Citing ‘vitriolic’ response to removal of nude paintings, HRT discontinues all art exhibits

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Alison Stinely poses for a portrait in her art studio at Old Dominion University on Jan. 16, 2017. (Adrienne Mayfield/Southside Daily)

One week after an artist was asked to remove her paintings from a gallery located inside of a Hampton Roads Transit building, the public agency announced that it will no longer partner with Norfolk Arts to host rotating art exhibitions in any of its facilities.

The move comes after figure painter and ODU professor Alison Stinely was asked to remove 14 of her paintings that were slated to be shown in the Transit Gallery, an art space opened in October 2015 inside of an HRT building located at 590 E. 18th Street.

Stinely’s removal stemmed from “concern” shown by HRT employees over the content of the art, which included nudity and dark images, said agency spokesman Tom Holden.

After the removal from the Norfolk gallery, Stinely’s paintings will now be shown in full at the Linda Matney Gallery in Williamsburg in April.

Holden told a WYDaily reporter that he could not detail the types of complaints made by employees or how many workers showed concern.

“Word got back to senior management that there was some concern about some of the content and given that it’s a public building they decided that we’ll pass on this opportunity,” Holden said. “Whatever art appeals or does not appeal to an individual can be a pretty personal interpretation, so we really don’t get too far into people’s views about things.”

On Friday, Holden sent WYDaily an email announcing that HRT would no longer allow rotating art exhibits to be featured in any of its facilities.

“Unfortunately, the vitriolic reaction to the cancellation of Ms. Stinely’s exhibit has created an untenable distraction from Hampton Roads Transit’s core mission: that is, providing safe and efficient public transportation to the citizens of our community,” Holden wrote in an email on Friday.

“Hampton Roads Transit must avoid similar disruptions in the future, so that we can remain focused on the business of public transit. Therefore, it is with deep regret and disappointment that Hampton Roads Transit announces that it will no longer permit rotational exhibits from local artists to be displayed within any of its workspaces at any of its facilities,” he continued.

Stinely called the closure of the Transit Gallery “incredibly unfortunate.” She added that she hoped her rejection from the gallery would spark a discussion in the Norfolk community about art and censorship.

“HRT should have considered the implications of cancelling a widely publicized event and the questions that were going to ultimately be asked by the public as a result,” Stinely wrote in an email on Friday afternoon.

“As people began asking these questions, and issues of censorship were discussed, my hope was that a real dialog would be jump-started within the community with the support of HRT,” she added. It is my understanding that a representative from HRT met with a few local artists to discuss this issue this week, yet I was not invited; I would have happily taken part.”

Stinely worked with Norfolk Arts, a government office that serves as a liaison between the city and arts organizations, to secure the gallery space, which would feature her exhibit, “Show of Force” from Jan. 26 until March 30.

“As part of our mission, Norfolk Arts works with property owners in several locations to place art exhibitions,” Norfolk Arts manager Karen Rudd wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Stinely’s show was planned for more than a year before she delivered her artwork to the Transit Gallery on Jan. 12. Four hours after she dropped the paintings off at the gallery, she received an email from a Norfolk Arts representative telling her that the show would need some “edits.”

“I’m working hard to try and get approval on what I can from the work delivered today,” the email read. “The CEO of HRT absolutely said they could not show the work and I’m so terribly sorry.”

Stinely originally applied with Norfolk Arts to have her artwork shown at one of two galleries, including the Transit Gallery, in August of 2016. She attached eight images of her paintings in a proposal, including works that featured nude images.

She was eventually approved for a January 2018 exhibit at the Transit Gallery. In her contract, Norfolk Arts stated that they reserved the rights to make edits to the show “during delivery or installation.”

HRT’s announcement came less than 24 hours after the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote the agency’s CEO, William E. Harrell, and asked for him to “establish a set of clear and Constitutionally sound guidelines” to prevent the censorship of artists.

“Having opened the Transit Gallery as an exhibition space, HRT, as a government agency, cannot arbitrarily reject work from that space because some individuals dislike it,” NCAC Arts Advocacy Associate Joy Garnett wrote in the letter.

Garnett said it was “unfortunate” that HRT decided to close the Transit Gallery “just because an artist has spoken up for her free speech rights.”

“NCAC reminds Hampton Roads Transit that artists serve us all by providing joy and insight into the human condition,” she wrote in an email.

“By closing its space, rather than remain open to the beauty that local artists can offer and the variety of ideas they represent in their artwork, HRT is depriving the community as a whole of the value of artistic expression,” she added. “And all because a few employees find the sight of the human body, that age-old subject of art and admiration, shameful and intolerable.”

Stinely said that she hopes the closure of the Transit Gallery will motivate others in the community to partner with Norfolk Arts, allowing the organization to offer “well curated and censorship-free exhibitions.”

Art exhibit pulled from Norfolk gallery for nudity finds new home in Williamsburg

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This article was published in partnership with our sister publication, Southside Daily.

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