The Steckline Gallery, Newman University’s public art gallery, usually participates in the Wichita community’s Final Friday art shows.
However, this Friday, the gallery won’t be abuzz with area art enthusiasts. It will sit empty, a quiet reminder of the decision Newman made last week to cancel Wichita native artist Genevieve Waller’s exhibit, “Rainbow in Reverse: Queer Kansas History.”
The decision, though pertaining to a complicated and delicate situation and a hot-button issue in the Catholic church, was not the right one to make. It went against the very core of what the university stands for, right down to the words of the Newman Code, which promotes respect for all humanity.
The exhibit, which consists of photography, sculptures and installation art, calls attention to the lives of LGBT+ Kansans throughout history.
Waller said in a statement provided to The Wichita Eagle that the exhibit was meant to spark conversation about LGBT+ Kansans and allow their stories to become a part of official state histories.
The university, after receiving backlash from some members of the Catholic community for hosting the exhibit, announced the cancellation last Tuesday.
In a statement, the university said there was confusion regarding the purpose and content of the exhibit. Newman Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly McDowall Long said in the statement that the university “understands that diverse perspectives, in an atmosphere in which the human dignity of each person is respected, are key to learning,” yet the university “thought it was best to make this decision.”
According to The Wichita Eagle article, some of the community complaints stemmed from an email sent by local Catholic writer and speaker Jean Heimann, encouraging Catholic community members to express their disapproval of the exhibit to Newman and diocesan officials.
In the email, Heimann writes, “First of all, why is it necessary to expose students to evil? Why do students need to be encouraged to learn more about a sickness in our society?”
The Newman Code, a statement that incorporates the core values of the university, says Newman and its members pledge to “live in the spirit of critical consciousness by respecting the dignity of every person” and “striving to embrace all humanity.”
Siding with individuals who feel the LGBT+ community is “evil” and spreads “sickness in our society” does not fit with the words of the Newman Code, however you interpret it.
On the university’s website, the elements of the code are broken down. Under the section titled “To Embrace All Humanity” it reads “Embracing humanity means creating a welcoming climate of kindness, warmth and love…we seek to foster a culture of inclusion wherein every person feels valued and encouraged to perform to his or her full and unique potential.”
Canceling an LGBT+ art exhibit after catching flack from community members that label this specific group of individuals evil is not an effective way to make every person feel welcomed or valued.
You cannot promote an environment of critical consciousness by simply acknowledging what is right and wrong – action must follow. How can we expect to transform society while only accepting certain parts of it?
The website goes on to break down the code further, stating that “If we say we will do something, we do it. We believe that remaining true to our word, even in the face of temptation or persecution, has a value beyond measure.”
Newman University should remain true to its word of living in a spirit of critical consciousness, respecting the dignity of every person and embracing all of humanity.
It should also honor the commitment it made to Newman’s dozens of LGBT+ students just last semester when it allowed, rightly, those students to form an organization, called Kaleidoscope. It should put the needs and well-being of those students above the voices of a few extreme and hateful members of the community.
Last week, Newman failed to do this in a monumental way. We sincerely hope the university listens to the many students and staff who were disappointed by this decision, and we encourage Newman officials to reread their own code before making a decision like this again.