Colorado Library Exhibit Pushes Boundaries of What Defines Art

An American flag might offend people if it's displayed, but apparently ceramic penises won't.

That's the rationale the Boulder Public Library has been accused of adopting, and suddenly the organization has found itself awash in controversy.

The flap started when library Director Marcellee Gralapp told a group of employees they couldn't hang a large American flag over one of the entryways because it might offend some people. She was quoted by a Boulder newspaper, The Daily Camera, as saying that the gesture "could compromise our objectivity."

Following the predictable outcry, the library opted to mount a flag on a pole over the entrance instead. The controversy should have gone away.

But it hasn't. It reared itself again because the library administration is displaying ceramic penises dangling from knitted cozies on a clothesline as part of an art exhibit on domestic violence.

It's the decision about what is and isn't appropriate for a public building that has outraged some in the community.

"We thought it was just ludicrous, crazy — it's a government building," said Jonathan Sawyer, cofounder of a Boulder company called Freewave Technologies, of the library's initial choice not to hang the flag. "And then in contrast, to have a controversial exhibit. There's either a total lack of critical thinking or these people harbor some biases that they're trying to impose on others."

Sawyer, along with several of his employees, went and taped flags on the outside of the library in protest after hearing of the director's decision not to hang Old Glory over the south entrance. Though he doesn't consider himself overly patriotic, Sawyer and his coworkers felt the library had gone too far this time — especially in light of the current exhibit.

"It's hard to understand the thinking behind that," he said. "But we made our point."

Now, the artwork has become topic A for several local talk shows. The installation, titled "Hung Out to Dry," features colorful ceramic models of penises hanging from a cord strung between a wall and a column in one section of the library. One end of the cord is tied as a noose.

The piece is part of an exhibition called "Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence," which opened Oct. 19 and is sponsored by the Boulder Safe House, a facility for abuse survivors. Many of the works were done by former survivors or their relatives.

Library Cultural Program Director Karen Ripley told the Rocky Mountain News that 52 people called Monday to complain about the "flag flap." The exhibit — which has been running for three weeks — actually didn't get much attention until the incident with the flag.

Ripley doesn’t see any connection between the artwork and the flag issue, and believes the whole matter has been misconstrued. She said the library has always had flags inside and outside the building.

"A lot of this controversy is pure misunderstanding," she said in an interview. "The flag has been hung all along. The issue was that there was not a flag in one of the entryways."

Some familiar with the library, however, say the flags flying outside are actually near a side entrance of the building along a walkway in front of City Hall — and until the controversy, no flags were displayed prominently either inside or outside the library.

Ripley wouldn’t speculate what Gralapp meant by her comments that hanging the flag might make some people uncomfortable, but said non-political factors also went into the decision.

"She was talking about not flying a 10-foot by 15-foot flag in the entryway … It would in part cover the entryway in which case people would literally have to lift up the flag to walk in the door," Ripley said. "I think her decision was in part practical as much as anything."

As for the artwork that has caused such a stir, Ripley said the library put "Hung Out to Dry" in a location that would give it less exposure than some of the other pieces so as not to offend passersby. No one complained about the exhibit before it became a talking point on radio shows Wednesday, she said.

"You could walk into the library and not even know it’s there," she said.

Discussion did take place over what was and wasn’t appropriate for a public building and what constituted censorship, according to Ripley. The group decided not to remove "Hung Out to Dry."

Some other works in the exhibition include jarring images reflecting the horrors of domestic abuse, with some depicting portions of the nude female body. Boulder Safe House Director Anne Tapp said it's natural that artistic expressions on this subject would be evocative.

"What we can hope for is to be impacted by it, to be moved, left wondering and, in some cases, disturbed," she said.

Ultimately, Ripley and the Boulder Public Library stand behind "Hung Out to Dry" and the entire display.

"This particular piece is one person’s way of expressing her feelings on domestic violence," Ripley said. "Because we are a library, we do not support censorship. We do support freedom of expression."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.