Remember Trumbull, Connecticut?
That’s the town where a new high school principal canceled a production of the student edition of the musical Rent in the fall of 2013. The resultant outcry from students, parents, town residents, the media and interested third parties (including me) was such that three weeks later, the show was reinstated. It was produced at the high school in 2014 without any incident.
After my advocacy for Rent, I hate returning to the subject of the arts in Trumbull, for fear of being accused of piling on. That said, there must be something in the water supply in Trumbull, because it’s right back at the center of an arts censorship controversy again. Timothy M. Herbst, the town’s first selectman, has ordered the Trumbull Library to remove a painting by Robin Morris from a current exhibition, “The Great Minds Collection,” commissioned and loaned by Trumbull residents Richard and Jane Resnick. The painting in question, “Women of Purpose,” features representations of a number of famous women, including Mother Teresa, Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, Clara Barton and Margaret Sanger.
The Bridgeport Archdiocese of the Catholic Church has already made its dismay over the painting known, due to the juxtaposition of Mother Teresa with Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood. Library Director Susan Horton says she has received eight messages complaining about the painting, all from men. It is not yet known what complaints may have gone directly to Town Hall, prompting Herbst to pull the painting (the Resnicks’ attorney has filed a Freedom of Information Request to determine whether his client’s property is being unfairly singled out).
In fact, Herbst won’t admit to complaints being the cause for the painting’s removal at all. He refers instead to threats of copyright infringement for depicting Mother Teresa and the lack of an indemnification from the Resnicks against any claims arising from the display of the paintings.
“After learning that the Trumbull Library Board did not have the proper written indemnification for the display of privately-owned artwork in the town’s library, and also being alerted to allegations of copyright infringement and unlawful use of Mother Teresa’s image, upon the advice of legal counsel, I can see no other respectful and responsible alternative than to temporarily suspend the display until the proper agreements and legal assurances are in place,” Herbst said. “I want to make it clear that this action is in no way a judgment on the content of the art but is being undertaken solely to protect the town from legal liability based upon a preliminary opinion from the town attorney.”
I heard Mr. Herbst in action during the Rent incident, when he went on radio several times trying to assume the role of peacemaker. Instead merely offered unworkable solutions that were clear to anyone familiar with the school and the town’s youth theatre troupe. It should be noted that as first selectman, he doesn’t control the school system. That is the purview of the elected school board, which is chaired by his mother, who was all but silent throughout. As before, I find his current protestations to be a smokescreen.
First, this isn’t a copyright issue, since the painting is an original work of art and no one appears to have claimed that it is in some way derivative of another copyrighted work. There is the possibility that Mother Teresa’s image may have some trademark protection, as claimed by the Society of Missionaries of Charity in India on their website, but the assertion of trademark is not proof of ownership and the organization offers no documentation of their claim; it’s worth noting that there are numerous organizations operating in Mother Teresa’s name, which suggests that policing of the trademark is shoddy at best. Additionally, the fact is that a privately commissioned painting in private hands is unlikely to constitute an infringement of rights that causes confusion in the marketplace, something trademark is meant to protect.
Second, Richard Resnick has said he would be pleased to offer indemnification to the town for the display of the painting, which would make any issue disappear. Herbst asserts he needs time for an attorney to draft something, but any attorney with even limited experience could produce straightforward “hold harmless” language in perhaps an hour’s time. Frankly, I have more than a few on my hard drive from literary agreements, since it’s not uncommon for playwrights to hold producing organizations harmless from any claims against a work that as challenged as not being wholly original to the author. The fact that Herbst has already tried to throw the town librarian under the proverbial bus for not getting such documentation is shameful, since if such protection is regularly required, why hasn’t the town’s attorney prepared a document for each and every exhibit the library has ever shown, that can just immediately be pulled out of a file? If Horton failed to get one signed, then it should be readily available for Resnick’s promised immediate signature; if it hasn’t been required previously, then the fault lies with Herbst and the town’s attorney.
When Principal Mark Guarino tried to defend his cancellation of Rent, he took refuge behind vague terms like ‘challenging issue.’ Now we have Herbst hiding under the guise of proper legal procedure, which is a flimsy excuse for what seems quite obviously an attempt to censor work which some find displeasing. In doing so, Herbst has placed himself in the unenviable situation of being damned either way: if the painting stays down, he’s a art censor (which he adamantly claims he is not) and if it’s restored he’s alienating members of his constituency who may object to the painting on religious, ideological, political or even artistic grounds. This is a fine mess he’s gotten himself into, and for someone who apparently harbors greater political ambitions – he lost the race for state treasurer by a narrow margin in 2014 – he’s placed his ideology squarely in front of voters for any future campaign, while ineptly handling a situation that is quickly rising to the level of crisis.
