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Art Exhibit a No-Go, Sparking Controversy and Lots of Accusations

May 4, 2006 By:
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Penn State student Joshua Stulman in front of artwork the school prohibited him from displaying

Administrators at Pennsylvania State University have apologized for canceling a student art exhibit that explores hatred and anti-Semitism in Palestinian society, though neither the artist nor the director of the campus's Hillel chapter believe the school has gone far enough to make amends.

Joshua Stulman, the 23-year-old artist, also claimed that, before the exhibit was called off, his painting adviser referred to his work as "racist," and told him that Israel has no right to exist.

For the past two years, Stulman, who grew up in Elkins Park, has been working on a series of oil paintings that depict, among other things, toddlers dressed up as suicide bombers and a Hamas member attending a rally. He said he hoped that his work would present viewers with a broader understanding of the fanaticism that drives acts of terror.

"I really wanted to explore what terrorism is in the Gaza Strip and the territories in general," said this graduate of Gratz Hebrew High School.

The plan was for 10 of Stulman's paintings to go on display at a student art gallery on the State College campus starting April 23. But Stulman said that in early March, Charles Garoian, director of the school of visual arts, had contacted him and expressed concern that the content of the exhibit might be offensive to some members of the community, including Muslim students.

Stulman said that he and Hillel director Tuvia Abramson were supposed to meet with Garoian on April 20 to discuss the issue, but the day before, the two received an e-mail from the director saying that he'd decided to cancel the exhibit, citing the school's "zero tolerance policy for hate."

More than a week later, the university issued a statement saying that Garoian had incorrectly determined the exhibit was not fit for public display, and that the administration in no way condones censorship.

"In addition, the president of the university addressed the issue before the Faculty Senate, stating firmly that the school would not tolerate censorship, and affirming that the exhibit could and would proceed, if the student wished to display it," the statement read.

Garoian could not be reached for comment.

A university spokesman confirmed that Stulman planned to meet on May 2 with Richard Durst, dean of the school of art and architecture, to discuss what has transpired thus far, in addition to the possibility of a future exhibit of Stulman's work.

Lisa Ben-Shoshan, a spokeswomen for Gratz College, said the Melrose Park school had agreed to show Stulman's work, though a date had not yet been set.

'An Open and Full Investigation'

Abramson said he was upset that the university statement focused on the decision of one man, Garoian. He claimed that much of the art-department's faculty, including Stulman's adviser, influenced the decision to cancel the event.

"The university needs to address the discrimination, anti-Semitism and corruption which happened at the school of visual arts," said Abramson. "Joshua has been abused. There needs to be an open and full investigation."

Stulman said that several days before he had been notified of the exhibit's cancellation, he discovered that a number of flyers for the show posted in the art building had been vandalized, and that one was defaced with a swastika.

He said that he showed the defaced flyer to his adviser, Robert Yarber, and he did not get any kind of response. He further claimed that two days later, Yarber called him into his office and berated him for an hour-and-a-half.

Yarber could not be reached for comment.

"He's telling me that Israel is a puppet state for America. Forget that two days ago I showed this guy a swastika on my advertisement; he started calling me a racist," explained Stulman. "This teacher needs to be absolutely investigated. It's an abuse of trust, an abuse of a student. You don't call a student a racist.

"I have to sit there because I'm the student," he continued. "But how can you put a student into that kind of position?"

University spokesperson Bill Mahon said he was not aware of the allegations regarding Yarber.

"I'm sure that if [Stulman] has made it known to the dean, the dean would look into it," he said. "A personnel matter is usually considered confidential at most institutions."

Abramson and Stulman reported the alleged incident with Yarber, as well as the exhibit cancellation and vandalism, to the Anti-Defamation League. ADL regional director Barry Morrison followed up with several conversations with Steve McCarthy, vice president for university relations.

"The university is realizing that it has to handle these issues expeditiously - that it can't be swept under the rug," said Morrison. "So far, we are pleased with what the administration is doing."

He added that the school should investigate the incident between the student and the adviser.

Anne Eiskowitz, vice president of the Hillel student board at Penn State, said the events of the past few weeks have soured her view of the university. "It's almost communistic," proclaimed Eiskowitz. "I didn't sign up for a place that would censor what I did. I take it very personally that they would censor a friend of mine."


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