. The works in this show are quite varied and at times conceptually dense. I'm not sure the art is served by the informality of the setting.
Perhaps what's important, however, is not that this situation arose but how it gets handled. Before Vahdat turned her piece around, MIAD and MARN made a decision to fold the long canvas up and pin it closed, so that only the woman's face could be seen, according to Vahdat and MIAD and MARN officials. Then an email was forwarded to Vahdat with no direct message, only an image of the pinned-up work. The situation was less than ideal, but the piece could be opened for the opening reception and press visits, Melissa Dorn Richards or MIAD wrote to Melissa Musante of MARN in the email exchange.
This is offensive. The art school and advocacy group were certainly in a difficult spot, but obliterating the content of the piece -- particularly this piece -- was most certainly the wrong thing to do. To take an artwork that is about creative expression and close it up was a terrible symbolic gesture.
If there was some communication failing on the part of MIAD, MARN and the Intercontinental, as understandable as it may have been, why was the artist the only one asked to comprimise? What message does this send to the emerging artists being mentored and in the show or to the would-be curator who is working with MIAD?
It is not too late to correct the offense. What's the solution? Perhaps the hotel, MIAD and MARN should arrange for an alternative and more full showing of Vahdat's work in a more contemplative setting. I don't know. This is not my area of expertise. What I do know is that asking Vahdat to excise or edit her work communicates a terrible message about what's important in art.
I believe all the parties involved are incredibly well intentioned but have failed to see the maining of their decisions in this case. If Vahdat exhibited this work in the country of her birth, she might be jailed for it. A more thoughtful outcome is warranted. I hope one can be reached by the time the show officially opens to the public on Thursday.