In April 2018, the University of Southern Maine (USM) removed three pieces of artwork from an on-campus art show on its Lewiston-Auburn campus, after learning that the artist had once been convicted of sex-related crimes. In the aftermath of the decision, many criticized USM for its decision, and for not using the opportunity to have a discussion on the moral complexities underlying the case.
Bruce Habowski, a 51-year-old artist living in Waterville, Maine, was convicted of unlawful sexual contact in 1999, a felony for which he served six months in prison. According to the Sun Journal, he also had two sex-related misdemeanor convictions around the same time, one involving a juvenile. Habowski is a prolific and highly regarded oil painter, and submitted three pieces for the “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” art show at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus.
Janice L. Moore, a local painter, was the guest-curator for the show, which ran from March 12 to June 1, 2018. She was responsible for selecting the artwork to be displayed. The gallery contained about 70 pieces of art from approximately 30 artists. Moore said she did not consider the background of each artist when deciding which works to include. She was upset that the university eliminated Habowski’s paintings, saying that she did not understand why he was being punished for the crime a second time, after he had already “paid his debt” years ago.
Glenn Cummings is president of USM. He initially refused to comment on the situation, allowing the general statement the university had released to speak for itself. But following increased scrutiny and adverse reactions, Cummings made an additional explanatory statement regarding the removal of the artwork.
The art show opened on March 12, 2018, in the Atrium Gallery on USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus, part of the main entryway to the school. About three weeks later, university administrators received a complaint from a relative of a victim of one of Habowski’s crimes, and decided the artist’s three paintings should be removed. Moore, the curator, was reportedly “livid” about this decision, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“He was convicted for his crime and he paid his debt. The act of making art, to me, it seems is a very positive thing. You are contributing to society in a positive way. I don’t understand how that should be punished,” she said. But Moore ultimately had to defer to the decision of USM administrators, since the gallery is a university-owned and -operated gallery. Following the removal of Habowski’s artwork, she chose to leave the spaces on the wall blank, save for a note which read: “This painting has been removed by order of the USM President.”
Eventually, the university released a statement on the matter, saying only that “USM received a complaint from a member of the public. The complaint was not about the content of the art, but the artist. After careful review, USM decided to remove his works from this exhibit.” Although Habowski was not named in the statement, nor by Moore, news outlets were able to determine that it was his paintings that were removed by examining the roster of artists included in the gallery show.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) disagreed with the university’s decision to remove Habowski’s paintings, saying, “As a public institution, USM not only should uphold freedom of expression, it also has a legal obligation to do so.” FIRE cited the university’s free speech guidelines, which read, “Academic freedom is the freedom to present and discuss all relevant matters in and beyond the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression, and to speak or write without any censorship, threat, restraint, or discipline by the University with regard to the pursuit of truth in the performance of one’s teaching, research, publishing or service obligation.”
Critics complain about removal of artwork
Moore was not alone in decrying the university’s decision to remove Habowski’s art. The artist himself would not comment on the matter to any news outlet, but revealed to one reporter that he was disappointed the show had received mostly negative attention due to his paintings. The Portland chapter of the Union of Maine Visual Artists expressed its frustration over the decision by sending a letter to Cummings, and the National Coalition Against Censorship released a statement urging USM to return the artwork and to “adopt clear free speech guidelines for future exhibitions.”
USM president defends decision
Cummings did not initially comment on the situation, but following increasing backlash, he released a statement explaining the rationale for removing Habowski’s artwork. He observed that allowing the pieces of art to remain on display could potentially “serve as a trigger for…students and staff who have been victims of child abuse and sexual assault.” Cummings specifically drew attention to the physical location of the gallery, noting that “since the display is at the campus main entrance where…students and staff…enter and exit, the potential to trigger is very real. This is very different from a controversial speaker in which students choose—or not—to attend.”
Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20
Uploaded August 8, 2018