By CRAIG NORTHRUP
A contentious standoff developed Tuesday night over a now-toppled art piece that featured the hammer and sickle, sparking public outrage and thrusting forward warnings of government censorship.
As the 6 p.m. Coeur d’Alene City Council meeting began, Mayor Steve Widmyer made a speech to the people of the community chastising derogatory — and, in some cases, threatening — comments flung toward the Coeur d’Alene Arts Commission over Marker #11, a sculpture commenting on the coal industry while displaying the Soviet image at its designated spot along the Riverstone Park path.
Marker #11 incited a wave of letters to the editor and a flood of online comments that juggled between obscene and violent. Widmyer ordered the sculpture taken down. Monday morning, city crews removed the piece less than three days after the controversy began.
“Before we get started tonight,” he began, “I want to personally address the controversy that we have had on the arts situation in Coeur d’Alene. We have in the city of Coeur d’Alene a tremendous art program, something we can be very proud of. We have wonderful, great volunteers that put in their time and effort to create a great arts program of which we have in the city of Coeur d’Alene, and I want to thank each and every one of them.
“I’m saddened to hear of some of the criticism that the members of our arts commission have taken,” he continued. “So I wanted to apologize to each and every one of those people. I can’t believe in this day and age where we can’t have differences of opinion and do it in a civil manner, and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s everywhere. It’s throughout our whole country, and it’s really, really sad.”
Widmyer went on to discuss how council members were encouraged to note any adjustments to the Arts Commission process, at which point the council and the Arts Commission would re-address the issue.
Councilman Ron Edinger voiced his support for the mayor, saying he agreed with Widmyer’s attention to the matter.
Then, during the open public hearing portion of the agenda, Jennifer Drake, chair of the Arts Commission, rose and spoke to the council, emphasizing she was speaking for herself and for no other commissioners.
She then criticized Widmyer’s handling of Marker #11’s removal in what she viewed as inexcusable.
“What I am here to defend is the process by which the Arts Commission functions,” she said, “and to stand in opposition to the knee-jerk, unilateral decision made to remove a piece of art made under the commission’s purview.”
Drake went on to describe hateful comments, furious emails, rude phone calls and death threats aimed at her and other members of the commission, which decides which art will and will not be on public display in public spaces.
“Unfortunately, the official response to this has not been in defense of the city’s commission or even the volunteer citizens that make up commission,” she lamented. “Remarkably, the reaction didn’t even include contacting me as the chair of the commission for feedback or seeking immediate discussion at next week’s monthly meeting … We all got to see this play out on social media and in the pages of the Coeur d’Alene Press.”
The Press received so many publishable letters to the editor regarding Marker #11, it devoted three pages on two different days to the controversy.
“What I would call the ‘official response’ to this situation has been nothing short of disrespectful,” Drake said. “Disrespectful not just to me, but to all of the other commissioners, volunteers and artists who have dedicated their time and efforts to the city of Coeur d’Alene’s public arts program, only to function under the constant threat that at any moment, our efforts could be swiftly undermined by the slightest whiff of controversy. This sort of reaction is not just harmful to the functioning of the Arts Commission, but I would argue it threatens our city as a whole. It’s incredibly alarming and frankly unacceptable to me that an extremely vocal minority could hijack the process and the facts so easily and with zero resistance.
“The last week has proven to me that an art piece with historical symbols on it is unacceptable, but that threatening the lives of volunteers who curate our public art collection is acceptable,” she added. “That ridiculing art is fine, but recklessly ridiculing other members of this community is even better. That whatever makes us feel uncomfortable should be removed or silenced immediately and without civil discourse, including people.”
She concluded her speech to a rousing round of applause from audience members and supporters.
“If you ask me,” she finished, “this way of thinking is far more detrimental to our community and way of life than any statue or symbol could ever be.”