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Open Letter to the CCLA, the ACLRC, & the RMCLA, by Ryan McCourt
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To whom it may concern.

My name is Ryan McCourt and I am an artist in Edmonton, Canada. In 2006, sculptures of mine were selected as the inaugural "Sculpture by Invitation" exhibit outside the Shaw Conference Centre. My exhibition, titled "Will and Representation," (named after the book by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer) featured 4 sculptures inspired by Indian art, each depicting the elephant-headed figure of Ganesha.

In late 2007, after many months on public display, a local religious group gathered some 700 signatures from members of their organization, and delivered the petition to then-Mayor Stephen Mandel, demanding the works be immediately removed from display, claiming to be "offended" by the works. Mayor Mandel capitulated instantly, and unilaterally ordered the works to be removed.

This act of religiously motivated censorship made international headlines at the time.

On the right, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente decried the incident as an example of "caving in to illiberalism."

"The mayor, of course, was quite wrong. Mr. McCourt’s sculptures did not insult the Hindu community. They insulted a small but vocal conservative religious group that is about as representative of Hindus as Hassidic Jews are of Jews."

[http://nesw.ca/2007/09/29/why-are-we-so-afraid-to-offend/]

On the left, the Edmonton Journal's Paula Simons too explained that the work, in point of fact, "shows no sign of sacrilege."

"In his haste to appease a few protesters, the mayor, usually a champion of the arts, made a serious error in judgment."

[http://nesw.ca/2007/09/22/mayor-makes-serious-error-in-judgment-simons/]

Although the Mayor never made any effort to reach out to me to discuss the issue, or apologize, I had thought at the time that it was very clear to everyone involved that this act of censorship was an obvious violation of my Charter rights. I did not pursue the matter in the courts, as I did not think there was anything to be gained at that point. I had assumed that, in the future, such a breach of Constitutional rights would be carefully, scrupulously avoided by the City of Edmonton.
 

Fast forward to 2013.
My parents, who also live in Edmonton, decided that they would like to donate a sculpture of mine, entitled "Destroyer of Obstacles," to the City of Edmonton's civic art collection. They assembled a gift donation package with photos of the work, background information, and an independent gallery appraisal of it's $20,000 value, and submitted this to the Edmonton Arts Council. After much delay, my parents were informed that, in order to make their decision on whether the City would accept the gift, they would first need to see pictures of the sculpture "under the kilt."

Previously, those petitioning to have my sculptures removed had specifically complained that two of the sculptures showed Ganesha nude (genitals exposed). "Destroyer of Obstacles," however, is depicted fully clothed. So, the EAC was demanding to see whether this Ganesha was secretly nude underneath its clothes.

My parents obliged, sending the arts council the additional photograph showing the sculpted genitals underneath the clothes of the figure. Months later, in 2014, my parents were finally informed that the gift was being declined, though no specific reason was given.

Now, in 2015,
I decided on a whim to file a FOIP request with the City of Edmonton, and last week, I received a package of documents. Of particular interest are two emails from the Edmonton Arts Council, the first a 'confidential' message to Mayor Don Iveson from EAC executive Director Paul Moulton; the second a "communiqué" from the EAC's communications director to all of the Edmonton City Councillors, both of which I have attached.

From these emails, it seems evident that Mayor Mandel's knee-jerk censorship of my work in 2007 has now somehow evolved into the Edmonton Art's Council's de facto arts policy, applied ad hoc to my work, seemingly based on my alleged reputation as a 'trouble-maker.' My parents proposed donation was deemed unacceptable by the EAC based on their exclusive consultations with the very same religious group who petitioned to have my work banned back in 2007.

In 2007, I had met with some of these critics, who privately informed me that if I would just cover up the nudity, they would be cheering my work rather than protesting it, but it seems that with the precedent set by Mandel's act, now even covered up "nudity" has been deemed taboo by a small group of religious conservatives, and the EAC will enforce this taboo in violation of my rights to free expression and freedom from discrimination.

Often, when governments censor artists, the artist can turn to their arts community, and arts advocacy organizations, for support. Frustratingly for me, that is not an option in my case, as my arts community itself appears to be moving in lockstep with my censors.

I am looking for some support, guidance, help, whatever can be offered by you and your group, and the rest of the small community of Canadians who care deeply for civil liberties and the defense of Charter rights. I would be most grateful for any advice or assistance you might be able to offer me at this time.

Sincerely,

Ryan McCourt

[p.s. FYI years ago, my studio mates and myself were actively blogging about sculpture-related topics, and when this controversy first broke, I documented it all in detail there: http://nesw.ca/2007/09/page/2/ ]

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