New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2012
LARAMIE, Wyo. » The idea behind the sculpture that appeared on the University of Wyoming campus about 16 months ago was simple but provocative: a swirl of dead wood and lumps of coal, intended to show the link between global warming and the pine beetle infestation that has ravaged forests across the Rockies.
But in a place like Wyoming, where the oil, gas and mining industries are the soul of the economy, some view such symbolism as a declaration of war.
And ever since the British artist Chris Drury installed the 36-foot-diameter sculpture, called "Carbon Sink," the university has been embroiled in a bitter controversy, which eventually led to the quiet removal of the artwork last spring after energy officials and their political allies complained to the university.
The dispute over the sculpture — part of a series of campus installations commissioned by the university's art museum — has continued to dog the university after it released emails discussing the artwork.
The emails, first obtained by Wyoming Public Radio, showed that the university's president, Tom Buchanan, privately asked that the sculpture be dismantled a year ahead of schedule because of the uproar surrounding it.
In a note on April 13 to the director of the university's art museum, Buchanan wrote that it would be best to remove the sculpture, "given the controversy that it has generated."
He was responding to objections raised by local lawmakers and officials in Wyoming's energy industry, which helps support the university through state taxes and felt betrayed.
"What kind of crap is this?" Marion Loomis, the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said to a university official in an email. "I am all for freedom of expression, but putting a permanent piece blasting the coal industry while taking millions in royalties, AML fees and severance taxes strikes me as a stab in the back." AML, short for abandoned mine lands, refers to a reclamation fee.
In another email, to Buchanan, state Rep. Thomas E. Lubnau II threatened to introduce legislation that would ensure that "no fossil-fuel-derived tax dollars find their way in the University of Wyoming funding stream."
Lubnau, a Republican from energy-rich Campbell County, said he subsequently told the university that he was not serious about cutting financing, and emphasized that he never called for the sculpture's removal.
"I don't think the university planned for the consequences of its actions very well," he said. "But I have never commented publicly on the artist or the merit of the art. I've always maintained that tensions in ideas make us stronger."
Lubnau added, "I'm not afraid of any idea."
Loomis, of the mining association, said that the group was not trying to tell the university what art to display, but that it had a right to complain about something it deemed offensive.
"We felt like it was a slap," he said. "So we reacted. We may have overreacted. We're over it."
But if the controversy is finished for the energy industry, it is not for the university.
Emails show that one university official told an alumnus that the sculpture was removed early from its perch on an expanse of grass because of water damage — an irrigation line had broken in the area.
An editorial on Oct. 22 in The Casper Star-Tribune criticized the university for misleading the public over the reason the artwork was taken down.
Buchanan declined to comment on the matter. Chris Boswell, the university's vice president for governmental and community affairs, said the explanation given to the alumnus was a mistake, and that no official reason had ever been released.
Boswell also pointed out that the sculpture remained intact for nearly a year — evidence, he said, that the university had not acquiesced to pressure.
"There are scholarly efforts, research efforts that occur on campus which I'm sure industry is not thrilled about, but occur on a daily basis," he said. "At the same time, the university is very well dialed into the industries of this state."
"Any institution is smart to be mindful of controversy," Boswell added. "Does that translate into the muddling of opinions? No, I don't believe so."
Amid the fallout from the controversy, lawmakers passed a measure that requires artwork for a newly renovated campus recreation center to reflect Wyoming's history of transportation, agriculture and minerals.
The measure also gives Gov. Matt Mead, along with the university's Energy Resources Council — composed primarily of energy industry representatives — final say on what art is selected.
Mead, a Republican, said at a recent news conference that he did not feel it was appropriate for him to review the art.
Jeff Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities who has been outspoken in his frustration over the university's handling of the sculpture, said outrage had grown among students and faculty members.
"I'm disappointed that the university caved in to that sort of extortion and that sort of implied threat," Lockwood said. "And I'm angry that this sort of behavior on the part of private industry, as well as their effectiveness in lobbying our elected officials, would lead to an act of artistic censorship on a university campus."