Artist 'shocked' by Westport Library's cancellation of 9/11 exhibit
An exhibit of work by artist Karen E. Gersch -- "Still Smoldering/Reflections of 9/11," collages that she created after witnessing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City -- had been planned at the Westport Library for more than a year.
So Gersch was "shocked and disappointed" when, as the artwork was being installed in the library's glass Riverwalk display case last Friday, the exhibit was suddenly, and without warning, cancelled by library officials.
Gersch, whose artistic portfolio also features portrayals of clowns, said the 9/11 pieces were "chosen specifically" by library staff for the exhibit, which was scheduled to run through Nov. 30. And, she added, the library had images of the art to be included in the exhibit about six months ago. "So it's odd this would happen," she said.
"I've never shown this work before," said Gersch, who was living in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the Twin Towers collapse after two jetliners were flown into the buildings. "I started them right after 9/11 and have only shown them privately."
She said there is "nothing graphic, nothing gory" depicted in the images, but admitted the destruction portrayed in her art makes "it is a strong exhibit."
Gersch said she was told the exhibit was pulled because of reaction by parents to the subject matter. The Riverwalk display case is located near a activity room for children.
But Maxine Bleiweis, the library's director, said there were "no objections from anyone" about the exhibit. She said there were two inquiries made to her regarding what the content would be in light of the 9/11 theme.
"That in itself is not unusual," Bleiweis, who is on vacation, wrote in an email responding to questions from the Westport News. "We get many inquiries about what we are planning." In this case, she said, the inquiries "caused me to turn my attention more carefully to the exhibit."
She added that it was solely her decision to cancel the exhibit. "I determined it was the wrong location for the topic," she said. "I was the person who raised the main concern of the impact this particular exhibit would have."
Bleiweis explained that, as library officials routinely display material in many formats, they "carefully consider the impact on our public."
For Gersch's 9/11 exhibit, the greatest concern was about its placement in an area that is a general passageway, she said. "Our desire is always to stimulate thinking, but not to be disturbing unless a person chooses to delve further into a topic," she explained.
In this case, Bleiweis said, "9/11 had a very personal impact on many people in this area." The library director added it wasn't until she saw "the full impact of the visual display in that location" that she decided the display case was not appropriate.
Asked if her decision could be considered censorship, Bleiweis replied, "not at all," describing it as "selection" not to exhibit the work.
Gersch, who lives in Orange County, New York and previously lived in Westport 17 years, said since the exhibit was cancelled that the library staff has been "very supportive and sympathetic, and are making an effort to find another venue."
But, she added, her "continued learning curve indicates that this exhibit needs to be in a gallery or museum or university that invites controversial matter or sensitive adult material."
Gersch said she wishes she had thought to create a special presentation on 9/11 for children to introduce them to her work. "I wonder if that would have made a difference here," she said.