Megan Zerez
Mercury Staff

Artwork installed earlier this year draws staff, student complaints

Nine months ago, a large collection of contemporary and
abstract art was installed throughout the JSOM building. Since then, the
collection — named for its donor, Joan Davidow — has been the subject of
numerous staff, faculty and student discussions, a thwarted call for removal
and the loss of two of its pieces.

The collection represents the bulk of Davidow’s personal
collection. Davidow first donated the collection to UTD in 2014. It was
originally installed in the ATEC building but was later moved into storage to
make room for student work. In 2017, Diane McNulty, the associate dean of
external affairs and corporate development for the School of Management,
petitioned to have the collection installed throughout JSOM facilities.

In an Oct. 10 meeting of the Staff Council, an anonymous
complaint cited concerns that a piece in the collection depicted violence
against women and objectification of the female body, according to minutes from
the meeting.

The piece, titled “Joni’s Chorus Line,” is a large textile
wall hanging by artist Hiram Williams. It’s one of several pieces by Williams
in the Davidow collection. The piece occupies a prominent space placed in the
atrium of JSOM II, across from the undergraduate trading lab.

The complainant described the piece as depicting “decapitated
bloody female bodies.”

Maria Reyes, an administrative project coordinator in JSOM
and a member of Staff Council, said she heard similar sentiments echoed among
multiple staff members throughout JSOM and had concerns about what the students
thought of the art.

“(‘Joni’s Chorus Line’) hangs in front of the undergraduate
lab, so it’s exposed to the youngest of the JSOM students,” Reyes said. “As a
mom, that’s something I worry about — what message is being conveyed to these
kids?”

Reyes said she would want the collection to be moved to a
separate gallery area with more guidance and context presented alongside the
pieces. Currently, each piece is accompanied by a small plaque containing a few
questions. Davidow, a former art educator and museum director, said she
suggested the format as a means to help students think more deeply about the
art.

Gaurav Shekhar is a program manager and lecturer for the
School of Management and member of Staff Council.  Shekhar said he hoped the curator considered
the international perspective of the viewers.

“We take pride in calling ourselves a melting pot of
cultures,” Shekhar said. “But what is appreciated by a certain culture might be
offensive to someone else. There’s a painting in the dean’s office that looks
like it has a stain on it. In India, where I’m from, it looks like betel nut
juice — it looks like a mark of disrespect.”

The painting Shekhar described is titled “Surprised Man.” It
features a prominent splash of brown, as if someone has suddenly spilled
something onto the canvas. Another piece by Williams, it will be moved into an
open space in JSOM next year.

Two pieces from the Davidow collection have also gone
missing since their installation in early 2018. Kenneth Mackenzie, a lieutenant
at UTD PD, said that he cannot recall anything like these cases in his nine
years with the department.

“You have to remember this is a school of 32,000 people,” he
said. “We’ve had furniture sitting in the hallway, and all of a sudden it goes
missing but turns up later in somebody’s office. For all we know … some staff
member could have (the art) hanging up in their office on display, thinking it
looks better in there.”

Mackenzie said that going forward, UTD PD’s crime prevention
officer should be contacted whenever there’s a valuable asset installed in a
building so appropriate security measures can be taken. He said to his
knowledge, the officer was not contacted ahead of the installation of the
Davidow collection.

One of the missing pieces is a small landscape called “Texas
Sky.” Mackenzie said the department believes that two unidentified students
removed the painting from the wall in May 2018. Security camera footage shows
the students placing the painting atop a nearby trashcan and walking away.
Later, footage shows the painting mistakenly discarded by a member of the
custodial staff.

The other missing piece is called “Crown of Thorns.” The
donor, Joan Davidow said she noticed the piece was missing in July 2018. Mackenzie
said the last video footage UTD PD has of the piece dates to March. He said the
motives in both cases are unclear.

While there have been discussions about the collection in
Staff Council, there are currently no plans to alter the installations. Ravi Prakash,
a professor of computer science, was present at the Staff Council meeting as a
representative from the Academic Senate.

“I don’t think the Staff Council was talking about
censorship or removing paintings but about providing context, so students would
understand the art as something other than a random image,” he said.

Prakash said there was a secondary concern with some of the
staff members who had offices in JSOM.

“It’s your workplace, and you have to go there every day,”
he said. “The message in these paintings is somewhat unsettling — profound, but
unsettling — and they had no say in what was displayed where.”

Prakash said he understood the concerns but that ultimately,
people come to a university to broaden their horizons.

The collection has sparked conversation in classrooms as
well as among faculty. Kristen Lawson, a professor of business communication,
said every semester, the topic of the Davidow collection comes up.

“I used to have an assignment in one of my classes that
involved filming what we call an elevator pitch,” Lawson said. “I didn’t tell
the students where to go (to film), but I noticed a lot of them naturally
gravitated towards the art installations we have in presenting themselves
aesthetically.”

Gordon Sheehan, a finance senior, said he spends a lot of
time in JSOM and around the trading lab, where “Joni’s Chorus Line” hangs.

 “When I first started
looking at it, it made me a little uncomfortable,” said Sheehan. “It’s not my
favorite, but it’s nicer than having just the plain wall, for sure.”

The collection was installed toward the end of Sheehan’s
time at UTD. He said the aesthetics of the JSOM building have changed
dramatically since he started as a freshman.

“When I’m on campus, I’m usually in work mode and I don’t
really stop to smell the flowers,” Sheehan said. “But the art here makes this
building stand out more than a typical business school.”

Information technology management senior Sahar
Moshtaghiaragh said she took note of the art as it was installed throughout the
year.

“I used to like to sit (in one of the student lounges), but
since (some nude paintings) were put up over those benches, I’ve stopped
sitting there,” Moshtaghiaragh said. “What’s the relation of that naked woman
to me, as a business student?”

Moshtaghiaragh is an artist and occasionally teaches art.
She said she prefers to work mostly in realism rather than abstract art.

“Some of these paintings, I have to think, ‘What is this?’ I
don’t see a very beautiful thing,” Moshtaghiaragh said. “As I’m an artist, I
feel we could have things that really make the building more beautiful, not
weird.”

Shekhar said he has concerns that some investors or
recruiters might take the art the wrong way. As part of his job as program
manager, Shekhar helps to recruit corporate engagement programs to campus.

“It’s not just students (who walk these hallways). We have
senior industry (recruiters) who come to JSOM almost every day,” Shekhar said.
“What if someone really can’t appreciate art and thinks the art is average? It
might translate to thinking that the students are average too. It is just not
good for the reputation that we have.”

Diane McNulty is the associate dean for external affairs and
corporate development in the School of Management. She was responsible for
organizing the transfer of the collection from ATEC to JSOM.

“There are a couple of management schools in the U.S. that
have very nice art collections, and you notice this is a new trend in
management schools,” McNulty said. “If you look at corporate moves to different
cities, many corporations are moving to be close to arts facilities. There’s a
real appreciation when a community has arts as a centerpiece of the culture.”

Davidow said she’s happy that people are talking about the
collection — whether it’s good or bad.

“That’s the point of art,” Davidow said. “To get people
talking.”

Additional reporting by Razan Afghani