An exhibition at the Lewis-Clark State College’s Center for Arts and History in Lewiston, Idaho, became a hotbed of controversy after six abortion-related artworks were removed mid-install. The school cited the No Public Funds for Abortions Act passed last year as the reason for removing works by Katrina Majkut, who curated the show; Lydia Nobles; and Michelle Hartney. The three artists are currently in communication with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which have presented the school with a joint letter calling for the decision to be reconsidered.
The exhibition, titled Unconditional Care: Listening to People’s Health Needs, showcases work about people living with chronic illnesses, disabilities, pregnancy, assault, and gun violence. Three documentary films and one audio piece from Nobles’s As I Sit Waiting series that highlights lived experiences with abortion, Majkut’s embroidery piece depicting prescription abortion medications mifepristone and misoprostol, and Hartney’s transcription of a 1920s letter from an unwell mother to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger begging for accessible reproductive healthcare were removed leading up to the exhibition’s opening on March 3.
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On February 28, Nobles received an email from the university stating that her works were removed from the exhibition as it was being installed after a consultation with legal counsel. “Based on current Idaho Law (Idaho Code 18-8705), your proposed exhibit cannot be included,” the email read with no additional clarifications. Nobles was permitted to submit another artwork for review by the legal counsel, but did not receive any further information from the university about how her work allegedly violated the law.
Idaho Code 18-8705 states that public funds cannot be used “to perform or promote abortion, provide counseling in favor of abortion, make referral for abortion, or provide facilities for abortion or for training to provide or perform abortion.”
Nobles told Hyperallergic that her film and audio interviews of people chronicling their abortion and forced pregnancy stories were “actually pretty unbiased,” illuminating memories like the moment they learned of their pregnancy and their experiences in the waiting room and exam rooms.
“Those details may seem boring to others but become really comforting because we were able to take the mystery out of the procedure that is so stigmatized,” Nobles said.
Majkut, who was approached by the university late last year to curate the show, told Hyperallergic that her artwork was “rejected verbally in person by two higher-up school administrators a day before the opening,” and her wall labels were rejected hours before the opening.
“I did object to it all and at the very least tried for alternative options but those were rejected too,” Majkut said, referencing her edited wall texts that pared out any mentions of “post-Roe America” and science-based information about abortion statistics.
Hartney told Boise State Public Radio that her transcribed letter that only mentions the word “abortion” once was removed by administrators hours before the opening as well, without any further explanation.
The school has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about the interpretation of the specific Idaho Code or whether public funds were used to support the exhibition in any way.
Nobles said that a friend of hers who has experienced censorship connected her to the NCAC and that Majkut connected her and Hartney to the ACLU. The two organizations sent a joint letter to the school’s president questioning the interpretation of the cited law and urging the administration to re-install Nobles’s work.
“The College’s decision threatens this bedrock First Amendment principle by censoring Nobles’ important work and denying visitors of the Center the opportunity to view, consider, and discuss it,” the letter reads.
Nobles had similar laments about the status of free speech on college campuses, especially as she’s faced challenges introducing her work to private institutions and hoped schools would be more receptive. “The underlying image of college is that it promotes free speech so that students can learn and formulate their own opinions,” she said. “So to have this happen — getting a lot of pushback from private institutions because of their collectors who don’t wanna collect art about abortion, and then we’re also getting pushback from colleges — it’s really concerning.”