A Confederacy of Controversy


March 16, 2007 — -- The Sons of Confederate Veterans waged war this week with a Florida art museum over artwork featured in a Black History Month art exhibition.

But for now, the Confederacy has lost again.

As part of its "AfroProvocations" exhibition, the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Fla., included a work by artist John Sims called "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag."

Quite simply, Sims, who is black, hung a Confederate flag from a 13-foot gallows.

When Bob Hurst, the commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Tallahassee, learned about the Sims work early in the week, he met with and sent a letter to museum executive director Chucha Barber, asking her to pull the piece from the exhibition.

Technically, Hurst cited existing Florida statutes that prohibit using the Confederate flag in any kind of abusive way.

Personally, he described Sims as a gimmick artist and a purveyor of "hate speech" supported by the museum.

"John Sims falls into that category of 'artists' who, lacking true talent, must rely on gimmicks (and controversy) to keep the grants coming," Hurst wrote in his letter.

It's not the first time that Sims, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., has tussled with the Confederate organization.

In 2004, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania -- which calls home the site of one of the bloodiest Civil War battles -- welcomed Sims and the very same piece of art to the campus. The gallows were to be featured outside.

In no time ads were taken out in local newspapers and hate letters -- some 10,000 -- and death threats started to pour into the college. The university responded to the controversy, agreeing to move the exhibit to an inside location.

Sims had to re-create the exhibit, which, at 13 feet tall, wouldn't fit inside the building. In an interview with ABC News, Sims said he was angry, and thought the opposition to the show, which he said was driven by white supremacist groups, seemed as if they'd won their campaign.

"I boycotted my own show," Sims said.

But for the current show, there will be no downsizing involved.

Barber took Hurst's concerns about the state statutes to the nearby Florida state attorney's office for advice.

To her, the relevant part of the statute -- Florida 256.051 -- was the section that said Confederate flags could be used for any "decorative" purposes. Her contact in the state attorney's office agreed.

"He didn't think the museum needed to take any action," Barber said of the counsel she received.

She also reached out to Molly Hutton, the museum director at Gettysburg College, who, in 2004, supported the Sims exhibit. She put Hurst's objections tot the Sims piece before her board members for their input.

Friday, Barber announced that the Sims work wasn't going anywhere, despite the organization's outrage.

"When you see a Confederate flag, it evokes a passionate response," Barber acknowledged.

"But as a museum, it is not our intent to promote a particular viewpoint, a particular ideology," she said. "It's our mission to promote dialogue."

To her, that's exactly the quality that makes the Sims work succeed.

After learning of the museum's verdict, Hurst had a much different take.

"He's lynching a Confederate flag," Hurst said of Sims. "I hate to give this man that publicity he's going to get because I don't think he's worth it, but it's extremely offensive for us."

As for action, Hurst was unclear on what the group's next step might be. He had already contacted a national leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for guidance.

"I've heard recommendations everywhere, from ignoring this guy to some good ol' boys down here who are ready to launch an attack," Hurst said. "But I think we'll ignore him because he's pretty easy to ignore."

Sims said he was satisfied with the Brogan Museum's support and speculated that most Americans would support his art despite the concerns raised by his critics.

"The Civil War is over," Sims said. "The Confederate flag was a symbol of treason connected with the maintenance of slavery."

And on top of that, he added, "These people completely sabotaged my last show."