Regarding theological opposition to the painting, it’s worth noting that it was on display at nearby Fairfield University in 2014 without any incident. Oh, and for those unfamiliar with the colleges and universities of southern Connecticut (where I grew up), it’s important to note that Fairfield is a Catholic school. Why didn’t the Archdiocese or the Society of Missionaries in Charity raise their issues during that three-month exhibition?
Tim Herbst could make the charges of censorship go away instantly with one single document. But as he keeps throwing up roadblocks, it’s obvious that he’s not protecting the town from legal claims, but rather serving other interests. If Herbst is trying to establish his conservative cred, he may well get himself exalted in certain partisan quarters only to be vilified in others. The question is whether his actions are bolstering the profile and needs of Trumbull, Connecticut, or those of Timothy M. Herbst, the once and future candidate?
While it’s a tenuous linkage, I’d just like to toss into the pot that Herbst’s town budget has zeroed out the annual allocation for the town’s popular summer theater operation, the Trumbull Youth Association. This is the same TYA program that Herbst suggested could provide a home for Rent if it couldn’t be done at the high school (although that wasn’t a workable alternative for several reasons). If we’re looking for patterns about art and Trumbull, one does seem to be emerging.
And just to cap this off, it has been noticed that in discussing the withdrawal of the painting from the library exhibit, the Trumbull town website reproduced the painting itself. If Herbst is so concerned about copyright infringement, didn’t he just place the town at risk once again? Seems like a contradiction to me.
Update March 4, 2 pm: I just spoke briefly with Jane Resnick, as we both called in to “The Colin McEnroe Show” on WNPR in Connecticut. Mrs. Resnick affirmed that she and her husband had always been prepared to indemnify the town against any damage that might occur while their paintings were on display in a town facility and that, while they had not anticipated the need, they would also hold the town harmless from any copyright claims that might possibly be forthcoming.
Update, March 4, 4 pm: Regarding First Selectman Tim Herbst’s efforts to zero out the budget of the Trumbull Youth Association, it has been reported today by the Trumbull Times that just last night, the town’s Board of Finance overruled the cut, and the funding was restored, against Herbst’s wishes.
Update, March 4, 5:15 pm: The Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper, declares in an editorial, “Public works of art, like library books, should not be held hostage to the complaints of a few whose sensibilities are offended.”
Update, March 4, 5:30 pm: The Trumbull Times reports, via e-mails it has seen, that organized opposition to the display of the painting originated with the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, and indicates that a town councilman assured members of the group that the painting would be coming down as early as February 14, and suggested that First Selectman Herbst was in support of its removal. Herbst, however, denies that this was the case, and says that an indemnification agreement has been provided to Dr. Resnick and that, “As soon as the agreement is executed by Dr. Resnick, the artwork can be re-hung in the library.”
However, Herbst goes on to say that “Public buildings should bring people together to have an open exchange of alternate points of view,” which seems positive, save for the fact that it is immediately followed by, “Public buildings should not make any member of the community feel that their point of view is secondary to another,” which seems exceedingly vague and undercuts the prior statement. A single work of art rarely pleases everyone. If dissatisfaction or dislike of a work of art, or a book, can be construed as making someone feel “secondary,” what is to prevent future efforts to remove controversial content from the Trumbull Library?
Update, March 6, 12 pm: The Trumbull Times reports that Dr. Resnick has returned a signed indemnification agreement to the Town of Trumbull. There is no word yet on whether the painting has been restored to its place in the library.
Update, March 6, 3:30 pm: While the disputed painting has been rehung just now, the Town of Trumbull is now demanding a “comprehensive indemnification” for all of the paintings from their owner Dr. Richard Resnick, without which the entire collection will be taken down as of 5 pm. The letter from first selectman Herbst to Dr. Resnick’s attorney has been made public by the Connecticut Post.
Update: March 9, 12 noon: So far as I know at the moment, the entire collection is currently hung at the Trumbull Library. A series of claims and counterclaims between First Selectman Herbst and attorney Bruce Epstein on behalf of Dr. Richard Resnick have been made in correspondence, and shared with all interested parties via the Trumbull Times. They are: “Painting back up for now; but all could come down soon” (March 6, with updates); “Herbst and Horton: Chief wasn’t at meeting” (March 7, with updates), and “Resnick: I won’t be intimidated by Herbst’s demands” (March 8).
Update, March 11, 11:00 pm: At approximately 8 pm this evening, as the painting was being discussed at a meeting of the library board, an individual defaced the painting, reportedly by obscuring Margaret Sanger’s face. The Trumbull Times reported on the developments.
As of March 12, there will be no further updates to this post, but please refer to my newer post, “The Shameful, Inevitable Result of The Trumbull Art Controversy” for any additional details.
Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama in New York.
Note: crude or ad hominem attacks in comments will be removed at my discretion. This is not censorship, but my right as the author of this blog to insure that conversation remains civil. Comments will not be removed simply because we disagree.